How Turkey’s democracy might resemble Japan’s
RICHMOND, Virginia -- Sunday’s parliamentary elections in Turkey laid to rest any lingering doubts about the vibrancy of the country’s electoral democracy. At the same time, the third consecutive victory for Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdo?an and his governing Justice and Development Party (AKP) has revived old fears of “democracy without democrats” with a decade of one-party rule instinctively linked by many political commentators to authoritarianism. But as the example of Japan illustrates, one-party rule does not necessarily equate to weakening democracy and can often be a welcome formula for consensus-building, economic success, and political stability.
The pragmatic conservative coalition of big business and bureaucracy established in Japan in 1955 by the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) waged fierce political battles internally and through factions rather than through national elections, where it went mostly unchallenged. The Japanese proclivity for factional consensus meant that the powerful Ministry of Finance and Ministry of International Trade formulated policy with the LDP in order to maintain Japan’s economic growth, which in turn kept the regime in power despite the short tenures of individual prime ministers. Much like Turkey’s rapid economic growth over the past decade, Japan in the 1980s grew by strengthening its regional ties despite a troubled history with its neighbors while at the same time preserving its alliance with the West.
The end of the Cold War for Japan did not uproot this underlying domestic political structure even when, in 1993, the LDP suffered its first electoral defeat to the socialists and other predecessors to the current ruling Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ). Rather, it was the two-decades of stagnant economic growth that eventually undid the LDP and brought the DPJ to power. Despite that political transition, the key to Japanese politics remains consensus-building and pragmatic rule from the center, very much the characteristics of one-party democracy.
Japan and Turkey entered the 21st century under very differently circumstances. In the latter part of the 20th century Japan was expected to lead Asia as the continent’s largest and most developed economy, while Turkey was politically isolated in the Middle East with few real partners. But both countries emerged from the Cold War without a strong ideational connection to the West other than an alliance with the United States. Given the interaction between domestic and international politics in democratic systems, the leaders of Japan and Turkey sought to demonstrate their independence from Washington while seeking improved regional relations. As regional leaders, Japan and Turkey have sought to carve out new roles for themselves in their “rediscovered” neighborhoods, with varying degrees of success.
Important parallels extend beyond the nations themselves to their governing parties. The DPJ and AKP are both political movements that represent populist coalitions of conservatives and progressives who initially sought to change longstanding political realities. Although the full implications of their agendas are yet to reveal themselves, both have already succeeded in shifting debates in their countries. The AKP, however, differs considerably in some respects. It remains dependent on Erdo?an’s charismatic leadership for preserving its identity. The Japanese parties, in contrast, enjoy broad-based support and, as such, individual prime ministers matter less. The AKP, long the leading force behind change, also opted in the latest elections for promoting “stability” and “continuity” so as to sustain Turkey’s remarkable economic performance under its stewardship, which has seen nominal per capita incomes triple.
The AKP has clearly mastered the game of electoral democracy but will only leave a legacy of liberal democracy if it can carry Turkey across a threshold where transitions between parties can take place smoothly. While commentators continually struggle to compare Turkey with its Middle Eastern or Western neighbors, Turkey has every right to be basking in the glow of its own success and stability amid the revolutions sweeping its region. The outstanding question now is whether the AKP will perpetuate the pattern of advancing its own preferences at the expense of others in Turkey’s deeply divided polity or continue along the Japanese path of consensus-seeking.
Joshua W. Walker is an Assistant Professor of Leadership Studies at the University of Richmond’s Jepson School of Leadership Studies and a Transatlantic Fellow at the German Marshall Fund.
The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.