Is Turkey the best model for Arab democracy?

Mark LeVine writes:

Judging by the hero’s welcome given to Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan in his just-completed tour of the Arab world, it’s not surprising that, once again, Turkey is being held up as “the best model for change” across the region.

Those boosting Turkey’s standing include not merely Erdogan and the country’s increasingly bold leadership, but equally political commentators across the Arab world (and indeed, around the globe), and millions of Arabs hoping to establish truly democratic societies in the wake of the Arab revolutions.

There is no doubt that the Turkey of 2011 is a remarkable success story in many areas, particularly compared with the political, economic and cultural state of the country less than a generation ago.

But is the country really a model for Arab pro-democracy revolutionaries to look to, as they struggle to establish democratic political systems in the ashes of decades of dictatorship, amid political and economic marginalisation? Let’s look at the record.

At first glance, Turkey has become a model of democracy and pluralism, and is serving as a beacon for other Islamically oriented parties looking to participate in their emerging political systems. Culturally speaking, the country is, ostensibly, an equally inspiring model: Istanbul is one of the world’s most vibrant and open cities, while the country’s long Mediterranean coastline remains largely a (thankfully) undiscovered hybrid of local and cosmopolitan cultures.

Turkey has had several substantially free and fair elections and a national referendum in the past decade, which have seen one party – the Justice and Development Party (AKP) – achieve and maintain power, and substantively change the country’s constitution, all against the wishes of the previously all-powerful military. Just as importantly, the AKP is not trying to stamp out criticism by its rivals; last year’s constitutional referendum saw particularly intense debate, with Istanbul and other cities festooned with posters freely comparing Erdogan to Hitler.

Yet a slightly deeper look at Turkey’s record on political democracy, an examination that moves beyond the usual focus on elections, reveals a country that still has a long way to go before it can be considered fully “free”.

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