Insight Turkey 4th Annual Conference: 'Future of Democracy in Turkey: Elections, Politics and Foreign Policy'


Panel I – Elections and the Future of Turkish Politics

Chair: Kadir Üstün (SETA DC)


Hatem Ete (SETA Ankara)

Ertan Aydın (POLLMARK)Fuat Keyman (Sabancı University & Istanbul Policy Center)

Etyen Mahçupyan (Zaman Daily)


Hatem Ete discussed the local elections in the context of social and political developments in Turkey from June 2013 onward, thus giving the March 30 elections the feel and significance of general elections. The effects of the Gezi Park protest and Gulenist-led operation on the eve of the elections alongside the actual election results have examined, noting that the historical popularity of different political parties has remained largely the same. As such, Turkey may be interpreted as a nation of strong identity politics, in which 75% of voters vote based on their identity and 25% on party performance, which, consequently, results a status quo in Turkish politics.  


Fuat Keyman examined the AK Party’s growing status as a “dominant party” in Turkey following the results of the local elections, which has three criteria: 1) establishing a cycle of dominance in three consecutive elections; 2) outdistancing the opposition parties; and 3) supporters of other parties have little faith that their party will win elections. As a result, the AK Party era can be classified as a harbinger of a “New Turkey.” This Mr. Keyman attributed to the rise of a dominant party with a strong leader, a new state structure with a post-military and post-judiciary tutelage, and the emergence of urbanization, a new middle class, and a conservative modernity. The discussion has ended by looking at the challenges for this New Turkey, including the polarized nature of Turkish political society, its continued transition to democracy, and its diplomatic relations with the West. Mr. Keyman suggested that revitalizing Turkey’s EU accession process is essential for addressing these challenges.


Ertan Aydın described the March 30 elections as a “historic turning point” in Turkish politics, due to the important social and political developments that took place during the prior year, the resulting high electoral participation, and the diversity of candidates represented as a reflection of the “rich mosaic of the Turkish population.” Mr. Aydın examined the AK Party’s victory despite the negative campaigns of the opposition parties. Due to the nature of the local elections, Turkish politics characterized as regionally fragmented and a segmented two-party system. After that, Mr. Aydın delved into an examination of the demographics behind the voting numbers, debunking assumptions about gender, age and literacy across the various party supporters. Mr. Aydin concluded that the March 30 elections “shattered many myths” about Turkish politics.


Finally, Etyen Mahçupyan approached the question of how and why the AK Party received 45% of the March 30 votes against all odds. Mr.Mahçupyan attributed its victory not only to polarization, but also the transformation of the religious community and religiosity in Turkish society. Also a growing secularization within the religious community, where individuals redefine their personal beliefs and are increasingly tolerant had stated. Also Turkey is experiencing a growth in the hybridization of families – insofar as the family is becoming the most important institution in Turkey – and the Islamic conservative community, resulting in a new middle class defined on sociocultural terms. Mr. Mahçupyan concluded that Kemalism is coming to end due to a soft popular revolution, where the periphery is coming into and transforming the center, making it likely that the AK Party will remain in power for 10-15 years.

Panel II—Democratization in Turkey: What is Next?

Chair: Ambassador James H. Holmes (American Turkish Council)


Ali Bayramoğlu (Yeni Safak Daily)

Mustafa Karaalioğlu (Star Daily)

Oral Çalışlar (Radikal Daily)

Taha Özhan (SETA)



Ali Bayramoğlu focused his remarks on the reformist policies enacted by the Justice and Development Party (AKP) over the past 12 years. The AK Partys success in relation to three specific arenas claimed, including: economic and social politics, as indicated by recent World Bank figures; issues of Kemalism, in which they have been “toppled” to make the government increasingly civilian-dominated; and in asserting a stronger sense of self-confidence both within Turkey and on the world stage. Two “pressures” of democratization that have characterized the AK Party’s time in power have been establishing the authority and leadership to guide Turkey’s democracy. Mr. Bayramoğlu explained that efforts made to reach this goal have been successful in shaping Prime Minister Erdoğan’s image as a “strong and democratic” leader. The future of democratic governance in Turkey following the recent local elections, Bayramoğlu explained, rests on key issues, including the Armenian issue, the Kurdish peace process, constitutional problems, and those surrounding recent events such as the Ergenekon trials.


Mustafa Karaalioğlu first set the tone of his presentation by asserting that Turkey is engaged in a “very important” time of change that will hopefully lead to a healthy democracy. While it is stated that the country will continue with the democratization process, many of the same issues, such as the role of the military, will be observed along the way. The Gezi Park protests added another dimension to this process, as the AK Party government has increasingly been the target of widespread criticism. Mr. Karaalioğlu stated that in order for there to be a just, equal and “true democracy” in Turkey after dealing with an unjust government system for decades, everyone must make changes. The primary goal in the transition from the “Old Turkey” to the “New Turkey,” described, is to finish this democratization process and foster a “calm and solid future” for the country. This comes at a significant time of change in light of the Erdoğan-Gülen split and changes in public attitudes toward important political issues, such as the Armenian and Kurdish issues.


Oral Çalışlar commented on a contradiction between internal and external views of Turkey when speaking about democratization within the country. In terms of external views, Mr. Çalışlar concentrated specifically on American reactions to developments within Turkey. While these tend to conclude that there is little to no democratization taking place within the country, it is asserted that this is not necessarily the case from the Turkish perspective. Turkey is described as going through a period of change characterized by a “crisis of establishing a new democracy.” This is especially observable when looking at the status of minority identities, particularly Armenians, Kurds, and Alawites, within society. Mr. Çalışlar described Turkey as progressing in this domain as it has begun to address their demands for freedom of expression. While the country may need to make many more steps to foster a more inclusive environment, also it is asserted that a “democratization fight” has launched Turkey forward, not backward, in this process. In order to understand what is taking place within the country in this regard, there must be a general understanding of the divergences in Turkish and Western perceptions of democracy.


In his remarks, Taha Özhan criticized the tendency to compare Turkey’s political experiences with those of Egypt. While both countries have faced coups d’états in the past, Turkey has sustained its civilian government for over a decade. Since the AK Party was elected into office, it has successfully withstood attempts to remove it from power. Mr. Özhan provided an overview of the major events taking since 2002 that summarize the AK Party’s resilience. 2007 is highlighted as the first time that a civilian government within Turkey rejected the military’s intervention. Throughout the past 12 years, the AK Party has also been furthering the democratization process by, for example, attempting to handle the Kurdish issue and actively supporting the Arab Spring protests. While Mr. Özhan positioned democratization as the main trend in Turkish governance, he also asserted that it will continue to be challenged, especially in light of the December 17th corruption allegations.

Panel III – Turkey and the Arab Awakening

Speakers:    Chair: Marina Ottaway (Wilson Center)

Stephen Larrabee (RAND)

Kilic Kanat (SETA DC)

Ufuk Ulutas (SETA Foundation)

Ramazan Yildirim (Ru'ye Turkiye)




Stephen Larrabee discussed how the Arab Spring undermined Turkey’s “zero problems with neighbors” foreign policy. It’s argued that prior to the Arab Spring little attention was paid to the aspiration of society, as Ankara focused on developing relationships with neighboring governments. The Arab Spring led Turkey to shift its focus to the democratic pressures in society, particularly in Syria. Mr. Larrabee stated that Turkey made several miscalculations: Ankara underestimated Assad’s resilience; it overestimated Turkey’s ability to shape developments in the Middle East; and it underestimated President Obama’s reluctance to pursue a more robust policy in the region. After that Turkey’s relations with Iran, Egypt, Iraq and the Kurds are explored. Mr. Larrabee said that Turkey’s foreign policy collapsed and instead of good relations with all neighbors, Turkey has strained relations with nearly all of its neighbors, with the exception of the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) in Iraq. It’s concluded that while Turkey’s foreign policy was successful at first, it was undermined by the Arab Spring because Ankara based its new relationships on regimes rather than considering broader societal changes.


Ufuk Ulutas proposed that it is difficult to discuss the Arab Spring because the process is ongoing and multifaceted. It is outlined that how various countries viewed the Arab Spring: Russia saw an opportunity to reintroduce itself to the Middle East; the US has not decided what the Arab Spring is and therefore has acted indecisively; the EU has yet to define what the bloc is, resulting in a fluctuating and variant policy; and the Gulf saw the uprisings as an existential threat. For Turkey, the Arab Spring presented advantages and disadvantages. Mr. Ulutas argued that the uprisings provided a venue for Turkish soft power but also demonstrated the limits of that soft power. Also it is asserted that when protests turn into violent conflict, soft power was no longer effective. Mr. Ulutas defined the Arab Spring as a popular trend that, in principle, aims to transform old regimes to allow for more popular input in decision-making. At last Mr. Ulutas deduced that the Arab Spring process is ongoing and therefore conclusions on Turkey’s “zero problems” policy should be avoided.


 Ramazan Yildirim examined the Islamist movements of the Arab Spring, particularly the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. It is stated that the Muslim Brotherhood was a political movement but regime repression turned the organization into a religious identity. While the Islamists in the Middle East has struggled, the AK Party in Turkey has been leading democratic reforms. After discussing the constitution process and issue of sharia in Egypt prior to Morsi’s overthrow, Mr. Yildirim described Egyptian-Turkish relations as an exaggerated love-hate relationship. It is noted that many reforms are underway in different countries, with success in Tunisia and an indication that quick change will be difficult in Egypt. Mr. Yildirim concluded that the Arab Spring allowed the Islamist movements to become legal political parties that can be successful if they do not encounter serious obstacles.


Kilic Kanat was the final speaker and shifted the focus back to Turkish foreign policy before, during and after the Arab Spring. Mr. Kanat said that the AK Party accelerated the late-1990s project of developing a neighborhood foreign policy by utilizing economic integration and conflict resolution. Mr. Kanat argued that Turkey stood on the right side of history in the Arab Spring but the current phase has several implications. First, Mr. Kanat asserted that there is an increased level of disappointment and frustration with the West in Turkey, especially regarding the reaction to Egypt and Syria. Than Mr. Kanat stated that US inaction inevitability created the same problems that were used as reasons against intervention. Second, a changed geostrategic environment with new security threats has created problems for Turkey, especially from Syria. Regarding the future, Mr. Kanat suggested that every nation will continue to revise its foreign policy towards the region. In Turkey, Prime Minister Erdogan is committed to resolving traditional problems in Turkish foreign policy, i.e., Cyprus, Armenia, and the Kurds, and Erdogan’s recent statement on the Armenian issue is a major step. Mr. Kanat concluded that the US and Turkey will no longer talk about a strategic partnership; instead, selective cooperation will arise where the two nations will work together on areas they agree on and find other partners in areas of divergent interests.