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A new Turkish identity is emerging

Thursday 6 September 2007, by Ali Cimen

The result of the July 22 election shifted some parameters in Turkey. Many wonder how these changes will affect the country, waiting for what will happen next.
Dr. Henri J. Barkey and Fadi Hakura, foremost scholars on Turkish politics discussed the election victory of the Justice and Development Party and the developments in Turkish democrasy.

Those waiting are not only those living in Turkey, but also foreign experts who follow Turkish politics closely. We talked to two of them, Dr. Henri J. Barkey and Fadi Hakura, on the election results and possible developments in the new era that started with July 22. Dr. Barkey is the foremost scholar on Turkish politics in the United States. He is the chair of the Department of International Relations and the Bernard and Bertha Cohen chair at Leigh University. Hakura is a specialist on Turkish affairs at Chatham House, London.

- How do you interpret the election victory of the Justice and Development Party (AK Party)?

Barkey: This election, which has been a huge step in strengthening Turkish democracy, also turned out to be a great failure for those who call themselves “secularist,” but who are actually anti-democratic. Turkey needs two strong parties. The task of the left in Turkey has always been difficult since the Turkish people are widely known for their conservative identity. Well, one of those two is the AK Party, which has settled in the middle of the center right. That is certain. But there is still an uncertainty on the middle left. Baykal and other top Republican People’s Party (CHP) figures unfortunately could not do what was expected from them, which puts the responsibility of resigning on their shoulders. They should do that. Otherwise a government without a strong opposition is no good to Turkey. Parties are social institutions which solely exist to come to power winning elections. We see that the CHP no longer has such a mission.

Setting up a coalition with the army or provoking soldiers into politics, creating a crisis, is not something a political party can do. Accusing voters of not acting rationally after having lost an election, as Mr. Onur Öymen did, is not something acceptable in a democracy. There is something like responsibility. If you cannot succeed, you resign. That is what we see in all developed countries; why does Turkey remain an exception?

The success of the AK Party should be read very carefully. Since 1954, for the first time in Turkish history, a governing party increased its votes while also winning the election. Secondly, 47 percent is not something one can easily underestimate. Since the 53.5 percent of the Justice Party (AP) in the 1965 general election, this is the most successful result. Besides, except Tunceli, the AK Party has gained deputies from every province. This is a historic election.

Hakura: This is the victory of liberal Islam and liberal secularism in Turkey, which also showed that Turkish people have no problem with secularism. According to a survey by the Turkish Economic and Social Studies Foundation (TESEV), more and more Turks are comfortably identifying themselves through Islam, but at the same time support for secularism across Turkey increased. This support is roughly about 90 percent, indicating there is a convergence of modernizing Islam and liberal secularism, which is best reflected in the governing AK Party. The third important result of the elections is the success of AK Party in southeastern Turkey … especially remarkable in Diyarbakir, which I would describe as the “Jerusalem of the Kurds” and was where the AK Party got the majority of votes compared to the [independent candidates supported by the pro-Kurdish] Democratic Society Party (DTP).

- Do you think the AK Party played a role in these developments? For the last couple of years in particular we haven’t heard anything from the AK Party on its Kurdish policy.

Hakura: Don’t forget August 2005, when Prime Minister [Recep Tayyip] Erdoğan went to Diyarbakır, where he acknowledged the [existence of the] Kurdish problem and that there had been mistakes committed by the Turkish state. But since then no policy took place. Mainly because there was an intense focus on the presidential elections and there was a desire not to upset the nationalists and the institutional balance in Turkey. But at the same time there were some improvements for Turks in the Southeast, particularly in terms of socioeconomic indicators such as more schools, better infrastructure or healthcare or more water and ways to villages. At the end these voters rewarded the AK Party. And the other key was that the AK Party government did not have, at least officially, the cross-border operation into northern Iraq.

- One of the new AK Party deputies, Zafer Üskül, a well-known professor of constitutional law, opened a discussion saying the new constitution should be ideology-free, hinting that the principals of Kemalism should be removed from the constitution. What would you say to that?

Hakura: There is a radical social transformation taking place in Turkey today, mainly because of the merger of liberalism secularism and liberal Islam. In other words the Turkish public, including Turks and Kurds, are comfortable with being secular but with being religious at the same time. And the need for religion in Turkey is changing, modernizing and secularizing itself. And therefore given the convergence of these two ideologies, I would also argue the moderate nationalism is gradually converging with modernizing Islam and liberalizing secularism. Therefore I can say that a new Turkish identity is emerging. … So, the atmosphere is correct to open such a debate on Kemalism.

- CHP leader Deniz Baykal has already reacted to the probable discussion of the principles of Kemalist ideology in the constitution. In this regard, can you sense any sign of change in his party’s discourse?

Hakura: If they continue on this course, which they will likely do, [then yes], because Deniz Baykal refused to resign and other figures like Hikmet Çetin or Mustafa Sarıgül, the mayor of Şişli, are not strong enough to remove him from the party. So if this hard-line secularist rhetoric continues, by the CHP, by the left wing, then the main beneficiary could be the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) — as happened in this election. ... Of course the AK Party, too, could gain from this process, having the votes of more liberal secularists.

- Do you think this election result may limit the chance of military intervention in civil politics from now on?

Barkey: Well, that is of course a big failure for the military, too. I think the ineffectiveness of the CHP drifted them into politics. … Those who cannot lead the role of an opposition party well call on the soldiers for help. The military made a big mistake intervening in politics. Though they did this in a “modern” way [via the “e-memorandum”], you could see it was written clumsily, as if they had no strategy in mind. … I think the military will have to act more carefully in order to not discredit itself. And this is an important development for the democracy in Turkey to be rooted. We do not see such crises in the long term if quality opposition emerges.

- Does it mean that you no longer see any chance of military intervention?

Hakura: No, one cannot close the option for military intervention, but the circumstances have changed. Mainly because the military is absorbing the results of the election and on the other hand the dynamic within Turkey is vastly changed now. If you look at the 1990s for example, Turkey was attracting just $800 million to $1 billion of yearly foreign direct investment (FDI); today the figure is $20 billion a year. … And what happened on the day that famous memorandum was issued? How did the foreign investors react? The İstanbul Stock Exchange (İMKB) went down 7 percent over two days. The Turkish lira suffered. And this of course had a direct impact of the economic welfare of people. So the context has changed. Turkey is not an isolated country as before.

- Abdullah Gül signaled that he is committed to running for the presidency. Do you think a similar political crisis like the one we had when his candidacy was first announced may occur again?

Barkey: Presidential elections are a sensitive issue. If a referendum is held, I think it would be appropriate for Mr. Gül to wait for its result. Now that he says “The people want my presidency,” he is taking stand in public. On the other hand, to choose the current president is the right of the AK Party and becoming one is the right of Mr. Gül, too, if his party agrees on him. I do not think the election of the president by popular vote is a good step for Turkey. This is not something personal. What will candidates say or promise to voters? The point is that the executive force of the president is quite limited. He cannot promise a better education or health facilities. … A possible dynamic of conflict will emerge between the president and the government.

Hakura: Abdullah Gül is a well-respected diplomat in European capitals and in the US. And at the same time, of course, the elections seemed to be the vindication for the position adopted by the AK Party regarding Gül’s presidency. At the same time [MHP leader] Devlet Bahçeli has stated clearly that MHP will participate in the presidential elections should Gül decide to run or should the AK Party decide to nominate Gül again. My feeling is that the governing party will try to see if Gül’s presidency is feasible.

- So you are not closing the door on a new political crisis if Gül runs again?

Hakura: Of course under the current conditions the chance of such a crisis is lower than it used to be, but we cannot say that the potential for a crisis has been fully eliminated. Turkey is still a maturing democracy. The civil institutions are in the process of development. The social transformation I mentioned before has not been fully completed. It is an ongoing process which will take some more time, but a huge step has been taken in the July 22 election. One should not underestimate what was achieved on that day in terms of democratic maturity. But the process is still on the way.

- What could the role of the EU be in this transformation phase? We haven’t seen or heard of any step on either side in terms of improving relations for a long time…

Hakura: Let me say that the social transformation, democratic and political changes had already started before the opening of accession talks with the EU. Nevertheless, the EU accession process has been critical in political, economic and social changes in Turkey. Mainly [in terms of] civilian-military relations, language and broadcasting rights for Kurds, and of course for the upgrading and modernizing of some laws regarding family, the penal code, the situation of women in general, issues like honor crimes. … So the EU is a very important catalyst which strengthened the ongoing changes in Turkey, but is not responsible for the creation of those changes that had started within the internal dynamics of the country. The EU is accelerating the process and providing a strict discipline for politicians, bureaucrats and institutions as well as being an example to follow.

- Many political analysts agreed that people did not vote for what the AK Party achieved in its first term, but for its supporting a pro-democracy stance. In this regard in which fields do you think the AK Party fell short?

Hakura: The error the AK Party made was, especially after December 2004, to slow down the political and social reform momentum within Turkey and adopt more nationalistic and religious undertones in their messages. There is a false idea that somehow the AK Party has to satisfy its religious base. I do not accept that. I think Turkish voters have shown in this election — and many surveys, opinion polls and much field research indicate [the same] — that Turkish voters are far more pragmatic. There is an evolving Turkish identity combining Islam, secularism and moderate nationalism. That is exclusively a Turkish phenomenon. And it may keep going if the AK Party can re-energize the reform momentum. That is why it is widely supported, not because of the headscarf issue or nationalism, because the AK Party is delivering social, political and democratic benefits to Turkish voters. Whatever party does the same, not just the AK Party, is likely to be rewarded by the voters.

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Source : TdZ, 13.08.2007

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