In recent weeks both Turkey and Egypt presented us with the spectacle of large crowds in major urban squares protesting about the authoritarian style of a political leader. In both cases that leader was a representative of political Islam, broadly conceived; in both cases calls were heard for his resignation. The similarities end there. In Turkey, protesters faced tear gas, water cannon, flailing batons, and the threat that the army might be deployed, and prime minister Erdoğan remained in office. In Egypt, the police mostly left the protesters alone, and President Morsi was removed from office by the army and placed under arrest, to the cheers of the protesters.This difference alone should caution us against framing these events in ways that make them look the same: the revolt of educated youth, the spirit of 68, social media, neo-liberalism, ‘global resistance’, crowds and power, upheaval in the Islamic world, none of them are much use because politics is as politics always has been, local and specific.
Why has Turkey not descended into chaos? One reason is that some of the scenes that captivated the world over the last month are not unfamiliar in Turkey; even outside Kurdish areas it has experienced this sort of mass street protest – with casualties – many times since the end of the 1980-83 military rule (even the banging of pots and pans at 9pm has occurred before, in 1997). Another is that the protests have taken diverse and ever-more-inventive forms. More importantly, Turkey is a parliamentary democracy, in which the prime minister is head of government, and in which the President’s powers are, while by no means only ceremonial, limited and clearly defined. The protesters demanded Erdoğan’s resignation, but he might have resigned – with dignity - without leaving a political vacuum. Prime ministers can do this in a parliamentary system (Italian governments used to resign all the time) because they are not elected as prime minister in the first place, but as MPs. Alongside its many other problems, including the conduct of Morsi himself, Egypt has a system that is neither parliamentary nor presidential. It was what Maurice Duverger called semi-presidential, in which the lines between presidential and prime ministerial responsibilities are hazy, so much so that if the President so wished he could make himself prime minister as well (Presidents Nasser and Sadat both did this for periods).
How does Turkey compare with other states run as parliamentary democracies? As in Poland and the Czech Republic, the President has veto powers, particularly in the area of foreign policy. Unlike in Poland but as in Germany and Italy, the Turkish president is elected by members of parliament. Unlike in both Poland and Germany, there is no Turkish second chamber. As in Poland and Germany there is an electoral threshold, but at 10 per cent it can, as in Britain’s first past the post system, generate parliamentary majorities for parties gaining under 40 per cent of the popular vote. While Egypt is dipping its toe in the water – or inferno - of democracy, most countries that joined the EU in 2004 became parliamentary democracies in 1989; Turkey has held democratic parliamentary elections since 1950.
You might think that that is stretching a point, since the Turkish army staged coups in 1960, 1971, and 1980 (and a ‘postmodern coup’ in 1997), and via the National Security Council continues to have an influence in public life that the army does not have in EU states. Be that as it may, and notwithstanding the realities of the ‘deep state’, the unresolved Kurdish question, and the position of women, the formal architecture of the Turkish polity places it closer to European states than to those of the Middle East. Moreover, between 1999 and 2005 successive governments, in conjunction with the army, made an effort to put Turkey in a position to join the EU. The motivations of the main parties may not have included the unambiguous desire to be good Europeans - the army was ready to compromise because it saw in EU membership a guarantor of the secularity of the state, while for the AKP (after it came to power in 2002), EU membership would open new opportunities for the new ‘Anatolian Calvinist’ business class that supports it and build links with the 7 million Turks who already live within EU borders - but institutional changes were carried out, including the downgrading of the National Security Council to an advisory role, and the removal of army personnel from important civilian bodies.
There are, though, danger signs. The United States, instead of recognising Turkey’s European credentials, continues to see Turkey as a possible ‘Islamic democracy’ and example to the Middle East. That is a badge that some elements in the AKP, including Erdoğan, are now ready to wear with pride. One reason is that the Ergenokon inquiry into the army’s dirty tricks campaigns has made him more confident in his hostility to these guardians of secularity. Another is that since 2006 the EU accession process has stalled, partly because of the AKP’s failure to reform the justice system, but partly because of the hostility and hypocrisy of policy-makers in a more Islamophobic Europe. The Turkish police’s use of powerful tear gas on the Gezi park protesters was rightly condemned in Brussels, but it was no worse than the forced expulsion of Roma people by the French police in 2009, for which the EU issued a rap on the knuckles. In 2001, German politicians Helmut Schmidt and Edmund Stoiber stated that Turkey would never be admitted to the EU because it had never had an enlightenment, but six years later Bulgaria became a member. In Germany, school pupils are permitted to wear religious symbols, but when in 2005 a Turkish student, Leyla Şahin, tried to have the ban on headscarves at Turkish universities overturned at the European Court of Human Rights, the court found against her.
At the height of the Gezi park crisis, Erdoğan described the process of EU accession talks as ‘tragi-comic’, and singled out Nicholas Sarkozy – implacably hostile to Turkey - as chief culprit. He was right to do so. It is all the more worrying, then, that Erdoğan himself now seeks a new constitution that would replace the parliamentary system with a French-style presidential one, with – he hopes - himself as first incumbent. Should he succeed, pursue a more Islamicist agenda and face mass opposition once again, dignified resignation will prove less easy than it would be today.