Turkey still a role model?

A bid to re-instate the death penalty undermines Turkey's goal of joining the EU.

Turkish PM Erdogan with Chief General Basbug 370 (R) (photo credit: reuters)
Turkish PM Erdogan with Chief General Basbug 370 (R)
(photo credit: reuters)
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan dealt his country’s prospects of joining the European Union a severe blow this week when he proposed reinstating the death penalty.  Erdogan pointed to the United States, China and Russia as countries that regularly execute its citizens and the death penalty remains broadly popular in Turkey today.  Turkey banned capital punishment in 2002, since this is a non-negotiable requirement for EU membership.
Today, however, Erdogan continues to face armed resistance from the Kurdish minority in Turkey.  The Kurdish Workers’ Party, for example, has been fighting for independence for almost three decades.  Kurds in neighboring countries such as Iraq and Syria have taken significant steps towards autonomy in recent years, and official reports from the Turkish military have over 100 Turkish soldiers killed so far this year fighting Kurdish guerrillas.
European reaction was prompt and predictable.  While encouraging its eastern neighbor to continue down the path of reform and liberalization, leaders in Brussels made clear that re-instatement of the death penalty would stall progress on membership.  Recent years have seen increased criticism from Europe over the decline in human rights protections in Turkey, including the strict anti-terror laws, which have resulted in thousands of Kurds ending up in prison.
The Kurdish problem in Turkey is not new, and has been festering for many decades.  Under Erdogan, Turkey has become deeply engaged in the campaign for regime change in Syria.  However, many Turks fear the creation of a newly independent Kurdistan, assembling pieces of several different countries.
Erdogan is keen to portray himself as a strong leader, regardless of what voices in distant Brussels might say.  After many years of seeking a place at the European table, hostility towards EU membership is growing.  Given the catastrophic meltdown of the Euro, this should be of little surprise.  Unlike the austerity and recession that has gripped the continent in recent years, Turkey remains a vibrant picture of economic growth.
Despite its long standing membership of NATO and other international bodies, the Europeans have always made a point of making Turkey feel like a second class suitor.  Since formal negotiations opened in 2005, Turkey has only managed to fulfill one of the 35 separate conditions that have been established by Brussels as prerequisites for joining the EU.  No progress has been made since the summer, when Cyprus, the focus of a long-standing territorial dispute with Turkey, assumed the rotating EU presidency.
Turkey has its friends with the EU, such as Britain, and many neutral observers have sung the praises of cementing Turkey’s position among the democratic and market-oriented club of nations.  Unfortunately, the current crack-down on internal dissent has made the case hard for even Turkey’s staunchest friends and allies to progress.  For many, the 1978 movie “Midnight Express” remains a touchstone for any assessment of Turkish police and their prisons.  Last month, history was made when three police guards were given life sentences for their role in the murder of a prisoner.  Together with ten others, who were sentenced to lesser terms, the guards were convicted beating to death an activist, Engin Ceber, who had been arrested for circulating press releases drawing attention to other abuses.
As the security crackdown has escalated this year and concerns over police brutality have spread within Turkish society, negative publicity is building against Erdogan’s government, although he remains a popular figure among his supporters within the Islamist Justice and Development Party.  Notably, his party has campaigned on a platform of eliminating prison torture.
An important political dynamic underlies these issues concerning the domestic criminal justice system.  Turkey, since its founding after the First World War, was a secular nation, and the military served as the bulwark of those beliefs.  Erdogan’s Islamist movement came into power on a wave of popular support, but the military has continued to resist efforts at de-secularization.  The police, therefore, have proven to be an important group for Erdogan and his ministers to support and defend.
At a time when so many other countries in the Middle East and North Africa are shifting away from dictatorships and one party rule, Turkey has the potential to demonstrate how a Muslim democracy could operate, particularly one governed by an Islamist party.  Negotiations for EU membership had put Turkey on a rigorous course for further liberalizations, and its economic growth in recent years clearly demonstrated the potential for spreading prosperity more widely within Muslim countries.
The forces unleashed by the Arab Spring could look to Turkey as a potential model for the types of institutions and processes that lead to stability, while allowing for greater popular participation in the machinery of government.  Unfortunately, the government in Ankara is now the world’s top jailer of journalists, a dubious honor that calls into question many of the achievements that have been gained in recent years.
The growth of authoritarianism at home mutes the potential influence that Turkey could exert as a champion for democracy in the Muslim world. At a time when the region is in particular need of a role model, Ankara should not let this historic opportunity to positively influence its neighbors simply pass it by because Turkish leaders have failed to maintain the standards of civil liberties and due process to which they had so publicly committed themselves.
The writer is a commentator who divides his time between the United Kingdom and Southern California. He has appeared on CNN, CNBC, BBC and Sky News, and has been featured in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, The Financial Times and The Economist.