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Turkey : Actions speak louder than words on paper

Friday 5 September 2008, by Nicole Pope

The government has been given a new lease on life, Turkey has a new national program mapping the EU-required reforms it aims to introduce, and opinion polls show that popular support for the EU project is rising.

Why then is the optimism so muted and so few people expressing faith in the government’s ability to push its program through?

Everywhere I go, I hear skeptical assessments of the Justice and Development Party’s (AK Party) willingness to introduce meaningful change. Work is of course being done on quite a few technical issues that will affect daily life and bring new standards aligned to those in the EU, which is very important. But when it comes to democratic change, the signals coming from Ankara are mixed at best.

For a start, the government is not putting the necessary muscle power behind the EU project. Busy with the Caucasus crisis and mediation in the Middle East, Foreign Minister Ali Babacan cannot devote the time and energy needed to move the accession process forward decisively.
Güler Sabancı, who heads Sabancı Holding, is the latest of many who have called for the appointment of a chief EU negotiator whose only job would be to keep his/her eyes on the goal of EU membership. What better way to indicate clearly to Brussels, and particularly to Turkey-skeptics in Europe, that Ankara has not lost sight of its goal and means to work towards it?

The comprehensive program recently unveiled by the government looks good on paper, but the gap between the written words and the actions of politicians shows where the democratic spirit and a belief in diversity, plurality of views and popular involvement in the decision-making process are still missing. These are the values that had propelled the AK Party to power in 2002 and fueled its initial reforms, but the tank seems to be running on empty.

The government needs popular support for its reforms, but it is doing little to prepare the terrain and convince the population that costly legislative changes are necessary. Are we to believe that the AK Party will tackle environmental issues decisively when the prime minister ridicules conservationists who express legitimate concerns about the destruction of the natural environment? Mr. Erdoğan’s short fuse and the broad swipes he takes at those who express critical opinions do not fit the image of a politician willing to engage with the public and take alternative views into account. The prime minister has plenty of opponents, but with nobody by his side to round his sharp edges, he at times becomes his own worst enemy.

Not only have democratic reforms not advanced much in the past couple of years, there have been setbacks in areas where progress had earlier been recorded. The recent figures on torture and excessive use of force published by the Justice Ministry were a painful reminder that the policy of “zero tolerance” for torture has not been implemented strictly. The government has also failed to convince the public that human rights are even worth protecting, as was demonstrated by a poll conducted in June by World Public Opinion, which showed that unlike in the rest of the world, where a majority unequivocally reject torture, only 36 percent of Turks do so, while 18 percent believe torture should be allowed and another 34 percent support its use to save innocent lives.

While support for EU membership had increased, these results show that public opinion is not yet sufficiently well informed about the values inherent to the accession process. The government has another chance to do it right. It needs to explain and promote the project better at home, send unambiguous signals abroad and above all, lead by example.

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Source : TDZ, 29.08.2008

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