from From the Potomac to the Euphrates and Middle East Program

Five Myths About Turkey

No, its president isn’t a dictator, and the country isn’t secular.

March 17, 2017

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan speaks during a ceremony in Istanbul, Turkey (Kayhan Ozer/Presidential Palace/Handout/Reuters).
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This article was originally published here in the Washington Post on Friday, March 17, 2017.

Turkey and the Netherlands warred this past week — expelling and barring diplomats — over whether Turkish officials could campaign among expatriate Turks for an illiberal new constitution. Turkey has long been an important ally of the West, but despite all the diplomatic, political and military links, Americans understand very little about it. What they do know seems to be based on gauzy notions that were either never accurate or have become false over time. Here are five of the most stubborn.

MYTH NO. 1

Turkey is a democracy.

It is commonplace to believe that under President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey has become authoritarian. In 2015, Turkish author Mustafa Akyol lamented his country’s “authoritarian drift ” in a New York Times op-ed. A few months later, social scientist Jason Brownlee wrote in these pages about “Turkey’s authoritarian descent.”

The truth, however, is that the country has never been a democracy, despite having continuous free and fair multi-party elections since 1946. Between 1960 and 1997, Turkey’s senior military command disposed of four governments it did not like. The General Staff oversaw anti-democratic constitutional changes, including a 1982 constitution geared more toward protecting the Turkish state from the people than guaranteeing political and civil rights. In 1997, the military ousted Turkey’s first Islamist-led government because the prime minister refused to implement rules that undermined freedom of expression, weakened the independence of the press and criminalized thought.

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