The promise of a new dawn: the prospect of Turkey embracing liberal values without embracing the Western liberal order

Over the course of the past several years, and to the surprise of most international observers, Turkey has turned its back on the West, eschewing the path it had been pursuing towards liberal, democratic values for the previous half a century. It has curtailed its relationship with the EU in favour of an alignment with Russia and Iran. With a demagogic and powerful populist in charge who has overseen purges of the nation’s military, bureaucracy, academia and media, the human rights prospects for Turkey appear bleak. However, in recent months a new political party has been launched which promises to change this by making Turkey a truly liberal and democratic country.

 A new party

Launched just over two months ago, the so-called Good Party has adopted a centre-right platform and – befitting its name – a slogan declaring “Turkey will be good”. It boasts pluralism, democracy, the rule of law, freedom of speech and nationalist values as its core principles.

Its leader is Meral Aksener, a former Minister of the Interior who has become a particularly vocal critic of President Erdogan since his successful and widely criticised bid to secure greater executive powers via a national referendum. As a national politician with two decades of experience and right-wing credentials, Ms Aksener is seen as a likely contender for the presidency in 2019.

In her first address to her followers, Ms Aksener advocated liberal principles and cited the Venice Commission, a Council of Europe advisory body pertaining to constitutional law. She argued against media censorship and in favour of democratic institutions.

Interestingly, the Good Party has also stated that it will uphold human rights, not as a favour to Western powers, but as a good in themselves. Such an attitude stands in contrast to conventional wisdom which has reasonably interpreted Turkey’s liberal orientation as being part and parcel of its relationship with the Western international order, particularly the EU but also the United States.

It is worth considering whether Turkey can indeed embrace liberal values without embracing the nations and international organisations which constitute the liberal world order.

The relationship with the EU

Until recently, Turkey’s relationship with the EU seemed likely to blossom into a successful bid for membership.

Among the first to become a member of the Council of Europe in 1950, Turkey applied to join the EU’s predecessor, the European Economic Community (EEC), in 1987, before becoming an associate member of the Western European Union five years’ later. It was in 2005 that Turkey applied to join the EU in what has proven to be a long, tortuous process with no success yet in sight, despite optimistic projections that the process would end within a decade.

Indeed, while the Leave campaign during the UK’s EU referendum vote warned of Turkey’s impending accession to full EU status, experts have pointed out that this was and remains unlikely in the near future. Many have argued that the EU’s door has only ever been “half open” to Turkey. For instance, as recently as 2016, only 15 of the 35 negotiating 'chapters' (the different policy fields containing current EU rules which must be adopted by national candidates) had been 'opened' and are therefore being discussed, and just one had been provisionally 'closed', or agreed upon. Other countries – such as Montenegro, Croatia and Iceland – have made significantly more progress despite initating formal bids at similar or later times than Turkey.

Despite a greater willingness on the EU’s part to work with Turkey over the past couple of years to stem the migrant flow into Europe, the chances of Turkey’s bid succeeding appear remote. A key factor of this stagnation is, of course, Turkey’s worsening human rights record. Indeed, the EU has recently proposed cuts to Turkey's EU membership aid on the grounds that “Turkey is not respecting freedom of speech, freedom of expression, human rights and is drifting further away from European democratic standards”.

Looking at the broader picture of Turkey’s relationship with the West, Kemal Kirişci a senior fellow at TÜSİAD and director of the Brookings Institute’s Turkey Project, argues in a new book that Turkey’s Western alignment has been at the root of the country’s historical diplomatic and military prowess. Presenting his argument in the Brookings Institute’s podcast, he argues, in line with conventional thinking, that Turkey’s relationship with the West is strained by the former’s desire to pursue an alternative alignment.  

The alternative alignment

Dr Kirişci contends that to some extent the Christian democratic vision of Europe championed by key European players such as Germany’s Angela Merkel and France’s Nicholas Sarkozy made Turkey more uneasy about joining the EU. This served to embolden Turkey’s pre-existing desire to look more Eastward and regional both in terms of her geopolitical alignment as well as her espoused values.

For example, a term now often deployed to refer to the perceived Turkish alignment is the ‘Iran-Turkey-Russia axis’, while such a configuration is often linked to Turkey’s growing religious conservatism manifesting itself, not least, in promoting an education system which omits Darwin’s theory of evolution and forcefully promotes tenets of Islam.

Certainly, Turkey is often characterised as a country torn between pursuing a secular, modern Western style state – an endeavour which defined much of the twentieth century, from Atatürk's Reforms to post-World War Two geopolitical manoeuvring – and asserting itself as a regional power more inclined to the East and capable of establishing a neo-Ottoman Empire or commanding the Islamic world.

It is perhaps no surprise, then, that Turkey has fluctuated in its geopolitical alignments. It has also fused East and West together. Writing for the New York Times, Behlul Ozkan from Marmara University, labels the then-Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu’s pursuit of a pan-Islamist empire an “Imperial Fantasy” and argues that, paradoxically, this pursuit has been grounded in Western political theories which predominated before 1945, such as the German notion Lebensraum, ‘living space’.

The internal tension between East and West, then, does not simply manifest in Turkey in dichotomous alignments and value systems, but also manifest in fusions. In this respect, Mr Halacoglu’s assertion that Turkey can pursue its own path, upholding Western values on its own terms is a significant – but often overlooked by those who see Turkey’s human rights record as defined by the prospect of EU membership – feature of the Turkish national and cultural character.

Conclusion

The growth of illiberalism and attacks on democracy in Turkey took much of the world by surprise. Should the Good Party gain some traction, Turkey could surprise the world again. Yet the extent to which a reformed Turkey would internationally align itself with Western nations is up for debate.

Geopolitical realities in which the US remains a superpower and Russia and her proxies are increasingly assertive might render a sort of third way difficult to achieve. Yet, the country which bridges East and West stubbornly seeks to remain in a category of its own.

Joel Collick is a Research Assistant at Bright Blue