In both Turkey and China, the political and normative value given to economic development and transformation is greater than, and takes priority over, democracy

Nihat Berker, the president of Sabancı University, does great service to community by hosting engaging book discussions on campus.  These remarkable gatherings offer a gateway to students, faculty members and employees into the world of notable books on current affairs.  The vision-based books that expand horizons in understanding Turkey and the world are chosen, read, and sometimes the author of the book is invited for a discussion.  This time, we read Martin Jacques’ When China Rules the World: The End of the Western World and the Birth of a New Global Order (Penguin, 2009).  As I read this book, whose expanded second edition will be in print soon, I could not help but notice the striking similarities between the Justice and Development Party (AKP) experience in Turkey and that of the Chinese regime.  In this respect, I believe there is benefit to be gained by reading the present and the future of Turkey from the Chinese perspective as much as with European and American references, and that this reading is best done by the left and social democracy, which have been the main themes of my articles lately.

Similarities in differences

Without a doubt, China and Turkey are greatly different in scale and come from different historical and cultural backgrounds.  Although the political experiences of the two countries are not identical, a few resemblances in their approach to democratization and economic development should not be overlooked.In this vein, the work of Martin Jacques holds very interesting clues for the AKP experience in Turkey.  Jacques discusses the difficulties of the West in understanding China with Western-born concepts.  Chief among them is the concept of the nation-state.  As opposed to the nation-state in the West, the Chinese nation-state has a unified culture and the makings of what we may call a “civic-state.”  The state is strong, but it embraces and dominates the society especially in economic development, growth and transformation.  It employs historical and cultural references heavily in doing so.  Similarly, the AKP experience shows that Turkey and its state are now stronger.  Just as in China, economicdevelopment and transformation are at the forefront of the change sweeping through Turkey. , The state embraces the society more firmly, and consolidates its legitimacy via references to history and culture.  In this respect, the AKP administration is different from and unique in comparison to not only the Republican People’s Party (CHP) experience, but also the Motherland Party (ANAP) and Democrat Party (DP) experiences.  Second is the importance of the concept and rate of transformation in the Chinese experience.  It is not easy to understand and keep abreast of the recent transformation and globalization in China.  The country transforms rapidly and does so by going global.  The same applies to the AKP and Turkey: transformation has been a key concept for Turkey in the last decade.  From economy to urbanization, the EU accession process to globalization, the country is transforming at a great pace.  The AKP experience is based on this movement and the Party defines itself as the lead player in the transformation.  Thirdis China’s quest for the unity of the nation and the state based on economic development and transformation.  China succeeds as long as it maintains the unity of the nation and the state as well as the homogeneous society attitude on a foundation of economic performance.  It is safe to assume that this achievement will continue as long as the economic performance continues.  The AKP experience also assumes and expresses the unity of the nation and state, and builds this atop economic development and transformation.  In this context, the AKP can start a variety of democratic initiatives–particularly on the Kurdish issue followed by other identities and political positions–but boundaries are drawn when the initiatives begin to threaten economic development and transformation.  According to the AKP, democratization must not impede economic development and transformation, much like in China.  The fourth similarity is the precedence the political and normative value placed in economic development and transformation takes over democracy in both the Chinese and Turkish experiences.  In bothcases, the political authority and the civic nation-state clearly requires that a strengthening democracy does not tamper with economic development and transformation.

In this respect, important and fundamental as Turkey’s relations with the EU and its relations with the United States–particularly in foreign policy– may be, the AKP experience is very similar to China.  It is possible that Turkey is becoming another China under the AKP experience.  Just as it is difficult to understand China with Western-born concepts, so it is to understand the AKP experience.  Jacques argues that a fallacy of the West is the expectation that China will stumble.  Not only does China not stumble, it is prepared to become the world’s largest economy in 2020.  The much-iterated fallacy of some circles in Turkey that the AKP will eventually stumble is proven wrong at every turn.  Today, the AKP is not merely strong; as the “ruling party” it musters the vote of one in every two people in the street. With such credentials in sight, it has the ability to bear its imprint on Turkey’s future until the 2020s.  This makes it even more crucial to read the Chinese experience accurately.  In the political arena, the opposition and the left should best engage in this effort.

The left, economy and democracy

All countries share a great need for a political administration that achieves both sustainable development and democracy, and Turkey is no exception.  Today, even in Western nations where we believe that democracy has been born in and is achieving profundity, the economic crisis coincides with a crisis of democracy.  The world at large is transcending into the phase of a strong state—a stage defined by capacity for economic development and transformation, the unity of the nation and the state, and a homogeneous, hardworking society.  It must not be forgotten that the cost of economic development and transformation will be to abandon a strong democracy and equal citizenship based on rights and freedoms, and to accept a limited democracy and a development-oriented, cooperative citizenship.  In this respect, the 21st century may be the Chinese century.  While waiting for China to become democratic, the world may learn from China about economic development and transformation.  In such a world, the AKP experience will continue to draw attention and be influential in its similarities to China.

Studying and understanding China will facilitate comprehendingTurkey and the AKP experience.  However, building this bridge demands one to think out of the box.  We must keep in mind that the key concept in understanding and creating alternatives is establishing the link between economic development and transformation and the strengthening of democracy.  We can already make an assertion for the opposition and the left: an opposition and a left that has no vision for the economy, cannot express its firm belief in a strong democracy through principles and consistent policies, is reactionary at all instances and positioned “anti-AKP” in every step has no chance of success.  The first clue given by the Chinese experience is the need for and effort towards understanding the world and Turkey within the trinity of economy, democracy and equal citizenship.

* Istanbul Policy Center and Sabancı University

– Fuat Keyman