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Turkey's Path to Real Democracy

Did the Turkey’s refusal to have U.S. troops attack Iraq from its soil strengthen the country’s democracy?

April 17, 2003

Did the Turkey's refusal to have U.S. troops attack Iraq from its soil strengthen the country's democracy?

On March 1, 2003, when the Turkish Grand National Assembly turned down the U.S. request to allow the deployment of U.S. troops in Turkey, almost everyone in the Bush Administration was shocked.

In the days leading up to the vote, nobody in Washington believed that a country like Turkey could turn down its only true ally in the Western world.

After all, few countries are more dependent on the United States than Turkey is for support of its feeble economy and foreign policy interests — like EU membership and the Cyprus issue.

There are still hundreds of milestones to go, but — against considerable odds — the future of democracy in Turkey is more promising than ever.

That is even more impressive since traveling down the winding path of becoming a real democracy has yielded some painful consequences.

With the vote of its parliament in Ankara, Turkey was not only closing its doors to U.S. troops using the country as a staging area for an invasion of Iraq.

It also threw away a $6 billion check from the U.S. government, which it could have deposited in its bank account without any obligation for repayment.

And yet, amid all the hoopla of the surprising “No” vote, few people in Washington really understood the finality of the moment.

While many in the Bush Administration believed it was part of a tough-minded bargaining strategy, it was actually the final answer of Turkey.

What exactly happened? The saga begins with the Republican People's Party — or Ataturk, named after the founder of the Turkish Republic.

Early in the parliamentary debate, it established its opposition to the war against Iraq and the related U.S. requests for strategic aid.

Yet, it did not choose to pursue a healthy and public debate that could have helped the people to understand the impact that such a momentous decision would have — whether on the Turkish economy, long-term national interests or Turkey’s position in what is a rough neighborhood.

Without such a debate, the Republican People’s Party accomplished an important goal — attracting the support of many people.

Just before the vote in parliament, a public opinion poll showed that the share of the Turkish population opposed to the war had grown to 94%.

The signal was clear: Turkey's public wanted nothing to do with U.S. action in Iraq — and the government had better be listening.

And so it happened that — even though the ruling party holds the vast majority of seats in Parliament — it failed on a proposal its own party submitted to vote.

As a result of these manuevers, the United States missed out on opening the northern front against Iraq from Turkey’s soil by only three votes. 267 votes would constitute the majority, but the government proposal obtained only 264 votes.

The opposition party, by garnering bipartisan support, was able to win the vote in parliament. It was another shocking moment for people both inside and outside the country to comprehend. Why?

Such a profoundly democratic act — in which the opposition and part of the government parties joined hands — has never been accomplished in Turkey.

One of the major shortcomings of Turkish democracy has always been the lack of democracy inside the parties themselves. It has never been easy to challenge the leadership of one’s own party.

Pentagon officials were so shocked by the Turkish decision that one said, “I can’t believe that the Turkish Joint Chief is letting our agreement slip away.”

Outside the Pentagon, the rest of the world was wondering about the silence of the Turkish military. The lingering question was, “Can Turkey's military really put domestic political sentiments ahead of the long-term national interests of the country?”

If the premise of the question — that Turkey's military sees itself atop the political process — had been correct, then the events unfolding in Turkey would have been even more dangerous.

However, in this crucial regard, officials around the world can stop biting their nails in anticipation. Ironically — and happily — Turkey's army behaved very much according to the standards of the Western democracies in choosing to remain on the sidelines of politics.

This represents a major departure from past practice, even in more recent times, when Turkey's military often "steered" events from behind the scenes — if it did not intervene outright. Clearly, Turkey's generals must have felt under close scrutiny by the Western democracies — and they passed the test.

For the first time while an Islamist party is in power, there is no fear of a military coup d’etat. The military said publicly that it supports the government’s position on the Iraq issue. Yet, behind the scenes, they continue to watch the party members closely.

Still, the negative side effects of the vote are lingering. Turkey compromised its alliance not only with the United States, but strained relations with the European Union as well — by advocating that Turkey intervene in Northern Iraq without U.S. support.

Europeans are adamantly opposed to any attempt by Turkey to suppress the Kurds living in northern Iraq.

To be sure, Ankara will need to make a major effort to re-establish ties with the United States and the European Union in order to keep Turkish democracy healthy.

For all of Turkey's financial losses and ailing alliances, all sides concerned would do well to remember that the heady days of March 2003 also signal something precious — the emergence of a real democracy in Turkey.

But that does not mean there will be no more drama in Turkish democracy. After all, the Turks are accustomed to playing Byzantine games — and the March 2003 vote is only one of many.

The government must get used to the consequences of democratic decisions. The manner in which Turkey reached its decision may have alienated allies and compromised future alliances.

However, the fact that it derived from a democratic process is immeasurably important. And Turkey is hardly the only country that strained its international relations in the course of the Iraq crisis.

If U.S. officials can appreciate this unprecedented strength in Turkish democracy after 79 years, they will overcome their disappointment in Turkey’s initial rejection rapidly — and become even more supportive of this "strategic partner” at a crucial time.

One final irony: It was the Islamist ruling party that achieved bringing true democracy into the parliament.

And it was the westernized elites who — due to their elitist leanings — had failed in creating such a democracy over the last eight decades.

There are still hundreds of milestones to go — but the future of democracy in Turkey is more promising than ever.