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Turkish democracy rolls on

Mary Southcott on why you can't get off the train.

Trafalgar, Tahrir, Taksim. Those Squares and Streets lead us to ask questions about democracy, secularism and islamification.

The West wants to justify its actions by imposing democracy, often hand in hand with liberal economics. As one US ambassador to Cyprus put it: “markets and votes”.

Seen through the prism of Cyprus, Turkey's claim to be the model for the Arab Spring, democratic, secular and Muslim, always seemed slightly ironic, but it definitely ran into the ground over the Istanbul conservationists' move to save Gezi Park.

At the end of July, Turkish Cypriots held early elections for their Assembly. A vote of no confidence in the main right wing governing party was precipitated by the split between supporters of the Turkish Cypriot leader, Dr Dervish Eroglu, President of the unrecognised Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC) and Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey's increasingly autocratic prime minister.

Turkish Cypriot trade unions organised ‘human standing' emulating the ‘Man Standing' in Taksim Square. They protested against Turkish policies of demographic change. Islamification and decision making by Turkey's military and Ambassador.

The liberalisation of the economy, including selling of state assets, as is happening in the south following the Troika bailout, has an added dimension in the north where the Turkish Cypriot-owned public sector is transferred to Turkey's private sector. As the north becomes Turkey most of what Cypriots had in common is lost.

Yet Greek Cypriots focus on Erdogan's opening of the Green Line in 2003, when he became prime minister, following the successful Cavit An case at the ECHR against Turkey who had to compensate him for preventing his meeting his Greek Cypriot medical colleagues. Greek Cypriots also credit Erdogan with dismantling the military through the Ergenekon cases which have resulted in life sentences. There is speculation that had the Greek Cypriots voted yes in 2004 there would have then been a coup in Turkey. A new state could be created with the police force and sympathetic officers in the military.

Erdogan and his Justice and Development (AK) party seem unassailable. Turkish Cypriots say the US gets one thing right. Their president has only two terms! Erdogan benefits from a voting system which has a ten per cent threshold. This effectively rules out representatives of the Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party who have to stand as independents. Whether or not Turkey's constitution changes from parliamentary to presidential, it is doubtful the Republican People's Party (CHP) in the Socialist International, can wrest back power from this largely compassionate conservative Sunni Muslim party. This lack of a left alternative is partly the result of past military coups but mainly a need to recover from their nationalistic stance.

In northern, Cyprus the military supported the late Rauf Denktash, as it did in Turkey. His son Serdar leads the democrat party, which was the beneficiary of a split in the main party.

Some explain the initial positives of Erdogan because he was a democrat and a Muslim. He needed the European democratic framework to protect his party which grew out of the outlawed Welfare Party when he was jailed for reciting a poem, but now finds democratic openness a frustration. His support for the Palestinians, although welcomed, is a facet of his Sunni nationalism.

The Gesi Park demonstration brought together disparate groups which the electoral system does not: Kurds, secularists, Europeanised democrats, environmentalists, students, trade unionists. So it seems that much will depend on developments in the AKP party itself. President Gul was much more conciliatory to the demonstrators.

Ironically Erdogan got on the democracy train to safeguard his party's existence. He seems to have got off whilst others move on claiming rights to demonstrate and cover these events. Journalists have lost their jobs, or gone on trial, demonstrators have been accused of being terrorists, the train moves on. Democracy is not a train that you can get off when you reach the station you want. It rolls on.

The EU is not going to accept Turkey any time soon with so many journalists in prison. The US is no longer following Erdogan's advice in Syria – the Sunni alternative seems no better than Assad. With better coverage of Turkey, the Kurds and northern Cyprus, without the US and UK's uncritical support, it may be in Turkey's interest to have a settlement in Cyprus and that is what will save the Turkish Cypriot community from extinction.