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Turkey navigates a less exciting path to reform

by Ertan Aydin

When Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced his latest package of democratic reforms, ultra-nationalist groups accused him of betraying the values of the republic founded by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, while Kurdish nationalists expressed frustration at the package’s perceived inadequacy.

This polarized reaction is nothing new. Throughout his tenure, Erdogan has been condemned by the three leading secular opposition parties for pursuing too much reform, and by Turkey’s minorities and civil-society organizations for doing too little.

But Erdogan has navigated this difficult political landscape deftly, with a cautious reform style that aims to build consensus through compromises that actually work when enacted. His gradual yet persistent efforts have succeeded in mobilizing his conservative supporters to back progressive change. Indeed, it was Erdogan’s backers (often described as “Islamist” in Western media), not the pro-Western secularists, who defended the return of non-Muslim foundations’ property confiscated by the republican regime.

Moreover, Erdogan and his allies have advocated harsher punishments for hate crimes against Jews, Christians, Alevis and Kurds. With mistreatment of non-Muslim minorities a common criticism of Muslim parties across the Middle East, Turkey’s quiet revolution suggests that, by reconciling people’s religious values with the need for change, Erdogan’s tactics can be applied in other countries to win support for progressive reforms.

Every democracy requires such tactics. When U.S. President Barack Obama could not implement his original vision of health care reform, he sought to compromise with his opponents by basing the reform on a plan developed by a conservative think tank and implemented in Massachusetts by former Gov. Mitt Romney, Obama’s opponent in last year’s presidential election.

This willingness to seek consensus on what should be a broadly acceptable compromise is usually cited as a strength of U.S. democracy (though the recent government shutdown shows compromise becoming increasingly elusive).

But when it comes to reform in the Arab world, Western observers have usually implied that reformers need to be revolutionaries, democratizing quickly, heedless of others’ concerns and fears. If a country’s political system is not amenable to such transformation, foreign powers may even seek to democratize it by force.

After the Arab Spring revolutions, for example, Egypt and Tunisia were expected to achieve comprehensive transformation within months. Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi was asked to rid the country completely of the institutions and values of Hosni Mubarak’s regime, while addressing the deep-rooted economic and social grievances that fueled the popular uprising. His failure to do so was cited as one of the main justifications for his ouster less than a year after he took office.

Turkey’s democratization under Erdogan has offered a less exciting and revolutionary path, because it has been subject to the constraints of a multiparty electoral system, constitutional checks, and public opinion. Nonetheless, within a decade, improvements in Turkey’s democracy have achieved enough to help end the government’s long and bloody conflict with Kurdish separatist groups.

Erdogan has been prudent, seeking to reform many institutions without undermining the dignity of their current administrators. His approach — to convince bureaucrats, opposition-party leaders and the public to support gradual reform — may seem to reflect cautious conservative timidity, yet has enabled the long-term success of his government’s measures.

For example, Erdogan’s electoral base had to wait almost 10 years before women regained the freedom to wear headscarves in state institutions, and even that came with many restrictions and exceptions.

Similarly, discriminatory policies against Turkey’s Kurdish population were steadily reversed. Kurds now can use their native language in the media and in private schools, and Kurdish-language courses are optional in public schools.

During the 1980s, Erdogan would have been arrested simply for suggesting some of the reforms that his government has achieved in the last decade.

To be sure, reforms are — and always will be — subject to harsh criticism, with old Kemalist elites clinging to the unitary and secular republican tradition and Kurdish nationalists seeking to eliminate all expressions of Turkish national identity from the political culture. Even so, recent polls show that more than 50 percent of Turkey’s electorate support Erdogan’s gradual yet highly controversial reforms.

Erdogan’s political style rejects both the legacy of Cold War-era ideological conflict and Islamist visions of maximalist social transformation. Demanding immediate, comprehensive democratization or social transformation fails to account for a country’s history, values and preferences.

The belief that Muslim countries are likely to fall prey to despotism and will fail to reform their political and economic systems partly reflects the legacy of colonialism. European powers, convinced that it was up to them to “civilize” and modernize Muslim countries, ignored the views of the colonized.

When Western elites praised Ataturk’s top-down radical reforms, they displayed a patronizing astonishment that a native Muslim Turk could adopt such a reform program — and an Orientalist skepticism that he could pull it off.

Erdogan never tried to be a radical reformer in the tradition of post-colonial Muslim leaders like Egypt’s President Gamal Abdel Nasser and Indonesia’s first president, Sukarno. He embraces the logic that reforms are possible within a multiparty democracy, and believes in the critical role that dialogue and compromise play in the pursuit of genuine progress.

In a region riven by ethnic and sectarian cleavages, as well as conflicting political projects, Erdogan’s style of democratic reform offers a less radical — but ultimately more effective — option.

Perhaps this brand of cautious and gradual reformism is what the Arab world needs if it is to ameliorate its own polarizations and conflicts.

Ertan Aydin is a senior adviser to Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. © 2013 Project Syndicate, (www.project-syndicate.org)