In the 1960s, American political scientists became fascinated with political modernization in Turkey and Japan. They wanted in particular to discover the precedents that allowed two very different societies — one a centuries-old multiethnic empire, the other a feudal, isolated group of islands — to shake off the fetters of tradition and radically remake their political, economic, and social systems in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. This month, as citizens in both Turkey and Japan cast votes that will help determine the future of their countries, political analysts should look once again at the antipodes of Asia to see where democracy is heading in two of the world’s most important societies.
In Turkey, voters strongly approved constitutional referenda proposed by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan that would ostensibly increase civil-rights protections, but would also allow the Islamist party’s leader to increase the number of judges on Turkey’s most important courts and control the military. This has led secularist opponents of the AK party to claim that Mr. Erdogan is using constitutional means to ultimately undermine the bases of Turkey’s Kemalist revolution of the 1920s and move the country closer to Islamic mores. Those watching Turkish society have raised the alarm about Mr. Erdogan’s attempts over the past eight years to intimidate the military, bring supposed coup plotters to trial, and strong-arm media opponents of the regime.
Mr. Erdogan’s policies worry more than just domestic observers. Tensions between Ankara and Washington remain strained due to Turkey’s opposition to U.N. sanctions against Iran’s nuclear program, its attempt to broker a settlement on nuclear reprocessing with Iran, and its freeze on relations with Israel after the Israeli interdiction of a Turkish-sponsored boat attempting to run a blockade of Hamas, all of which happened earlier this year. Turkish diplomats have been on the defensive, rejecting suggestions that NATO’s second-largest military is tilting further and further towards anti-liberal, anti-Western regimes.
At the other end of Asia, in Japan, the ruling Democratic party faced an internal battle between party founders Ozawa Ichiro and Kan Naoto, the latter of whom is the current premier. Although Mr. Kan won out over his rival to remain premier, party unity has been damaged, and it remains unclear if the DPJ can now successfully formulate a clear policy agenda. At stake is the next half-decade of economic reform in Japan, as well as the near-term state of Japan’s alliance with the United States. Since taking power last year, the DPJ has seen its reform agenda stall out and relations with Washington suffer due to former prime minister Yukio Hatoyama’s failed attempt to scuttle an agreement over moving U.S. Marines out of a controversial base in southern Okinawa. Japan continues to flirt with both recession and deflation, while tensions with China have reached near-crisis levels in recent days over yet another maritime incident. Much like observers of Turkey, Japan watchers fear the future of both domestic and foreign policy.
But the domestic similarities between Turkey and Japan end there. In one, a vibrant leader is rapidly redefining his country’s social structure and foreign policy, while claiming that he is simply bringing his nation more into line with international norms. In the other, a listless group of lifetime politicians are struggling to reform their country’s economy and relations with their main ally, all the while stating that they are searching for a new path away from unbridled capitalism. For some voters in Turkey, Mr. Erdogan is moving too fast, and it is unclear just how far he will go in transforming the country. For those who gave Mr. Kan another chance, the fear is that no politician can move Japan far enough or fast enough to save it from another lost decade, the second in 20 years.
The democratic dramas playing out in Turkey and Japan are important for those watching the tide of liberalism around the world. Should one bookend of Asia turn away from liberal norms while the other fails to reform its stagnant economy, the democratic model will suffer. This is all the more worrisome as the world watches the resurgence of authoritarian regimes in China, Iran, and Russia. The insulting dismissal of Turkey’s EU application by France and Great Britain has shown how capricious the club of “advanced” nations can be. At the same time, the Eurozone crisis and China’s economic eclipse of Japan has called into question the ability of representative regimes to maintain economic growth. The result is a general skepticism of democracy and liberalism just at the moment when democratic nations must join together to repulse the challenges to their systems and the world order that has guided international development since the 1940s.
It is troubling, and perhaps even unfair, that the global reputation of liberalism should be tied to events in just a few nations. Yet Japan and Turkey have never been just ordinary nations. As those American political scientists understood nearly a half-century ago, both countries had outsized influence regionally and globally. They pointed the way forward for other countries around them, particularly so in the case of Japan, and both served as crucial anchors in America’s postwar system of global alliances. Thus, the paths they choose to take today and in the future will continue to have significance beyond the suburbs of Ankara and Tokyo. Their choices will also matter a great deal to America, which will have great problems maintaining its influence in the Middle and Far East without a close working relationship with both countries, while democrats around the world will watch closely to see which way the winds blow across the Bosphorus and the Sea of Japan.
In many ways, Japan and Turkey are in a waiting game: Turks have given Mr. Erdogan power to radically shift the legal bases of their society, and trust that he will not move the country down an Islamist path or further into the arms of authoritarian partners. The Japanese must yet again wait to see if Mr. Kan, having been given another chance by his own party, can pull together a set of plans to revive economic growth and find a meaningful role in the world. Skepticism runs high in both countries, but for now, voters have given both men the democratic legitimacy to soldier on. And as they wait, so does the rest of the world. Japan and Turkey helped shape the 20th century; they may shape the 21st, as well.
– Michael Auslin is director of Japan studies at the American Enterprise Institute.