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Disassociation of Europeanisation and Democratisation in Turkey

turkeySince the beginning of accession negotiations in 2005, Turkey’s EU membership project has become almost completely irrelevant for its democratization process. The limited progress that the country has registered in democratizing its polity has been the by-product of the power struggle between the predominant Justice and Development Party (Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi –JDP) and the secular establishment in Turkey.

There are two reasons for the detachment of Europeanization from democratization in Turkey. Firstly, the EU has turned itself into an unfruitful policy area for the JDP governments. As Turkey got closer to the EU, the resistance to Turkey’s full-membership from within the EU has gained a momentum and hardened. The accession negotiations started only with the half-hearted political will on the part of the EU for Turkey’s full-membership. Moreover, the Framework of Accession Negotiations for Turkey negatively discriminates against Turkey especially when compared to that of Croatia. The Framework for Turkey, for example, introduces the possibility of permanent derogations and a privileged partnership. Even under this framework, the accession negotiations have not been proceeding smoothly mainly because the political leaders of the two most important EU members, Nicolas Sarkozy of France and Angela Merkel of Germany, openly oppose to Turkey’s full membership and block the opening of some chapters.

Secondly, Turkey’s EU membership bid has lost its instrumental value for the JDP. In its first two years, the JDP had instrumentalized the EU membership perspective to reduce the role of the conservative secular establishment in the political system, to expand the living sphere of religious identity, and to revitalize the constitutive capacities of politics without clashing with the guardians of the secular republic. Here the JDP benefited from the fact that the EU membership represented the climax of the Kemalist aim of reaching the level of contemporary civilizations and enjoyed an above-politics common good status in Turkey.

However, as Turkey got closer to the EU and as this strengthened the hands of the JDP governments, Kemalist opposition to the JDP took the form of outright opposition to Turkey’s EU membership bid. The opposition RPP, for example, claimed that the JDP is abusing the EU project for its own Islamist/fundamentalist ends. The RPP tried to substantiate its claim by arguing that the JDP is doing “too much”, or “more than what is asked” for Turkey’s Europeanization. Civilianization and lowering the profile of the military-dominated NSC, which once was the real governing body in Turkey, was one of the examples of the JDP’s abuse given by the RPP leader Deniz Baykal. Similarly, many retired and on duty members of military expressed their reservations and suspicions about the EU membership project in general and a broad range of individual Europeanizing political reforms in particular. Therefore, the EU membership project has lost its common good status, and thus its instrumental value for the JDP.


With the loss of the EU membership perspective, the power struggle between the JDP and the Kemalist secular establishment came to be the single axis of the Turkish politics. Henceforth, all the provincial features of Turkish politics came to the fore and dominated the political arena. As has been revealed by a series of leaked documents, internal memorandums and open and clear coup plans, the military, or at least some influential groups within the military, mobilized the selected sectors of society against the JDP. Hence, the top lawyers in judiciary, administrators in the academia, editors and columnists in the mainstream media, centrist traditions in the party system, and military-friendly associations and think tanks in civil society have all joined the bandwagon put in motion by the military-engine. They have practically denied the democratic legitimacy of the JDP as the constitutionally elected government of the country by employing an essentialist approach that holds “once an Islamist, always an Islamist.”  This essentialism resulted in an ad hominem politics which focuses on who proposes the policies rather than what is in them. Ad hominem politics in turn resulted in a distrust for the institutions and values of democracy, in a willingness to bend the rules of the game in accordance with the conjectural interests, and thus in an unruly power struggle without any binding norm, or concept of normal. Also, a willingness to resort to militarist means in the struggle against the JDP was always displayed and/or approved by the ‘secular’ opposition against the JDP.

This essentialist and militarist opposition compelled the JDP to a struggle for survival both as a political party and as the elected government of the country. It is this struggle for survival and recognition that came to epitomize the democratization debate and democratization process in Turkey. As a corollary, JDP’s survival in the face of a militarist opposition meant progress in Turkish democratization. Hence, the democratic progress since 2005 has mostly been restricted to areas serving the empowerment and survival of the JDP. And, this democratic progress has rarely entailed institutional reform, but taking over the top hierarchical positions previously occupied by staunch Kemalists. Therefore, the net effect of the fading of Turkey’s European dream has been an impoverished democratization debate, reduced to the survival of the JDP and practically serving to the power of the JDP only.

In this impoverished debate, the proponents of democracy and the agents of democratization are not necessarily the ones who take democracy as an end in itself. Under the current political circumstances in Turkey, being anti-tutelary out of survival instincts is enough to be the champion of democracy. This is perhaps the negative aspect of recent Turkish politics. However, the fact that there is an indigenous and somewhat effective force resisting the militarist tutelage over politics is positive as far as future prospects of democratization concerned.