Spokesmen and apologists for the AKP offer a variety of explanations for these deficiencies, from "it's the law" and the "context is missing," to "it's purely fabricated." These excuses falter under scrutiny and reveal the AKP's simplistic view of democracy. They also look and sound much like the self-serving justifications that deposed Arab potentates once used to narrow the political field and institutionalize the power of their parties and families. Yet somehow, Washington's foreign-policy elite saw Turkey as a "model" or the appropriate partner to forge a soft-landing in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya and elsewhere.
In the midst of the endless volley of teargas against protesters in Taksim, one of the prime ministers advisors plaintively asked, "How can a government that received almost 50 percent of the vote be authoritarian?" This perfectly captures the more recent dynamic of Erdogan's Turkey, where the government uses its growing margins of victory in elections to justify all sorts of actions that run up against large reservoirs of opposition.
The most obvious way this pattern has manifested itself is in the debate over the new Turkish constitution, which Erdogan had been determined to use as a vehicle to institute a presidential system in which he would serve as Turkey's first newly empowered president. When the opposition parties voiced their fervent opposition to such a plan and the constitutional commission deadlocked in late 2012 -- missing its deadline of the end of the year to submit its recommendations -- Erdogan threatened to disregard the commission entirely and ram through his own constitutional plan. He floated the idea again in early April 2013, but softened his position as it became clear that there is significant opposition to his presidential vision even within the AKP.
Turkey's new alcohol law, which among other things sets restrictions on alcohol sales after 10 p.m., curtails advertising, and bans new liquor licenses from establishments near mosques and schools, is another example of the AKP's majoritarian turn. Despite vociferous opposition, the law was written, debated, and passed in just two weeks, and Erdogan's response to the law's critics has been to assert that they should just drink at home.
Similarly, the AKP is undertaking massive construction projects in Istanbul, including the renovation of Taksim Square, the building of a new airport, and the construction of a third bridge over the Bosphorus, all of which are controversial and opposed by widespread coalitions of diverse interests. Yet in every case, the government has run roughshod over the projects' opponents in a dismissive manner, asserting that anyone who does not like what is taking place should remember how popular the AKP has been when elections roll around. In a typical attempt to use the AKP's vote margins as a cudgel, Erdogan on Saturday warned the CHP -- Turkey's main opposition party -- "if you gather 100,000 people, I can gather a million."
Turkey's anti-democratic turn has all taken place without much notice from the outside world. It was not just coercive measures -- arrests, investigations, tax fines, and imprisonments -- that Washington willfully overlooked in favor of a sunnier narrative about the "Turkish miracle." Perhaps it is not as clear, but over the last decade the AKP has built an informal, powerful, coalition of party-affiliated businessmen and media outlets whose livelihoods depend on the political order that Erdogan is constructing. Those who resist do so at their own risk.
All this is why the current tumult over the "redevelopment" of Gezi Park runs deeper than merely the bulldozing of green space. It represents outrage over crony capitalism, arrogance of power, and the opacity of the AKP machine. In the media, Erdogan has encouraged changes in ownership or intimidated others to ensure positive coverage -- or, in the case of the Gezi Park protests, no coverage. In what was a surreal scene - but sadly one that was altogether unsurprising to close observers of Turkey -- CNN International on Friday was covering the protests live in Taksim while at the very same time CNN Turk, the network's Turkish-language affiliate, was running a cooking show as the historic heart of Turkey's largest city was in enormous upheaval. This dynamic of Turkish press censorship and intimidation, in which media outlets critical of the government are targeted for reprisal, has resulted in the dismissal of talented journalists like Amberin Zaman, Hasan Cemal, and Ahmet Altan for criticizing the government or defying its dictates. This type of implicit government intimidation is unreasonable in an allegedly democratic or democratizing society.
Under these circumstances, Turkish politics is not necessarily more open than it was a decade ago, when the AKP was pursuing democratic reforms in order to meet the European Union's requirements for membership negotiations. It is just closed in an entirely different way. Turkey has essentially become a one-party state. In this the AKP has received help from Turkey's insipid opposition, which wallows in Turkey's lost insularity and mourns the passing of the hard-line Kemalist elite that had no particular commitment to democracy. Successful democracies provide their citizens with ways in which to express their desires and frustrations beyond periodic elections, and Turkey has failed spectacularly in this regard.
The combination of a feckless opposition and the AKP's heavyhanded tactics have finally come to a head. This episode will not bring down the government, but it will reset Turkish politics in a new direction; the question is whether the AKP will learn some important lessons from the people amassing in the streets or continue to double down on the theory that elections confer upon the government the right to do anything it pleases.
It is not just the AKP that needs to reassess its policies, but Washington as well. Perhaps the Obama administration does not care about Turkey's reversion or has deemed it better to counsel, cajole, and encourage Erdogan privately and through quiet acts of defiance like extending the term of Amb. Francis Ricciardone, who has gotten under the government's skin over press freedom, for another year.
This long game has not worked. It is time the White House realized that Erdogan's rhetoric on democracy has far outstripped reality. Turkey has less to offer the Arab world than the Obama administration appears to think, and rather than just urging Arab governments to pay attention to the demands of their citizens, Washington might want to urge its friends in Ankara to do the same as well. The AKP and Prime Minister Erdogan might have been elected with an increasing share of the popular vote over the last decade, but the government's actions increasingly make it seem as if Turkish democracy does not extend farther than the voting booth.