On June 7, Turks will choose a new parliament. This decision will be the most important one for Turkey in 70 years, since the advent of multi-party elections in 1945. The election at heart is about religion, as it brings Turkey to the brink of becoming a republic dominated by the religious convictions of its current leadership. If the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) wins a 60 percent majority of parliamentary seats, democratic choice will likely yield to the dogma of faith. With a super majority, Turkey’s president can compel the writing of a new constitution consolidating his power over Turkey’s future course.
Turkey did not arrive at this existential moment by accident. Culturally and politically, from its beginnings in 1923, Turkey has faced surges of efforts to reintroduce Islam into the official life of the country. Modern Turkey’s founder, Kemal Ataturk, imposed far-reaching secular changes on society, but his changes only penetrated so far. Over time, other parties and even Turkey’s military used religion to broaden popular support; thus religion gradually reasserted itself in Turkey’s political life as an alternative framework for the nation.
When the traditional party system collapsed with a massive economic meltdown in 2001, the door opened for a non-mainstream party to take power, and the AKP seized the opportunity in the 2002 elections. Millions of Turks thought the new government would pursue liberal policies to fully integrate Turkey into the EU and continue domestic democratic progress. For a time, the AKP did follow this agenda and gained increased support in the process. Then the government turned back to embrace a model of authoritarianism—a renewal of so-called deep state practices—that had never entirely disappeared from Turkish political life. Now a new and even more troubling phenomenon has been introduced—the deep infusion of religion into civil and political life as a guiding principle for the society and for individual choices. As a result, today Turkey is closer than it has been for nearly a century to turning away from the liberal institutions of modern society to embrace an illiberal democracy designed for control, not freedom.
Why should this matter to the United States? After all, the United States cooperates with other Middle East regional leaders whose regimes are more draconian than that of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and whose countries are less democratic or more Islamic, more stringent in their treatment of women, and more exploitive of immigrants than Turkey. If our interests in stability and security outweigh democratic goals in a region presided over by strongmen, why should we not treat Turkey by the same standard and accept another addition to the list?
One major reason is economic. The great Turkish economic boom that began in 2002 is running to its end under the present government. Foreign direct investment has dropped, unemployment is up, and the Turkish lira is weakening. Against great pressure the central bank struggles to manage the economy. Those who benefited from the miracles of the past decade may find themselves suffering from hubris brought on by economic success. Stagnation will undermine Turkey’s capacity to help global economic recovery and will promote domestic unrest.
The second reason is political. If the AKP is able to impose its religious views on a population with nearly a century’s legacy of secularism, then it will reinforce the view of those who argue that democracy and Islam are mutually exclusive. Ironically, the argument that democracy and Islam can coexist was once a prominent plank in the AKP’s political program. Erdogan wishes to be a leader for Sunnis not only in the region but more broadly. His efforts already have exacerbated the dangers of Sunni-Shi‘i conflict regionally. Turkey’s embrace of the Muslim Brotherhood worries many Middle East states, and yet it is likely to remain a cornerstone of the country’s regional foreign policy. It will be very difficult for the United States to build a regional coalition of leading states to manage Middle East issues as long as Ankara insists on championing the Brotherhood.
Third, Turkey has been a working democracy. It has not been perfect (as no democracy is), but it has pursued limited government, redress for citizens before the law, and the key freedoms of press and assembly. There is an achievement here to save. Real democracy means protection of the person against the state, not giving the state the license to impose choices on the citizen. Read more Turks than ever before are worried about how their democracy is working; the percentage of those concerned is nearing half the population. If an AKP win strengthens a trend toward populist authoritarianism around the world, not only millions of Turks but millions of others will ask if the United States really cares what happens to democracy in the modern era.
Finally, ideas do matter in history. Even an example as recent as the U.S. indictments of FIFA officials reaffirms that good governance is critical to healthy organizations and countries—and is the standard to be expected of leaders everywhere. People struggle for what they believe in. At its heart, the seemingly simple idea of the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness is quite revolutionary. It has transformed modern world history. Despite polarity in Turkey, there is still a core of support across and within its parties for healthy economic growth, strong institutions, the rule of law, and the principle that power resides with the people and not with the state. There is something here too for Americans to lose if that notion does not receive our support even in unpromising circumstances. When Turks go to the polls on June 7, the consequences for their country, the Middle East, and the future of the democratic commitment to human development could be considerable.