Fact vs. Rumors in U.S-Turkey Relations (full text speech)
Paper presented at the The Media Project conference “Fact vs. Rumor: Journalism in the 21st Century” | Istanbul, Turkey | June 4-8, 2007
In the tumultuous Turkish domestic environment, the truth about politics and policy is often very difficult to discern. Rumor can very quickly turn into conspiracy theory and then into believed fact in the minds of many Turks, thus distorting truth beyond all recognition. Nowhere is this truer than regarding Turkey’s relations with its most important ally, the United States. Since the promulgation of the Truman Doctrine in 1947, the two countries have been closely tied together militarily and politically. Turkey provided troops during the Korean War, joined NATO as the alliance’s eastern bulwark against Communism, and subsequently cooperated with the United States to ensure safe and secure access to Caspian energy supplies to world markets. It has also contributed troops to operations in Kosovo and Afghanistan. Unfortunately, this key relationship has been weakening in recent years.
Among many Turks, there is growing suspicion regarding American intentions in Turkey. It is revealing that one of the best-selling novels written in Turkey in recent years, Metal Storm, concerns a war launched by the United States against Turkey. These fictional American invaders use an incursion by the Turkish military into Northern Iraq to justify their attack on Turkey. They seek to “liberate Istanbul from 500 years of occupation by the Turks” and reestablish the city as a Christian capital; in addition, they want to take control of Turkey’s strategic mineral wealth. Although these objectives would appear sensational and unrealistic to Americans, there is very real fear among some Turks that the United States and the EU are in fact actively plotting such campaigns. Indeed, the overwhelming success of this book—which was followed by an equally popular movie, Valley of the Wolves: Iraq, which portrays the Americans in a similarly negative light—testifies to the popular credibility of these conspiracy theories. Not surprisingly, a BBC poll at the end of 2006 revealed that a mere 7 percent of Turks hold a positive view of the United States, down from 52 percent in 2000. This rating places Turkey dead last out of the 25 countries included in the survey.
What is the reason behind the unraveling of this partnership? To shed some light into a very complex situation, I will focus on three key issues. I will then conclude with a discussion about the upcoming elections in Turkey, since the process leading up to the elections—as well as the post-election period—will have a considerable impact on the future of the Turkish-American partnership as well.
First, the fundamental problem for US-Turkey relations is that the threat perceptions of the two establishments have changed considerably since 9/11. For the United States, the overarching threat is Islamist terrorism. While Saddam Hussein was considered a primary threat in Washington for some time, Iran and now Syria are now being viewed in this light—as are Hamas and Hizbullah. For the Turks, the primary threats are the PKK, instability in and outside Turkey, the independence of Kurdistan and/or the splitting of Iraq into three sections (whether by “soft” or “hard” partition), and the takeover of the Turkish government by Islamists. (Except for the last threat—Islamism—all others are shared by an overwhelming majority of Turks) In fact, Kurdish separatism and Islamism have traditionally represented the two existential threats to the Turkish secular democratic republic. At a time at which both threats are clearly manifested, both outgoing President Ahmet Necdet Sezer and Chief of the Turkish General Staff (TGS) Yasar Buyukanit have been declaring that these threats are now greater than they have ever been since the formation of the republic. Buyukanit even said, “We are not in a worse situation today than we were on 19 May 1919,” referring to the start of the independence war. As I will explain shortly, on the issues of both Islamism and Kurdish separatism, the US is perceived by many Turks—that is, by the traditional pro-American camp—as being on the wrong side.
Second, while there have always been tensions between secularists and Islamists, the divide has never before been so distinct. Today, we see clearly see two Turkeys—one of which was reflected at the mass public demonstrations in Ankara, Istanbul, and Izmir, where the participants (of whom more than half were women) waved Turkish flags and chanted slogans such as “Turkey is secular and will remain secular” and “we do not want a shariah state”. Many in the US and the EU believe that the Kemalist way of thinking is passé, and that the rise to power of “moderate Islamists” in Turkey is inevitable. I fear that this attitude among Westerners is the reason why so many Turks who consider separation of state and religion as an existential issue have turned critical of both America and Europe. The West’s continuing inability to understand the internal dynamics in Turkey will only make matters worse.
This brings me to the third issue, which is that an overwhelming number of Turks (secular and Islamist) now want to “contain” the US, and are drawing closer to the two regional powers—Russia and Iran. I already mentioned the concerns of the traditional allies of the US. The Islamists, who traditionally are anti-American, are joining the growing tide of Islamic nationalism—that is, a sense of greater loyalty to the global Muslim community than to the state in which one lives. This brand of religious nationalism is by no means limited to Turkey; from London to Lahore, Muslims around the world are increasingly subscribing to this view. These individuals are angry with the West (particularly America) because of its support for Israel and because of the US-led invasion of Iraq. Most of all, they are angered by what they perceive to be an all-out war being waged by the West against Islam. This sense of anger causes Sunni Turks to side with Shiite Iranians against the United States.
Let me discuss each of these three points in greater detail, and then discuss the significance of the upcoming elections.
First, regarding the changed threat perceptions. After 9/11, the US administration made the fight against al-Qaeda—together with changing the conditions across the Middle East that facilitated the group’s attack on American soil—its key priority. At first, Turkey was in principle allied with the US in this campaign, as it has for decades suffered from such terrorism. However, it began having serious doubts when, claiming a link between al-Qaeda and Saddam Hussein, Washington attacked Iraq—thereby opening a Pandora’s box of ethnic and religious chaos in and around that country. For various reasons, a majority of Turks were opposed to the invasion, and now feel justified given the current situation. Furthermore, this majority no longer considers the US to have moral authority over international affairs, and views American power as declining.
But the single most important—and pervasive—source of anti-Western feelings in Turkey is the perceived unwillingness of America (and the EU) to confront the issue of the PKK Kurdish terrorist group enjoying safe harbor in Northern Iraq. The phrase “allies against terrorism” has become completely meaningless for many Turks, as for them it is clear that the US treats as “terrorist” only those groups that attack Americans and American interests—regardless of the official State Department designation. This is considered by a majority of Turks to be extremely hypocritical. Time and time again, top Turkish leaders have repeatedly asked the US to address this issue, only to be told each time to wait. Now, their patience has run out, and pressure is increasing on Turkish leaders to undertake a military operation—with or without US consent.
This was the key message of General Buyukanit’s speeches over the past several months. During his April 12 press briefing, he made clear that the armed forces will act if the Turkish parliament reaches such a decision (which is unlikely before the elections). The TGS has shown tremendous patience while watching the PKK grow stronger in its Northern Iraq hideaway, and while witnessing the group’s adoption of al-Qaeda-style terror tactics in Turkey.
The West consistently tells Ankara to disavow military action and address the Kurdish issue politically. To many Turks, however, this smacks of hypocrisy. As several Turkish commentators have asked: Would the US government stand idly by if al-Qaeda were using Mexico as a sanctuary from which to launch terrorist attacks against America? Yet that is essentially what Turkey is being asked to do. Ever since the PKK rescinded its cease-fire in 2004, Washington and Brussels have urged restraint and diplomacy from Turkey, giving very little regard to their NATO ally’s legitimate security concern.
For these Turks, this slight is part of the often-mentioned double standards in US and EU policy that lead to rising nationalism and anti-Western sentiments. First, the West—particularly the US—uses all available methods in its fight against terrorism, yet insists that Turkey deal with its terrorist problem merely through strongly-worded dialogue. Second, and along the same lines, the US consistently tells Ankara that it needs to engage politically with the Iraqi Kurdish leadership, regardless of the latter’s policies or activities. At the same time, Washington had adamantly refused direct talks with Iran or Syria, insisting that it would be improper to do so until both states change their behavior.
This leads me to the second issue, which is the perception of those Turks who consider Islamism an existential threat that the US is siding with the Islamists. What I consider to be the turning point in the deterioration of US-Turkey relations was the invitation for Recep Tayyip Erdogan to visit the White House in December 2002, before he was cleared of charges and took office as prime minister. This represented a huge misunderstanding on the part of the US government. Erdogan’s advisors had told the administration that the visit would strengthen his hand at home, especially if the US would decide to attack Iraq and needed his help. I and several others had argued that it would instead have the opposite effect, which it did: many in Turkey interpreted this invite as the White House as showing disrespect to Turkish rule of law, and worse, choosing sides and supporting an Islamist political leader to become Turkey’s prime minister. In turn, when the Bush administration wanted to get Turkey’s support in the Iraq war, the anti-Islamist camp opposed it as they did not want to help Erdogan deliver on his promise.
Of course, if the Turkish parliament had voted differently on March 1, 2003, the PKK issue and the Kurdish separatism issue would not be with us today in the same way. And this is a very tragic example of how domestic infighting and perceptions of US policies led to a major foreign-policy mistake of historical proportions. If a different party was in government instead of the Justice and Development Party (AKP), which was mistrusted due to its Islamist past and perceived US backing, then I believe the decision in Turkey would have been a different one.
Secular forces within Turkey, traditionally the domestic constituency most closely allied to the West, are now also upset by what they perceive as the American desire to see a moderate, Islamist government installed in Turkey—a situation anathema to the founding ideals of the Turkish Republic. Ataturk made clear that he was creating a secular democracy, one in which the separation of government and religion was to be fiercely protected. In his last major speech in April, outgoing Turkish President Ahmet Sezer declared that “foreign forces” were attempting to weaken Turkey’s secular institutions and replace them with Islamic ones. President Sezer referred to this as the gravest threat the political regime has faced since the country’s founding.
To many Americans, the idea that the US is undermining the Turkish government in favor of an Islamist one is simply implausible. (It is even more implausible to Islamic nationalists in Turkey, who believe just the opposite.) However, it also is true that as the US searched about for Muslim allies in its war on terror, Turkey stood out as the most obvious and promising candidate. In an attempt to convince the world—particularly the Muslim world—that the “war on terror” was not a “war on Islam,” Washington consistently played up the Islamic “credentials” of its ally Turkey.
Consequently, many in Turkey are concerned about the ongoing US support for Prime Minister Erdogan as a prototype role model for other “moderate Islamic leaders.” The US would not object to a more Islamic Turkey so long as it remains pro-Western; however, for many Turks, there is a slippery slope between moderate and radical Islam; President Sezer made this point clearly in his April address. After four years of AKP rule, many Turks see significant erosion in society’s commitment to secularism. The different understandings of “secularism” between Turks and Americans is hard to reconcile—for many Americans (and Islamists) “secularism” means “non-religiousness”; for Turks, it means simply keeping religion out of politics and preventing the kind of social engineering, i.e. a gradual, bottom-up Islamization of society, that would in the long term lead to an environment in which a majority of Turks would prefer sharia law.
This development is not as far-fetched as it might seem at first glance. A recent TESEV poll found that the number of people identifying first as Muslims (as opposed to Turks or Turkish citizens) has increased by 10 percent since the AKP came to power in 2002, and the number of people saying they are Islamists now includes almost half of the people who identify themselves as Muslims first. This trend is developing globally as well. Across Europe and even in the US, Muslims are increasingly considering themselves Muslim first and citizens of their countries only second.
What we see in Turkey between the two sides is actually not very much different from the battles in many European countries. On one side of these struggles are those who want to defend the secular democratic system and urge their Muslim citizens to integrate accordingly. On the other side are those who want to create parallel societies, which would eventually enable them to demand the application of the shariah for the Muslims. What makes things even more complicated in the Turkish case is that those within the so-called secular camp are often devout Muslims themselves; unlike most of the non-Muslim Western secularists, Turkish secularists are mainly having a confrontation with Islamism, not Islam. That is very difficult for the West to understand. It is even harder to understand from a Western point of view that the head of the military would give a speech on these issues and be viewed as a better democrat than many of the civilian elected leaders!
Now, let me discuss my third point, which is, given the perceived US errors in the region, Turkey is drawing close to countries that could “contain” US actions in its neighborhood, forming closer alliances specifically with Iran and Russia.
Turks are extremely concerned about a possible region-wide Sunni-Shiite war—one into which it could be drawn. Such a development would considerably strengthen the Sunni religious identity in Turkey and pull the country closer to the Middle East, further weakening its pro-Western and secular identity. A majority of Turks are angry with what they view as American “messing” with the region and its extremely delicate balance of power. Consequently, an increasing number of Turks today consider the US the biggest threat to world stability. Some of them also favor closer relations with Iran.
Turkey and Iran share a common threat perception of a separatist Iraqi Kurdistan, as it would greatly impact their own Kurdish populations. They also are irritated at the close relations enjoyed by Iraqi Kurds with the US and Israel; for Turkey, Kurdish regional leader Massoud Barzani’s ongoing support of the PKK is an additional and unbearable factor. Iran has already attacked the PKK in Northern Iraq on its own; the US, for its part, has launched operations against Iranians in Northern Iraq but not against the PKK.
While Turkey is clearly concerned about a nuclear Iran—which would then overshadow Turkey as a regional power—a majority of Turks are supportive of what they see as Ahmadinejad’s “standing up to America and Israel.” The decisive factor in this support is Muslim pride, not a desire to see Israel destroyed. In general, Turks view Iran with some antipathy; however, this is slowly changing, as Iran is “playing the victim” and cloaking Iranian nationalism under the veil of Islamic nationalism. There is thus a considerable danger that if the US does not read Turkish-Iranian dynamics correctly, it may inadvertently push the two states towards closer cooperation.
The same risk exists with regards to the Turkish-Russian partnership. Russia began pulling Turkey closer during the presidency of Boris Yeltsin with the construction of the controversial Blue Stream gas pipeline, which connects the two countries via an undersea pipeline across the Black Sea. Today Russia is Turkey’s second largest trading partner. The two share concern about US-backed “color revolutions” across Eurasia and the Broader Middle East; both are status quo powers and dislike change—especially if such change is against their interests or is seen as creating instability. Russia has already invited Turkey to join the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) as an observer; this organization is co-chaired by Russia and China and includes the Central Asian states as members along with countries such as India and Iran as observers. While for now Ankara has stayed away from the SCO, more people consider this set of countries to be more aligned with Turkey’s interests than the US or the EU.
Both Russia and Turkey are also strongly opposed to the new American and European Black Sea initiatives and to a potential US attack on Iran. They jointly favor talks with Syria, and are now cooperating once again on a new gas pipeline, Blue Stream II. This pipeline would once again thwart the American (and now European) desire to bring Caspian gas (via Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan) to Europe via a non-Russian pipeline. Like Ahmedinejad, Putin is playing Turkey very intelligently—in fact, he has been able to get both Erdogan and the TGS on his side.
This geopolitical consensus notwithstanding, and in light of the other two issues I have outlined, my fundamental point is that we see two trends pulling Turkey in two different directions today. As the country prepares for a new president and a new parliament, I believe that we will see increased tension between them. We already have seen clear signs of that: On April 27, following the first round of the presidential elections, the TGS issued a strongly-worded warning about the erosion of the secular nature of the republic. Many in the West—particularly in Europe—viewed this statement by the military to be unacceptable interference in the political process. However, given the unique nature of Turkey’s democracy, this statement may ironically end up preventing a significantly worse outcome.
The statement underlined the legal and constitutional responsibility of the TGS to preserve the secular nature of the Turkish republic. Indeed, especially in a majority Muslim nation, democracy is threatened if there is absence of separation between state and religion; Islam and Islamist movements have tended historically to increase the scope of their authority over all aspects of life. The TGS statement can and should be interpreted as a wake-up call for both the government and those opposing it. I believe the intent of the statement was to urge all Turks to remain faithful to the basic principles of the Turkish republic during the scheduled presidential and later parliamentary elections. The chief of TGS espoused these precise sentiments at his now famous press conference on April 12, saying that “one needs to be committed to the principles of the republic not just in words, but in essence, and demonstrate this in actions.”
The modern Turkish Republic was founded in 1923 by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk who fought and won a war of Turkish liberation—and did so without relying on Islam to unify the people against the West. He understood that the Ottoman Empire fell behind the West because its Islamic leadership ended up exerting too much influence over society, resisting necessary technological and social reform simply because they were Western in origin. For example, Ottoman religious leaders forbade the printing press (arguably one of the most critical inventions in the course of Western civilization) from entering the Empire, calling it “the Devil’s Invention.” Ataturk rightly believed that Turks could only enjoy the benefits of modernity and catch up with the West if they developed scientific thinking. For this to happen, he believed that state and religion needed to be kept strictly separate. In a famous statement announcing the abolishing of the sharia code of law based upon the Koran, he rhetorically asked “how can a nation soar when half of its people, the women, are chained to the ground?” Ataturk practiced what he preached; his daughter became the world’s first female fighter pilot.
Traditionally, relative to other institutions, the Turkish military has enjoyed great legitimacy in the eyes of most Turks. Unfortunately, this has led many people to expect the military to “save them” from internal and external challenges, and even from illiberal political parties, or corrupt governments. Hence, instead of accepting the responsibility of ensuring that their secular system is preserved through the normal democratic process, many Turks vote recklessly, believing that if anything goes wrong, the military will put it right again. For example, during the last parliamentary elections in 2002, many Turks angry with the outgoing government voted for the AKP. When I later asked some of these individuals why they voted for a party that they themselves suspected of having Islamist roots, I was told, “all other parties failed us…let’s try these guys…if they don’t play by the rules, then the military will kick them out.”
I was horrified to hear such views. My concern only grew during the next five years, as Turks who became increasingly disturbed by the AKP’s foreign and domestic policy—as well as by a threat of Islamism creeping in at the local levels—actually began hoping and expecting for the military to “step in.” This is not the proper way for a democracy to function, nor is it responsible behavior from a population that wishes to call itself democratic. Despite such appeals from the people, the TGS remained silent, rightfully hesitant to interfere in the democratic political process.
I published an article in Newsweek International this past December, estimating that there was a 50-50 chance of a coup. I reminded readers how, only ten years ago, Turkey’s openly Islamist government was removed from power—in what is commonly referred to as a “post-modern coup.” I saw that coup coming, as a senior military leader had told me that the lesson he learned from the Iranian revolution was that if the TGS waited too long, Turkey could lose its secular democracy. In the months leading up to the military’s intervention, the Turkish government refused to recognize the possibility that it could be ousted and duly continued along its course. Unfortunately, the response to my December article was similar—I was attacked viciously for daring to mention the possibility of a coup. Over three hundred articles and op-eds appeared in the week after the articles’ publication. I was accused of working for the Zionists, the US government, and the military at the same time—which would be quite an accomplishment, if only any of it were true! Since the article appeared, however, the “c” word has become central to the political debate in Turkey, used by numerous people.
Regardless of those wishing to bury their heads in the proverbial sand, it was known for some time that this year’s presidential elections would be contentious. Many feared that Prime Minister Erdogan, or someone who came from a similar Islamist past, would end up “occupying” the presidency, an office which is often referred to as “the last bastion of secularism” in Turkey due to the veto power the president enjoys over parliament. It certainly did not help the AKP when some Islamists declared their desire to “conquer” the presidency.
Particularly over the past year, relations between the secular establishment and religious forces in Turkey have grown increasingly tense; this polarization led some radicalized individuals to carry out terrorist acts. Last May, a 29-year old attorney named Alparslan Arslan shot and killed a judge in the building of the Turkish Council of State, Turkey’s highest administrative appeal court. Arslan confessed that his motives were religious, claiming that he acted to retaliate against a recent judicial ruling holding that a schoolteacher could not wear a headscarf even while commuting to and from work. Shocking as it was, the killing was a single act of violence perpetrated by a single individual—and yet it sparked massive demonstrations in Ankara. Thousands of people took to the streets to protest what they perceived to be the erosion of Turkish secularism by Islamism. Yet, the government dismissed the protests as being a response merely to the killing, ignoring the larger symbolic meaning behind them.
The current Turkish government has been misreading swelling popular opposition to the course it is charting, instead believing that it is representative merely because it enjoys a 2/3 majority in parliament. However, many of the votes the AKP received were an expression of dissatisfaction with the previous government. As I mentioned before, many more voted for the party under the assumption that if the AKP began to take an Islamist path, the military would intervene in one form or another to restore secularism. Moreover, due to peculiarities in the Turkish electoral system, the AKP was able to win a full 66% of the parliamentary seats despite garnering a mere 34% of the popular vote in 2002.
In Turkey, a political party must meet a 10% minimum threshold to receive seats in the parliament. In 2002, no party other than AKP crossed this threshold—except for the Republican People’s Party, which earned 19.4 percent. (The True Path Party received 9.54 percent, while the National Action Party garnered 8.35 percent) The remaining parliamentary seats were reassigned between the two parties over the threshold, and AKP ended up with 363 out of 550 seats in the parliament. The People’s Republican Party secured 178 seats, and the remaining 9 seats went to independents.
If in the upcoming elections an AKP member reaches the presidency, the party will have full control over the executive and the legislature, along with the ability to influence the judiciary—thus effectively ending the separation of powers in the country. Moreover, already, an increasing percentage of businesses and the media—which itself is mostly owned by business groups who are at the mercy of good relations with the government—are remaining silent. Thus, the main opposition to the AKP today is not to be found in parliament, but in the courts, the presidency, the military, and civil society.
Until the mass demonstrations, I thought that due to the passiveness of the political parties, civil society and overall the civilian opposition, the military was going to once again “come to the rescue of the secular republic”. After the demonstrations, which demonstrated the potential strength of people power, I believe that a different outcome is possible.
The three series of “people power” demonstrations that took place in Ankara, Istanbul, and most recently in Izmir need to be understood in the right way. The protests in May of last year were not properly understood by many Turks (especially the government), nor were they fully comprehended by the West. The majority of the organizers and participants at last year’s and the more recent protests were women. Simply put, it is the women who have the most to lose from Islamism; it is their freedoms that would be curtailed if the secular system collapses. Turkey does not exist in a vacuum; Islamism is on the rise everywhere. It is encroaching on secularism and liberalism not only in the Middle East, but also in Europe and even the United States. For a country such as Turkey, with a majority-Muslim population, it is particularly vital to keep the state separate from religion. Islam, more than most religions, has the potential to holistically dominate all aspects of society. If all of Turkey’s leaders come from the same Islamist background, they will—despite the progress they have made towards secularism—inevitably get pulled back to their roots. This is the main concern of the protesters.
The sad thing is that the mingling of religion and state is bad not only for the state but also for the religion. I have spoken with devout Muslims across the world and the consensus is that the imposition or endorsement of a religion by the government undermines the faith as much as it does the state. In a free society, the fact that one chooses to abstain from drinking alcohol, committing adultery, or wearing a headscarf is a powerful expression of one’s devotion to religion. By removing this choice and making such behavior compulsory, the significance of that action is completely removed. Turkey has already held these debates, and made its decision over 80 years ago.
Prime Minister Erdogan and the AKP believe that they have a popular mandate simply because of the majority they hold in parliament, and thus confidently assumed that they would succeed in installing Gul as president. After the TGS statement and the ruling of the constitutional court (that a quorum of 367 members of parliament must be present for the vote to be legitimate), Gul withdrew his candidacy, and new parliamentary elections were called for July 22.
It was clear many months ago that parliamentary elections needed to be held before the presidential elections, since the current government had lost its legitimacy—which is necessary for the election of a new president that will serve for seven years. It is, however, unfortunate that “early elections” had to be called after such turmoil—as a result, parties had little time to nominate their candidates.
Moreover, the parliament voted (again, in a terrible and totally unnecessary rush) to amend the constitution and elect the next president not in parliament, but by popular vote. Such systemic changes should be reached only after careful deliberations and with consideration for the country’s unique political culture and sensitivities, rather than at a time in which the political environment is charged and highly emotional. Finally, it is rather absurd to make such a major change while leaving many other key issues untouched—such as immunity of the members of parliament, lack of transparency in political party financing, and the 10 percent election threshold. If this threshold were lowered to a more reasonable number, such as 5 or even 7, it would force the existing parties to engage in consensus building, eroding the combative, zero-sum political culture that typifies Turkey today. Since this would negatively affect the AKP’s control of parliament, however, it is not surprising that the government has left this untouched.
WHAT HAPPENS NEXT
Turkey has entered a highly emotional political process, in which both internal and external developments will influence the outcome. The response of the EU (and, to a lesser degree, that of the US) to these recent events will probably embolden the AKP, which then may overplay its hand domestically.
The West seems to ignore the key message that the millions of demonstrators hope to convey: their fear that the separation of state and religion is being eroded, and want the center-left and center-right parties to unite, offering them a new vision that will channel their desire for a better future while addressing their fears. Yes, there are some who held signs that declared “no to the EU, no to the US,” but these are, as I explained earlier, mainly due to the widespread feeling that neither the EU nor the US cares if Turkey becomes more Islamist, so long as the governments in charge keep stability (economic and political). There is a lot more at stake for the demonstrators, however. It is their way of life and freedoms that are threatened. And they are hugely disappointed that the West, which stands for individual freedom and for women’s equality, has abandoned them.
Unprecedented economic growth and stability
The AKP is campaigning on two key powerful messages. First, it argues, there has been unprecedented economic growth and stability; and second, it has done more for Turkey’s pro-EU reforms than any other party. It is true that during its one-party rule the AKP reduced inflation to single-digit numbers from the triple-digit numbers that were common in the mid-1990s. At the same time, it is widely known that the AKP mostly followed an economic blueprint drafted by Kemal Dervis, former State Minister for Economy from the so-called secular camp.
And in fact, there are worrying signs that Erdogan’s approach to political economy has many similarities with that of Russian President Vladimir Putin. Like Putin, Erdogan is supported by a close circle of businessmen who benefit the most from the ruling party’s economic policies. To ensure support widespread support, both have enriched businesses that would normally be opposed to their rule. The AKP leader traced Putin’s footsteps by eliminating his political enemies as well. He used almost identical methods as Putin, who put his political rival (and Russia’s richest man) Mikhail Khodorkovsky behind bars for his alleged involvement in tax fraud. Erdogan, in a similar fashion, used the power of his office to target a particular businessman, Cem Uzan, his opponent in the 2002 elections. While Uzan was in fact guilty of financial fraud, he was far from the most obvious target from a strictly criminal-justice standpoint. Many extremely corrupt businessmen escape punishment in Turkey, as in Russia, so long as they cooperate with the government in power.
The AKP’s second argument (after economic growth and stability) is that it has accomplished many pro-EU reforms. While it is true, unfortunately, the pro-EU reforms remain mostly on paper. Not only have the reforms implemented so far been only selective, but such areas as transparency, crime, corruption, monitoring terrorist financing and freedom of expression continue to be neglected. In its 2006 report, the Commission warned that there was little implementation of promised reforms in these areas; therefore, it recommended suspension of accession negotiations on the new chapters.
After the European view on religious expression changed drastically, the AKP’s push for Turkey’s EU candidacy almost came to a complete stop. In 2005, France banned all conspicuous religious symbols in public schools. Shortly after the French decision, the European Court of Human Rights ruled against a Turkish woman who sued Turkey for not allowing headscarves in government offices and schools. Ironically, that woman was Hayrunnisa Gul, wife of Turkish Foreign Minister and former presidential candidate Abdullah Gul. Many believe that the headscarf issue is the main motivating factor behind the AKP’s pro-EU position. It is highly symbolic and politicized, and played a major role in the recent debacle on the presidential elections.
The AKP can be best balanced by strong opposition parties that can articulate a clear and positive vision. On July 22, many parties will compete for the people’s votes. Four of these—two on the center-left and two on the center-right—however, carry a historic responsibility to convince the electorate they can indeed govern at least as well as AKP.
On the center-left, we have the Republican People’s Party (CHP) and the Democratic Left Party (DSP), and on center-right, the Motherland Party (ANAP), and True Path Party (DYP). The leaders of these parties were forced by the demonstrators to unite, which they did despite years of political bickering. Now they need to convince the electorate that neither religiosity nor commitment to democratic values and reforms should be seen as solely the property of the AKP. Nor should economic stability be seen as only achievable under a single-party rule.
ANAP and the DYP took the initiative by uniting under the Democratic Party (DP) banner. If DP leaders Mehmet Agar and Erkan Mumcu can come up with a new vision for the center-right, they can attract some of the conservative votes cast for the AKP in the 2002 elections. They need to express clearly that they are not against the headscarf, but that they are in favor of strict separation of state and religion. They must also pledge to keep Turkey on a pro-reform and pro-democracy path.
The same is true for CHP leader Deniz Baykal and Zeki Sezer, chairman of the DSP. They need to unite the left around a new vision that does not alienate entrepreneurs or local and foreign investors. This new vision must also embrace people throughout the political spectrum: the poor and the rich, non-practicing and practicing Muslims, including those who wear a headscarf. The left in Turkey has lost this appeal since the early 1970s, when late Bulent Ecevit won a landslide victory for the CHP by embracing faithful Muslims and respecting their rights—without, however, sacrificing the fundamental principles that separate the state and mosque.
In my recent meetings with the opposition leaders, I sensed that they understood what is at stake. Nevertheless, they also have to recognize that the people are ahead of them, and they need to deliver to their demands, instead of falling victim to petty politics. It is yet to be seen if they will be able to deliver.
Turkey has entered a period of uncertainty—which can turn into protracted instability if the center-left, center-right, and ruling AKP do not act wisely. This is hard to expect from any political party anywhere else in the world. Polls currently indicate that the AKP will once again receive a majority of the votes. If the other parties fail, and if the AKP ends up forming the next government on its own, frustration will eventually reach the streets. The same will hold true if the AKP is successful in electing Gul president. Turkey’s next president needs to be perceived by a majority of Turks as fully committed to the secular democratic republic and the rule of law.
Let me close by going back to my starting point: Anti-Americanism anti-Westernism in Turkey is pervasive and is fed by a variety of grievances. Until the West fully understands the nature of these complaints, and adopts policies that will not be perceived as hypocritical and betraying the West’s own principles, there is little hope for an improvement in relations with Turkey—no matter who is in charge in Ankara.