Turkey’s Gradual Revolution

ANKARA – When Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan announced his latest package of democratic reforms, ultra-nationalist groups accused him of betraying the values of the republic founded by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, while Kurdish nationalists expressed frustration at the package’s perceived inadequacy. This polarized reaction is nothing new. Throughout his tenure, Erdoğan has been condemned by the three leading secular opposition parties for pursuing too much reform, and by Turkey’s minorities and civil-society organizations for doing too little.

But Erdoğan has navigated this difficult political landscape deftly, with a cautious reform style that aims to build consensus through compromises that actually work when enacted. His gradual yet persistent efforts have succeeded in mobilizing his conservative supporters to back progressive change. Indeed, it was Erdoğan’s backers (often described as “Islamist” in Western media), not the pro-Western secularists, who defended the return of non-Muslim foundations’ property confiscated by the republican regime.

Moreover, Erdoğan and his allies have advocated harsher punishments for hate crimes against Jews, Christians, Alevis, and Kurds. With mistreatment of non-Muslim minorities a common criticism of Muslim parties across the Middle East, Turkey’s quiet revolution suggests that, by reconciling people’s religious values with the need for change, Erdoğan’s tactics can be applied in other countries to win support for progressive reforms.

Every democracy requires such tactics. When US President Barack Obama could not implement his original vision of health-care reform, he sought to compromise with his opponents by basing the reform on a plan developed by a conservative think tank and implemented in Massachusetts by former Governor Mitt Romney, Obama’s opponent in last year’s presidential election. This willingness to seek consensus on what should be a broadly acceptable compromise is usually cited as a strength of American democracy (though, as the recent government shutdown demonstrated, compromise is becoming increasingly elusive).