The Halki seminary, founded in 1844 as a center of learning for the Orthodox Eastern Church, was for decades a symbol of religious toleration and minority rights in the Ottoman Empire and the Turkish Republic. But in 1971, Ankara closed the seminary when the constitutional court, dominated by adherents of Kemalism, the secular ideology of the founder of the Turkish Republic, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, ruled that only the army was allowed to run nonstate-supervised private colleges. So in March, when Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced that the Halki seminary would be restored and reopened, it seemed that the Justice and Development Party (AKP), the country’s ruling faction since 2002, was furthering its reformist agenda of making Turkey a more open society by expanding personal, religious, and economic freedoms.

But while Ankara encourages openness with one hand, it clamps down on it with the other. In May, Erdogan announced that the government would end state subsidies for the arts, closing the spigot on $63 million in annual funding and, in effect, endangering the country’s more than 50 state theaters and artistic venues across the country. The AKP claimed that it did so in the name of private enterprise and was instituting a modern approach to government patronage of the arts; opponents argued that it was a deliberate attempt to silence artists, some of whom had become highly critical of AKP rule. Since the AKP era began, the world has watched closely to see if Turkey would embrace, or abuse, democracy. What is becoming clear is that Erdogan’s strategy is to do both, simultaneously.

The key to understanding democracy under the AKP lies with the meaning of democracy itself. The Yale political scientist Robert Dahl wrote that democracy is defined by the extent to which citizens can participate in civic life and whether they can contest the government’s power. Looking at each factor separately illustrates why Turkey is such a paradox.

When the AKP came to power, it introduced a series of reforms that allowed more Turkish citizens to participate in the political process. Until then, Turks had lived under a constitution imposed by the military that placed severe limitations on democracy, from restrictions on union organizing to freedom of religion. To liberalize Turkish society and secure an invitation to join EU membership negotiations, the AKP abolished civilian-military courts in which civilians accused of political crimes were tried by military officers, banned the death penalty, and amended Turkey’s anti-terrorism law so that the state could no longer prosecute citizens for simply voicing unpopular opinions. The changes also made it more difficult to ban parties and politicians from the political arena. And in September 2010, Turks voted for a number of constitutional changes designed to improve Turkish democracy, including subjecting military officers to the jurisdiction of civilian courts and restructuring the judicial system by streamlining the appeals process, making it more accessible to ordinary citizens.

Turkish minorities have also benefited from AKP reforms. For decades, Turkey banned Kurdish political parties, restricted the use of the Kurdish language, and, in 1987, implemented emergency rule in Kurdish areas. Although limitations still exist on speaking Kurdish in public forums and in the course of official government functions, Kurds can now teach their language in private schools and universities and address crowds in Kurdish at campaign rallies. And there is also a state-run Kurdish-language television station. Other minorities, from Armenians to members of the Greek Orthodox Church, competed in last year’s parliamentary elections for the first time in decades, and Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu has called for more Turkish Jews to serve as diplomats.

These steps have allowed more Turks to participate in civic life than at any time in the modern republic’s history. The country’s recent parliamentary elections featured the most candidates ever. AKP legislation has overturned laws that prevented Turkish citizens from belonging to more than one labor union or collectively bargaining, filing requests for information from the government, and traveling abroad without restriction. As a result, since the AKP came to power, Turkey’s Freedom House scores for political rights and civil liberties have gone up, putting Turkey close to becoming a “free” nation, the highest ranking that Freedom House assigns.

Under the AKP, then, Turkish citizens have enjoyed far higher levels of participation. But their power to contest the government has come under attack. Over the last five years, Erdogan and the AKP have proved relentless in their targeting of anyone perceived to contest their power or be a threat to their dominance.

The campaign of repression began with the press. The AKP has subjected journalists and editors to intimidation and quasi-legal detentions for advocating on behalf of Kurds or even merely criticizing the government. More than 90 journalists are now sitting in Turkish prisons -- more than in any other country in the world -- and the state has over 4,000 lawsuits pending against members of the press. Many of these reporters are stuck in a legal limbo, as Turkey’s laws allow imprisonment of journalists for up to three years without trial. In 2011, Reporters Without Borders ranked Turkey 148th out of 178 countries in its annual index of press freedom.

Press outfits that criticize Erdogan’s government have found themselves in financial trouble due to punitive fines and tax investigations. After the leading newspaper Hurriyet connected the AKP to a charity scandal, the state fined the publication’s corporate owner, the Dogan Group, $523 million for tax evasion, and then fined it again seven months later for $2.5 billion in unpaid taxes and other unspecified irregularities, putting the total amount owed higher than the value of the company itself. The campaign served as a warning to other media outlets not to criticize the AKP, and, alongside arrests and firings of unfriendly journalists, it has created a climate of fear.

The AKP has also gone after what it sees as the other main threat to its rule: the military. Tensions between the military and Islamists in Turkey have existed since the founding of the republic after World War I. Most recently, in 1997, the military deposed Turkey’s first Islamist prime minister, Necmettin Erbakan, and outlawed his party, Refah, one year later. To avoid that fate, the AKP has accused scores of current and former military officials of plotting coups, and prosecuted them to devastating effect. Twenty percent of all Turkish generals are currently in prison, and in March prosecutors demanded 15–20-year jail sentences for 364 active-duty and retired officers. After the government arrested another slew of senior officers on murky charges of plotting coups, the Turkish chief of staff and the commanders of the air force, navy, and land forces all resigned in protest. Earlier this year, the government went so far as to arrest former Chief of Staff Ilker Basbug.

Erdogan’s suppression of the armed forces represents a dangerous trend in Turkish politics. Given past precedent, it stands to reason that some commanders were likely plotting against the AKP, and establishing civilian control over the military is an important step in achieving full democracy. But the cases against the officers have been marked by allegations of forged documents, detentions without evidence, and what seems like an attempt to subordinate the military not to the institutions of the state but to the AKP itself. Although many Turks do not support the military’s interference in the political system, they still see the legal proceedings against it as politically motivated. In that, they are correct: The downfall of the officers is the culmination of a highly undemocratic campaign to intimidate, harrass, and imprison the AKP’s opponents.

The AKP has taken on political opposition parties as well, albeit with a subtler touch. Turkey has begun to design a new constitution to replace the current document, a vestige of the 1980 military coup, and Erdogan maintained from the outset that the drafting process would incorporate the views of all parties. Now that the opposition has begun to question the AKP’s proposal to install a presidential system amid signs that the new constitution will not explicitly protect Kurdish and minority rights, Erdogan has threatened to abandon his pledges for a consensus. The AKP is also investigating corruption allegations in municipalities controlled by the Kemalist faction, the People’s Republican Party (CHP). In fact, the Ministry of Justice has approved investigations into CHP municipalities at twice the rate of investigations requested of AKP-controlled areas.

The AKP has also limited the ability of ordinary Turks to question its power. The anxiety produced by the AKP’s actions against journalists, the military, and politicians has produced a high degree of self-censorship. The government has empowered special security courts to arrest citizens on suspicion of terrorism without evidence or any right to a hearing and has used judicial indictments to target those calling for greater autonomy for the Kurds. The state has virtually taken over the Turkish Academy of Sciences, once a bastion of Kemalist orthodoxy. There are currently over 15,000 pending complaints against Turkey in the European Court of Human Rights concerning violations of various political and personal freedoms, compared with about 3,000 for the United Kingdom and 2,500 for France and Germany.

Turkey has thus become more open in some ways and more closed in others, allowing for greater participation and less contestation. The AKP’s behavior during the debate surrounding the drafting of a new constitution will say much about its commitment to democracy. Although the AKP has stressed the importance of consensus, Erdogan lashed out last month at critics who have begun to accuse him of molding the constitution to increase his own power, warning that if the opposition stands in his way, he will proceed without them. The drafting committee began work on May 1 but will save the most challenging issues, from minority rights to the power of the presidency, for the end of the summer. Should the AKP successfully push for a strong executive without concurrent checks and balances, Turkey will sink more deeply into its paradox.

Turkey will not likely revert to full-blown authoritarianism. But an autocratic slide will undermine its international standing, built largely on its democratization. Should Turkey’s liberalization falter, the country may quickly lose that influence -- suggesting that there are consequences to having it both ways.

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  • MICHAEL KOPLOW is a Ph.D. candidate in Government at Georgetown University and has a blog called Ottomans and Zionists. STEVEN A. COOK is Hasib J. Sabbagh Senior Fellow for Middle East Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.
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