If Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan respects the will of his people, Turkey can become the first consolidated Muslim democracy of the 21st century. That is the observation of Soner Cagaptay, Director of the Turkish Research Program at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, in an article published in the New York Times. Cagaptay writes that the modernization theory for development is beginning to realize itself in Turkey. And he says that even though the recent anti-government protests in the country have “exposed a fundamental rift” between the move for democracy and the ruling party’s leadership style they are nothing more than a manifestation of a natural quest for the respect of individual rights and freedoms, and proof that Turkey is maturing as a democracy. VOA’s Susan Yackee spoke to Cagaptay about Turkey’s prospects.
Below please find a transcript of the interview. To listen to it, use the audio player at the bottom of this post.
Yackee: Why do you think Turkey could become a Muslim consolidated democracy?
Cagaptay: Turkey already has some of the groundwork laid for it; it has a large middle class. In the last decade, thanks to the AKP (Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party), the governing party’s prudent policies, Turkey has become a majority middle class society. And I believe in the modernization theory that when societies become majority middle class it’s citizens start demanding rights that go with that development, such as respect for individual freedoms, freedom of the media, freedom of assembly and association, and I think that this is exactly what we are seeing in Turkey – these demonstrations are not against anyone or anything; they are for the respect for individual rights. This is the rising Turkey, but also its rising middle class that is now demanding stronger respect for democratic rights and freedoms.
“Turkey… is actually, despite the tumultuous phase it went through over the past two weeks, on a good and positive trajectory overall.” – Soner Cagaptay, The Washington Institute
Yackee: I noticed in your [New York Times] article “The Middle Class Strikes Back” – the idea that economic development leads to more democracy is actually being proved right now in Turkey.
Cagaptay: Absolutely, and I think that Turkey for a long time was a country which always had a middle class, but the plurality of Turkish citizens or the majority of them would be considered poor and ‘working class.’ That is no longer the case. As of 2010, a majority of Turks became middle class, and by the end of this decade about 80 percent of Turks will likely be classified as middle class citizens. And this is, I think, driving the demands – the idea that protesters are taking to the streets to tell the government – ‘you might be democratically elected, half or more than half of the country supports you, but also respect our rights and freedoms.’ And I think that this is going to be the trend we are going to see in Turkey, whether or not the demonstrations fizzle out this time, the protesters will probably come into the streets again with stronger demands for respect of individual freedoms as well as their rights. So Turkey, I think, is actually, despite the tumultuous phase it went through over the past two weeks, on a good and positive trajectory overall.
Yackee: What role did Prime Minister Erdogan’s leadership style play in the unrest in Turkey?
Cagaptay: Many people believe that Erdogan’s style of governance in which he dismisses dissenting views and largely does not take into account what the opposition thinks has helped build up the frustration against him, and some of the demonstrations that we saw were a result of this frustration. I think what is really interesting in Turkey is not that tens of thousands of people took to the streets to protests the government’s decision to turn a park in downtown Istanbul into a mall – that in itself is important; it’s a large pro-environment rally where people try to save trees in a park; that’s important – but what is even more important is that when the police moved in to crack down on the pro-environment sit-in, hundreds of thousands of people poured into the streets in the middle of the night to defend the right of the sit-in protesters [to assemble]. So this was, I think, a very interesting development in Turkey where thousands, hundreds of thousands of citizens across the country basically said: ‘we may not agree with everything they are doing or saying, but we want to defend their right to protest.’ And that, I think, has signaled the arrival of a mature middle class society in which people are defending each others rights to defend, to protest and to dissent from the government’s views…
Yackee: I smiled when I read your statement that Mr. Erdogan has pushed to remake Turkey in his own image.
Cagaptay: In a way he has. I think Erdogan is a very powerful leader. He has won three successive elections, all with increased majorities. Each time he has won more votes. He is a very successful and charismatic politician. At the same time, though, he has amassed a significant amount of power. His government is the longest-ruling government in Turkish history ever since Turkey became a multi-party democracy in 1946. He’s been in charge for 11 years. If he wins the election next year and the year after, he will have run Turkey for about two decades. At the same time his government, because Turkey is a parliamentary democracy, controls pretty much all three branches of government right now – both the executive and legislative branches, and it also appoints judges to the High Court. So this is more power than any leader has had, probably since [Mustafa Kemal] Ataturk (modern Turkey’s founder) made Turkey in his own image in the 1920s and 30s as a secular European-style republic. I think now Erdogan’s vision is obviously a different one than Ataturk’s; he still wants to make Turkey a powerful nation, he still wants Turkey to compete against Europeans, but he also sees it as a country in which religion and piety has more [influence] in public life, in education and government, and I think that this is how Turkey is being remade in the image of its prime minister.
Yackee: Do you think this ‘mighty oak’ is going to bend a little bit to the wind of the middle class?
Cagaptay: Probably not because Erdogan is also realizing that he has support in the country. I don’t think the demonstrations are a signal of support for Mr. Erdogan slipping; I think what we are seeing is that half of the country supports Mr. Erdogan and the other half does not. What’s happening is not support for him slipping, but it is rather the other half that does not support him rising up, taking issue with his style of governance. So I think we are going to see a country that’s deeply polarized despite its economic growth and phenomenal success story between the supporters of the government and its opponents, and that might mean periods of strong demonstrations and political instability in Turkey, and that will be in contrast to the country’s ongoing economic stability and growth. Ultimately, it’s up to Mr. Erdogan to decide to what extent he wants to push the demonstrators away and to what extent he wants to embrace them, because Turkey’s stability is his success but that success also helps him win elections, and he wants to maintain that stability.
Listen to our interview with Soner Cagaptay:
Susan Yackee is anchor of VOA's International Edition radio show. She has been a reporter in the Washington area for more than 35 years and regularly interviews newsmakers and analysts in DC and around the world. Susan works in television, radio and social media.