TURKISH Prime Minister Recip Tayyip Erdogan has lost his halo. Once celebrated as a hero by millions of disaffected young men and women fighting for democracy across the Muslim world, the Turkish leader now looks decidedly diminished, his aura tarnished by authoritarian responses to public protests last year and an ever-widening corruption scandal.
Erdogan was in Brussels last week, hailing the resumption of talks on Turkey’s increasingly forlorn bid to gain entry into the European Union.
As expected, the Turkish premier got an earful from senior EU officials on the need to respect the rule of law and abide by European membership criteria.
But it’s not just about impressing the EU that Erdogan should be worried about. He needs to convince the world that unlike many of its neighbours in the Middle East, Turkey remains firmly committed to democracy, human dignity and fundamental rights.
For over a decade, Erdogan has been admired for his success in reforming Turkey’s once-lumbering economy, curbing the powers of the powerful Turkish military, reconciling Islam with democracy and for standing firm and strong as a moderate Muslim leader in a Middle East characterised by religious extremists and discredited strongmen.
Turkey is certainly a regional power which also — as a member of Nato and a would-be/could-be EU nation — has global clout and influence.
In other words, a country to be reckoned with, respected and — by some at least — emulated. Is it still?
Last year’s citizens’ protests and the government’s harsh response to the young men and women in the streets and in Gezi square have undoubtedly dented Erdogan’s reputation as a democrat.
So has a damaging inquiry into alleged government corruption which has spiralled into a battle over the police and judiciary, some of whose members Erdogan claims are under the influence of Fethullah Gülen, an influential Turkish preacher living in self-imposed exile in the US who is also a former ally of the Turkish leader.
The corruption investigation is still ongoing but tighter control over the judiciary could help the government avoid more damaging allegations in a scandal that has already brought the resignation of three ministers before local elections in March.
The proposed bill would roll back some of the steps taken in a 2010 referendum on constitutional reform, a package meant to bolster the independence of the judiciary and championed by the EU.
EU enlargement commissioner Stefan Fule has said he wants Turkey to ensure the changes are “in line with the principles of EU legislation”.
Unfortunately, like many others in the region, Erdogan has taken to accusing outsiders of interference. In his New Year’s Day speech, the Turkish leader raged against foreign-backed elements, which he did not name, for trying to steal “the bread on your table, the money in your pocket, the sweat on your brow”.
Ironically, while Turkey’s international reputation has taken a plunge, once-frosty relations with the EU appear to be thawing.
EU leaders have made clear that they disapprove of Erdogan’s crackdown last year on protesters but Turkey opened a new chapter in its accession negotiations with the EU last November, the first in three and a half years. The country began EU membership negotiations in 2005.
It also began visa liberalisation talks with the EU in December, something which Ankara had been aspiring to for a long time.
At a joint press conference with EU Council President Herman Van Rompuy and Commission’s president José Manuel Barroso in Brussels last week, Erdogan sought to reassure Europe of his commitment to the rule of law.
Turkey had no problems with the issues of separation of powers or the rule of law, but his government’s push for change was merely aimed at better ensuring the impartiality of the judiciary.
“If you disregard the legislative and the executive branches, if you recognise the judiciary as completely unaccountable; then it becomes a state of the judiciary, not a democratic state,” he said.
Van Rompuy’s message was that Turkey must assure that the judiciary is able to function without “discrimination or preference, in a transparent and impartial manner”.
The EU has also said it is worried by insufficient parliamentary scrutiny of government, restrictions on media freedom, the imprisonment of many journalists and human rights activists and the need for more action to protect the rights of women, children and gay people.
On the positive side, Erdogan has won EU praise for economic reforms, the Kurdish peace bid launched by the government a year ago and a generous response to the humanitarian tragedy in Syria.
Even though membership negotiations have resumed, several EU countries, notably Germany, France and Austria, continue to harbour deep reservations about Turkey joining the EU.
Critics worry about the entry of a Muslim nation into the EU and also fear increased immigration from Turkey.
Those in favour, including Britain and Sweden, say the EU needs a dynamic nation of young people to boost Europe’s economy and global standing.
In recent months, Erdogan’s conduct has unfortunately strengthened the hand of Europe’s nay-sayers on Turkey.
—The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Brussels.