Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Turkey: the country of contrasts

On September 12, 58 per cent of the electorate that went to the polls in Turkey voted in favour of a constitutional reform package put forth by the governing Justice and Development Party (Adalet ve Kalkinma Partisi, AKP). The symbolism was lost to none: the referendum took place on the 30th anniversary of Turkey's last direct military intervention. Its interpretations, though, varied wildly. The government, along with the United States and the European Union, hailed the result as a step towards greater democracy and a blow to the country's junta-made 1982 Constitution. The Opposition, which had framed the amendments as a sugar-coated attempt by the Islamist-rooted AKP to wrest control of the country's fiercely secular judiciary, bemoaned that the outcome would take Turkey closer to a one-party dictatorship.

Domestic developments in Turkey have been attracting a great deal of attention from the outside world in recent years — testament to the country's growing international stature. Turks are not used to being under the spotlight so much, at least not for the right reasons: as recently as a decade ago, the country mostly made the news for its political and economic crises, military interventions, tensions with its neighbours and gross human rights abuses.

Today's headlines tell a different story. A member of the G20, Turkey's economy grew fastest next to China's in the first half of 2010; a stark contrast to the gloomy picture across the European Union, which has long been keeping Turkey at the door. Ankara is also strengthening its ties with most of its neighbours, while mediating conflicts further afield. There is an increasing talk of a Turkish ‘soft power', defined by a flurry of cultural, economic and diplomatic hyperactivity in all directions.

Yet despite the positive press, those who look at Turkey from the outside often see a country divided along ideological, political and ethnic fault lines: secularists vs. Islamists, liberals vs. nationalists, Turks vs. Kurds, etc. For many observers, the referendum process was a further confirmation of Turkey's divisions. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan brazenly labelled all those who opposed the reform package as “coup supporters,” while many in the secular Opposition blamed the outcome on the “ignorant masses” that were easily manipulated.

Contrasting narratives are increasingly being adopted by outside observers as well. There is a heated debate, particularly within western foreign policy circles, as to what to make of a changing Turkey: is Ankara's increasingly assertive and independent foreign policy merely a reflection of its growing economic and political clout in the wider region; or is it a sign that Turkey is abandoning the West for a coalition of eastern or Islamic allies, such as Iran and Syria, under the AKP government?

Turkey's curse

The problem with most analyses of Turkey, both domestic and foreign, is that they attempt to explain a complex socio-political transformation on the basis of caricaturised dichotomies. Perhaps it is the inevitable curse of being labelled “the bridge between the East and the West”: its challenges are invariably reduced to an existential rift between two neatly separated civilisational camps. In the end, “the bridge” rarely holds and the country is presented with a stark choice: it can either be eastern or western; Muslim or democratic; backward or modern.

The reality, however, is that many diverse and seemingly contradictory processes are taking place simultaneously in today's Turkey. The chief concern of the Kemalist old guard — that is, the military-bureaucratic establishment — and the secular urban middle class has long been that Prime Minister Erdogan and his party are working to replace Kemal Ataturk's secular regime with an overtly Islamic one. But the AKP is as much a product of Turkey's transformation as it is the cause. There is no denying that after decades of exclusion from public life, Islam is resurgent in Turkey. A visitor who last passed through the provinces of Anatolia 20 years ago will probably find fewer shops selling alcohol and more women wearing the Islamic headscarf.

Yet the same visitor may also notice that there are more people, including women, on the streets and the ghost towns of yester-decade have become vibrant business and investment hubs in their own right. In fact, it is partly on the back of a rising Anatolian middle class, which is at once pious and entrepreneurial, that Turkey's recent economic (and the AKP's political) achievements have come about. This is not an easy transition: the collision of secular and pious lifestyles that were once socially and geographically separated often creates tensions. A recent assault by a local mob on several newly established art galleries in Tophane, a poor immigrant neighbourhood of Istanbul that is being rapidly gentrified, is a case in point.

For many secular Turks, these are dreadful signs of Turkey's creeping ‘Iranisation.' But tales of mutual suspicion and intolerance represent only part of the picture. The other part is about a country where a long disenfranchised majority is being gradually integrated into the socio-political system largely through democratic means and economic growth and, in the process, having to reconcile its traditional values with its newfound affluent tastes and liberal practices. Had the Shah achieved a similar feat, Iran may have never needed a revolution.

The many faces of Erdogan's Turkey

Turkey is a country of striking contrasts. It has more Facebook users than most western countries, yet YouTube remains banned by a court decision for broadcasting videos that insult Ataturk. Istanbul, the European capital of culture for 2010, has the highest number of mosques of any city, a vibrant art scene, a bustling nightlife, as well as sprawling shantytowns that are lately being replaced by government-funded housing blocks. It has a growing civil society that bravely confronts national taboos, as well as nationalist movements that fight to keep them intact.

Mr. Erdogan's AKP has managed to dominate Turkey's political life for the past eight years, because it embodies most of its contrasts. It is the only party that has significant electoral presence in the country's industrial west, conservative heartlands, and conflict-torn Kurdish southeast, as well as across most social and political divides. In 2007, when the party won nearly one of every two votes in a general election, its supporters included liberals, social democrats, and businesspeople, Islamists, nationalists as well as a significant number of Kurds.

Its democratising reforms have significantly trimmed the military's political tentacles, and won Turkey the EU candidate status in 2005. Its economic and fiscal policies attracted record levels of foreign investment, and helped avert the worst effects of the latest financial crisis. Its leaders, on the other hand, have become increasingly intolerant of dissent, taking cartoonists to court and putting pressure on critical journalists and newspapers. They have also been criticised for handing out lucrative business contracts to firms close to the party, and making appointments to local government positions, universities and the police on the basis of personal connections or association with various religious fraternities.

In 2009, the AKP government launched bold initiatives to normalise ties with Armenia, with which Turkey has no diplomatic ties, and find a democratic end to the bloody, three-decade-old Kurdish insurgency. Faced with a nationalist backlash, however, it soon reverted to populist rhetoric on both fronts. Finally, the AKP has gone further than any civilian authority to expose and cleanse the Turkish state of its ultra-nationalist, putschist and criminal elements; that is, the so-called “deep state”. It now risks squandering that possibility by turning the court case, known as ‘Ergenekon,' into a vendetta against political opponents.

It is no surprise, then, that the newly approved constitutional reform package also represents a mixed bag. The amendments remove legal obstacles preventing the trial of the junta that carried out the 1980 coup, which is responsible for the death and torture of thousands of people, particularly in the Kurdish provinces, but not the anti-democratic institutions it put in place. They break the monopoly of the Kemalist elite over the judiciary, which has been deeply ideological and shut down numerous political parties, but allow the executive to pack the courts with its own candidates.
<>Perhaps most importantly, the referendum process revealed a widespread demand for a brand new democratic Constitution. Political actors should respond to that demand without delay. The government should also catch what could be the last train towards a peaceful settlement of the Kurdish issue within the framework of a unified Turkey, by maintaining dialogue, both in public and in private, with the Kurdish nationalists.

Turkey's multi-faceted transformation is yet to be complete: the country is facing a historic moment to create its own brand of modernity — one that is vibrant, democratic and multicultural. This is by no means a foregone conclusion, however, and the pitfalls ahead are as daunting as the opportunities are enticing.

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