Democratic deficit in Turkey

The good news came on Friday, confirming the resilience of the Turkish economy. The budget deficit shrank by 64 percent in the first quarter compared to same period last year, Finance Minister Mehmet Şimsek announced. Thanks to a robust economy and impressive growth of 8.9 percent last year, government revenue rose by 20.5 percent, while expenditures climbed only 6.6 percent. As the government is expected to win another term in the June elections, the risk of populist spending is gone, allowing investors to rest assured that there will be stability during the campaign period.

I’m not sure, however, that the same could be said about the “democratic deficit” we have been plagued by for years in this Muslim-majority country. Granted, the ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Party) has brought about some positive results and cured the democratic deficit to a limited extent. The European Union-oriented reforms were unprecedented in their pace and intensity, especially in the first term of AK Party government, following their victory in 2002, only to be followed by an era of slowing down and at times grinding to a halt. The overhaul of 26 constitutional articles last year was certainly a high point for the governing party, which narrowly escaped a closure case on trumped-up charges in 2008.

In all fairness, I don’t think one could say the AK Party government did everything it could to address the democratic deficit in Turkey. The AK Party could have launched a much more successful campaign in Parliament to approve legislation for long-delayed reforms. Many laws remained in draft form and did not make it to Parliament because of the government’s failure to act or were shelved in commission after being forwarded by the Cabinet. Over 500 laws introduced in the last parliament were never enacted.

The government waited until last year to propose a package of changes to the 1982 military constitution, seen as the most radical overhaul of the constitution the Turkish Parliament has enacted thus far. When the parties were unable to agree on the package of changes, the government took the reforms to the people, who backed the package by a comfortable majority in the referendum. Again in 2011, an election year, the government was able to pass fundamental laws, such as the 1,535-article Turkish Commercial Code (TTK) and the 630-article Code of Obligations. The business community had been lobbying for a modern commercial and obligations code for the last decade as the old ones were hampering their competitiveness.

The AK Party government failed in its second term in office to approve a new constitution and instead limited itself to a mini-overhaul of 26 articles. It raised expectations in 2007 when it drafted a brand new one but later dropped it altogether when the hard-line secularist camp backed by the military and judiciary threatened to shut the party down. Venice Commission President Gianni Buquicchio was upset when he told me in Strasbourg that he did not understand why the AK Party did not pursue the draft when in fact it was a good one. The AK Party never recovered from the trauma of a possible closure case and was even hesitant to introduce two dozen amendments to the Constitution in 2010 when backed into a corner. The clear mandate that gave the AK Party a majority in Parliament in the 2007 snap elections was not exploited to the fullest extent, unfortunately.

Apart from its efforts to reform the Constitution, the AK Party government also failed to enact comprehensive laws in overhauling the judicial system in Turkey from the ground up. It did bring important changes to the higher judiciary but failed to hire a new generation of judges and prosecutors to staff the regional appeals courts, a measure urgently needed to cut down lengthy trials in Turkey. The government also took its time and delayed implementing changes to the Turkish Penal Code (TCK) that would have benefited reporters and editors who are currently facing over 5,000 investigations or trials because of what they wrote based on publicly available indictments submitted to the court during the course of the Ergenekon terror trial. Freedom of expression was severely limited because of overzealous prosecutors and judges who chose to interpret the law for the sake of the state at the expense of individual liberties and fundamental rights.

While some progress was made in placing the military under civilian oversight, the government caved in to pressure when the revised law on the Court of Auditors continued to exclude the Defense Industry Support Fund (SSDF), a large extra-budgetary fund to finance defense expenditures, and the properties and assets of the armed forces by the Court of Auditors. The chief of General Staff continued to report directly to the prime minister instead of the defense minister, and half of the seats at the National Security Council (MGK) continued to be staffed by the force generals.

Last but not least is the failure to bring about a resolution to Turkey’s long-standing Kurdish problem. Though the government’s initiatives brought some relief to the problems faced by Kurdish citizens in Turkey, they did not go far enough in convincing the people of the Southeast after the government backtracked on some of its promises. The government shied away from having high-level contact with the leaders of Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in northern Iraq for long time. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan made a trip to the region for the first time only last month, cementing ties with KRG leaders. Interior Minister Beşir Atalay, the pointman for the Kurdish initiative, was obviously the wrong choice to spearhead the talks, and he made fatal mistakes along the way, exacerbating an already tense situation.

Nevertheless the AK Party remains the only agent for change in Turkey when we look at the sad state of opposition parties, which are in disarray and unable to come up with convincing alternatives. We just hope the AK Party will do much better in its third term.

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