Even before the AKP came to power in late 2002, the party’s leaders determined that E.U. membership was the best means to resolve Turkey’s perennial culture war between Islamists and secularists. With a legislative majority, the AKP quickly abolished the death penalty, wrote a new penal code, changed anti-terrorism laws to make it more difficult to prosecute citizens on speech alone (though critics claim the changes do not go far enough) and significantly expanded political rights. The country also saw tentative steps toward granting Turkey’s Kurds, who account for 18 percent of the nation’s 80 million citizens, additional cultural rights, including the right to use the Kurdish language in broadcasting and education. The parliament also made it more difficult for the government to ban political parties and politicians — previously a common way for Turkey’s political elites to undermine their opponents.
The AKP also brought the politically powerful armed forces under civilian control. In the 1990s, the sway of the military was such that Turkish politicians touted their ability to get along with the senior command as part of their electoral campaigns. But in a series of swift changes beginning in 2003, mixed civilian-military security courts were abolished, officers were removed from boards that set education and broadcasting policies, and parts of the defense budget were brought under civilian oversight. In the most extraordinary reform, the parliament altered the composition and functions of Turkey’s National Security Council — the body through which the top brass had routinely influenced political decisions. Instead, the council was downgraded to an advisory board with a civilian leader and placed under the budgetary control of the prime ministry.
Taken together, these reforms — which Brussels had set as preconditions for Turkey to begin the process of joining the European Union — represented a significant boost for Turkish democracy.
The changes were wildly popular throughout Turkish society — among liberals who considered themselves Europeans, business leaders, Kurds, average Turks and Islamists. The military, which had long claimed to be a vanguard of modernization, simply could not afford to undermine the AKP’s European project because of the popular support it enjoyed. In October 2004, the European Commission concluded that Ankara had met all the requirements — the “Copenhagen criteria” — to begin membership negotiations and recommended that the Council of Europe formally extend Turkey an invitation.
After such an auspicious beginning, however, relations between Turkey and Europe soured. Bureaucrats on both sides contended that the problems were related to human rights violations, the occupation of northern Cyprus and the expenses Europe would need to pour into Turkey should it become a member of the union. But Turks sensed that Europe was having second thoughts about the prospect of admitting a country that is 99.8 percent Muslim. Erdogan and Gul spoke bravely about carrying on with reforms through what they called the “Ankara criteria,” but as the prospect of European membership seemed to dissipate, the pace of change in Turkey slowed, and in important areas such as personal freedoms, reforms actually reversed themselves.