Western Countries Should Reconsider Their Turkey Policy

by Yusuf Can

Turkey appears to be embarking on a path towards re-democratization, which presents an opportunity for Western actors to play a constructive role in easing this transformation. With an unusual coalition of six political parties poised to potentially unseat President Erdogan’s 21-year-long rule in the upcoming elections on May 14, the prospects for change in Turkey are promising, and the implications for the nation’s future trajectory and its relationship with the international community are significant.

While there are many aspects to consider in terms of what this power shift may bring, a central point of emphasis lies in the need for Western governments and international civil society to broaden their engagement with Turkish stakeholders who champion secular democracy and progressive values. For too long, these crucial voices have been excluded from the conversation, resulting in a limited understanding of Turkish politics from a Western perspective. The West has developed a habit of seeking information from both the Gulenists and the Erdogan government, both of which represent varying forms of Islamism, resulting in the disregard of a considerable portion of Turkish society. It is well-established that mainstream Western media outlets and civil society tend to prioritize a narrow group of actors over a diverse array of perspectives in their coverage of Turkish politics. Regrettably, this trend appears to continue to the present day, as evidenced by the limitedness and inherent bias of Western experts’ opinions and analyses regarding the May 14th elections. The result of this state of affairs has been the emergence of a mutually advantageous relationship between the ruling government and the West, with each party reaping distinct benefits. Erdogan has capitalized on this relationship by leveraging the international attention it affords him to present his views as the singular voice of Turkish society. Meanwhile, the West has turned to Erdogan when necessary, whether to facilitate controversial deals or to promote particular economic policies. This conscious choice has allowed Western governments and civil society to exert undue influence on Turkish politics at the expense of democratic norms and pluralism. Therefore, it is incumbent upon Western stakeholders to expand their points of contact with a wider array of Turkish actors to promote and support the process of re-democratization.

The shifting landscape of Turkish politics is giving rise to a new generation of secular democrats pushing for egalitarian republicanism as a means of progress, and they are poised to play a pivotal role in shaping the country’s future trajectory. In light of this development, it is imperative for Western governments and civil society to adapt their engagement strategies accordingly, recognizing the emergence of these new actors and their potential impact on Turkey’s relationship with the rest of the world, including its alliances with NATO and the EU, and its engagements with Russia and China. Western governments must engage with these emerging actors, who are committed to re-democratizing the nation and building a pluralistic society, to forge a sustainable and productive relationship with Turkey.

It is essential to recognize that the success of the re-democratization project in Turkey hinges on the inclusion and empowerment of secular and progressive forces. Without their involvement, the prospects for advancing core freedoms, restoring the rule of law, and fostering a constructive foreign policy will remain bleak. In light of this, Western governments, as well as media outlets, must prioritize building bridges with these critical actors to ensure that Turkey’s journey towards re-democratization is successful and sustainable.

There exists a deeply ingrained conventional wisdom in Turkish politics that characterizes secular and progressive movements as being antithetical to democratic values, rather than supportive of them. This belief is not entirely unfounded, as it reflects some historical tensions surrounding issues like the Kurdish question and religious freedom. However, it is also an outdated and unfair perspective that impedes progress toward a healthy democracy in Turkey. Pluralism demands a consensus on fundamental principles such as rights, liberties, and legal boundaries. In the past two decades, the voices of seculars and progressives have been excluded from the national and international conversation, which has hindered democratic governance. This misstep can be attributed to various actors, including Western governments, civil society, and the media.

It is also worth noting that seculars and progressives have failed to mobilize and organize effectively until recently. Their nostalgic longing for a past democratic era that barely existed and their lack of recognition of the importance of grassroots organization has hindered their ability to bring about meaningful change. Nevertheless, it is imperative to acknowledge that this does not absolve international actors of their role in elevating Erdogan and his antidemocratic regime while limiting the voices of significant number of political actors in Turkey. As Turkey embarks on the path of re-democratization, it is crucial to admit the significant role that secular and progressive forces must play in building a pluralistic and sustainable democracy in the country.

In Turkey, a new cohort of secular and progressive individuals has emerged, who trace their political roots back to the 2013 Gezi Protests. This group is predominantly composed of well-educated, urbanized individuals who hold a cosmopolitan worldview. Many of them have received their education from Western or English-speaking universities within Turkey, and a vast majority have had the opportunity to travel abroad either through exchange programs or tourism during their formative years.

Throughout their lifetime under the rule of Erdogan, this generation has experienced a sharp decline in civil rights, liberties, and economic prosperity. The oppressive policies of the current regime have shaped their identity and sparked concerns for their future. The policy choices of Erdogan’s government have made their daily lives increasingly uncomfortable, resulting in a migration of those with the means to the West in search of better job prospects.

This generation’s worldview has been heavily influenced by the advent of social media and their exposure to democratic societies. Their optimism, tempered by caution, stems from their belief in a democratic and free Turkey. Even Ali Babacan, a former minister in Erdogan’s conservative government and a current opposition leader, attempted to appeal to this generation to support the opposition. He asserted, during a rally, that toppling Erdogan’s government would enable renowned bands such as Rammstein or U2 to resume touring in Turkey, highlighting the hope for positive change and openness to the rest of the free world. In essence, this emerging generation warrants attention for their optimism, yet groundedness in their pursuit of a democratic and free Turkey.

Recent opinion polls suggest a glimmer of hope for change in Turkey’s government, which has not been seen in many years. The replacement of Erdogan would unquestionably usher in a revitalizing breeze, not only for Turkish society but also for a significant portion of the international community. The shift in the regional dynamics of the Middle East towards a more pro-democracy stance would be significant. Further, this shift would lead to Putin and China losing their grip on Turkey and the wider region. The positive impact would not be limited to the region as autocratic regimes around the world would suffer a setback, inspiring oppressed societies that change is indeed possible. Supporting the formerly marginalized actors in Turkey is a wise political move as it would only strengthen the potential for change. A democratic Turkey would be more inclined to foster solutions rather than create new problems, which would benefit the region and the global community at large.

Yusuf Can, MA, 2023, Georgetown University. Yusuf’s past research has focused on U.S. foreign policy in Turkey and the broader Middle East as well as disinformation, the freedom of the press and corruption. Yusuf worked at the California State Senate,The Wilson Center and is an Editor at the Democracy and Society Journal. He got his BA in 2020 from California State University, Sacramento. He is from Istanbul, Turkey.