This article was originally published in the Washington Post on Friday, June 7, 2013.
In the past five years, Turkey has veered from what was once a promising path of liberal democracy — and the European Union can pull it back.
The recent massive street protests in Istanbul started as a backlash against the government’s plan to develop a beloved park into a shopping mall, but they also reflect popular frustration at the country’s authoritarian turn, made clear in the rise of crony capitalism, intimidation by government forces and the centralization of power in the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), led by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. It was just a decade ago that then-Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul told an audience at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy that the main reason his government was pursuing wide-ranging democratic reforms was the possibility of fully joining the European Union. But as that prospect has faded, so has the drive toward democracy in Turkey.
Even before the AKP came to power in late 2002, the party’s leaders determined that E.U. membership was the best means to resolve Turkey’s perennial culture war between Islamists and secularists. With a legislative majority, the AKP quickly abolished the death penalty, wrote a new penal code, changed anti-terrorism laws to make it more difficult to prosecute citizens on speech alone (though critics claim the changes do not go far enough) and significantly expanded political rights.
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