Harbingers Of Turkey’s Second Republic

Kerem Oktem

Middle East Report Online, DC

Aug 1 2007

For background on the presidential crisis, see Gamze Cavdar,
“Behind Turkey’s Presidential Battle,” Middle East
Report Online, May 7, 2007.

For background on AKP relations with the Kurds, see Kerem Oktem,
“The Return of the Turkish ‘State of Exception,’”
Middle East Report Online, June 3, 2006.

For background on Hrant Dink, see Ayþe Kadýoðlu, “The Pigeon on
the Bridge Is Shot,” Middle East Report Online, February 16, 2007.

On July 23, the day after the ruling Justice and Development Party
won Turkey’s early parliamentary elections in a landslide, Onur
Oymen, deputy chairman of the rival Republican People’s Party
(CHP), interpreted the results as follows:

If you are in need and hungry, if you are not at all content with
your life, if you criticize the government every day from dusk till
dawn and you then vote for the very same government, there must
be something which cannot be explained with logic. What is it? It
is the government’s policy to harness the religious feelings
of the people for political aims. If the people, despite all these
hardships, still vote for this party, that probably means that they
vote for them because of religion.… If illogical reasons play
such an important role in politics, this should make us think.[1]

At first, this explanation seems to comport with the common media
depiction of the Turkish elections as a final showdown between
“secularists” and “Islamists,” and with alarmist
debates over whether Turkey has ceased to be the secular country it
has nominally been since Mustafa Kemal Ataturk founded the republic
in 1923. Those debates, after all, draw their urgency from the
ruling party’s origins in political Islam. Upon closer review,
however, Oymen’s reading owes more to another Kemalist notion,
one redolent with the “Enlightenment fundamentalism” that
Timothy Garton Ash has identified in the European debate on Islam and
Muslims. According to this patrician view, “the people” —
as distinguished from full citizens — are a backward mass, incapable
of knowing what is best for themselves, and at constant risk of being
led further into the darkness by religious fundamentalist agitators. In
the minds of Oymen’s colleagues, as well as their allies in
the military and civilian bureaucracy, the CHP slogan of the 1920s,
“For the people, despite the people,” is very much alive.

Yet the results of Turkey’s 2007 parliamentary elections
suggest that patrician loyalty to modernization imposed upon the
population from above has outlived the ability to impose such a
Jacobin trajectory.

The Turkey that is emerging from the July 22 elections is less beholden
to the military-civilian elite that drove modernization from above,
but is more diverse, more inclusive and, dare one say it, more modern.

THE RESULTS The 2007 contests were the most deftly organized in Turkey
since the first democratic elections in 1950. Although 84 percent of
Turkey’s 42.5 million voters cast ballots, both the voting and
the counting of votes moved along quickly, thanks to a newly digitized
system. By 10 pm, almost 90 percent of the votes were counted, and
victors as well as losers determined. The parliament will now host
three party blocs, as well as contingents of independents. Out of
550 seats, 341 will belong to the ruling party, 112 to the CHP, 71
to the far-right Nationalist Action Party and 26 to the independents,
most of whom are Kurds.

Justice and Development (AKP, as per its Turkish name, Adalet ve
Kalkýnma Partisi) increased its share of the national vote from 34.3
percent in 2002, when it first swept into power, to 46.7 percent. It
led the balloting in all but a few coastal provinces in the west.

Even in locales where the AKP has traditionally been weak, such
as Ýzmir, the CHP narrowly escaped defeat. In CHP leader Deniz
Baykal’s home province of Antalya, the ruling party came
out on top. In the predominantly Kurdish southeast, though it did
not win every province, the AKP more than doubled its vote from
roughly 26 percent in 2002 to 53 percent. Thus, the AKP has not
only established itself “in the societal center,” as Prime
Minister Recep Tayyýp Erdoðan proclaimed during his victory speech,
but it has also emerged as the only political party that is backed
strongly in all regions of Turkey. It is now the only party that has
a legitimate claim to represent both Turks and Kurds, a substantial
proportion of the non-Sunni Alevi community, and virtually all social
classes. Surveys show that around half of the voters in the lower-
and middle-income groups pulled the lever for the AKP, while around
35 percent of upper-middle and 23 percent of upper-income groups did
the same. The economy’s performance during the AKP’s five
years in office was pivotal in deciding voters’ minds: Growth
rates are at a constant 7 percent, per capita income has doubled,
foreign direct investment has reached a record high, stock markets
are rising, and trust in the lira, so badly hit by the financial
crisis of 2001, has been restored.

The CHP, despite its recent merger with the late ex-premier Bulent
Ecevit’s Democratic Left Party, reached only 20.8 percent of the
vote and fell below 10 percent in the Kurdish provinces. In Diyarbakýr,
considered by many Kurds as the political center of Turkey’s
Kurdish geography, CHP candidates attracted an abysmally low 1.9

Faring well only in some western provinces, the CHP has now ceased to
be a national party that enjoys support across regional and ethnic
divides, and become instead a regional party rooted in Turkish
identity politics.

While the Nationalist Action Party succeeded in doubling its vote to
14 percent, doing especially well in western and southern Turkey,
23 Kurdish candidates, running as independents rather than under
a Kurdish party banner to circumvent the country’s infamous
10 percent threshold (whereby a party must win 10 percent of the
national vote to get a seat), were elected from the southeastern
provinces. Among the independents, Ufuk Uras stands out. Elected from
Istanbul’s Kadýkoy district, he is supported by a coalition of
socialists, feminists, and ethnic and sexual minorities.

As important as those who entered Parliament are those who failed
to do so. The Islamist-fundamentalist Felicity Party, convener of
the Milli Goruþ movement from which the AKP’s founding cadres
hail, fell to less than 3 percent of the national vote. Effectively,
Turkey’s Islamist party is now defunct. The same can be said
for center-right groupings like the Democrat and Motherland parties,
and for movements like the Youth Party, set up to serve the interests
of its prolific chairman Cem Uzan.

A MILESTONE FOR WOMEN The composition of the new parliament accurately
reflects the popular will, with the three successful parties
accounting for more than 80 percent of all votes cast. And it is not
only the general level of representation that has improved, but also
the representation of women. Before 2007, women had never composed
more than 4.5 percent of a Turkish parliament, and that mark was
reached in the non-democratic, single-party elections of 1935. When
electoral pluralism was introduced in 1950, three women made it to
the legislature. By 2002, that number had improved to only 24 —
4.4 percent of Parliament.

Quite contrary to secularists’ fears that women’s position
would deteriorate under the AKP, slightly less than 10 percent of
Parliament (49 members) is now female. This proportion is low compared
to most European Union countries, yet it is undeniable that women
are now a critical presence in Turkish formal politics for the first
time. Numerous civil society actions, like the advertising campaign
of the Association for the Support and Education of Women Candidates,
which portrayed leading women wearing moustaches, the time-honored
Turkish symbol of manly competence, pressured the AKP and CHP into
making the top of their lists about 10 percent female.

Unlike in former campaigns, where the few female candidates ran in
the large cities on the western coast, 2007 saw the election of women
from all parts of the country, especially for the AKP.

Nine Kurdish women, supported by the pro-Kurdish Democratic Turkey
Party but running as independents, were elected from rural areas in
southeast Turkey. These women have non-elite backgrounds and entered
politics through their engagement in the Kurdish national movement.

They will carry the mandate of Turkey’s poorest, most
disenfranchised and oppressed group, Kurdish women from the rural
and suburban parts of the southeast.

BACKDROP OF BACKLASH Given how smoothly the elections were conducted
and how swiftly the results declared, it is hard to recall the
atmosphere of intimidation before and during the campaign. Only
a few weeks before citizens went to the polls, stable republican
government in Turkey appeared to face a serious threat, up to and
including full-blown military intervention. The AKP cabinet’s
decision to hold early elections was a last-ditch effort to avert a
political crisis partly of its own making.

The crisis unfolded over 2005-2007, with an increasingly belligerent
“retro-nationalist” reaction to the government’s
reforms and its alleged hidden anti-secular agenda, as well as the
anti-Turkish mood in many European quarters, as Turkey sought to
advance its application to join the European Union. A coalition of
anti-liberal forces, made up of retired generals and their civil
society organizations, parts of the security services and far-right
groups, brought about the climate of fear, aiming at convincing Turks
that the political reforms and newly acquired freedoms would have to be
relinquished. Xenophobic films, television series and books asserted
that Turkey was under threat from the West, evoking and exploiting
the “Sevres syndrome,” a fear of the country’s
dismemberment harking back to the 1920 Treaty of Sevres that began
the partition of the Ottoman Empire. The nationalist counter-movement
was not confined to symbolic politics, but led to the assassination
of a High Court judge, the murder of two Catholic priests, frequent
incidents of mob violence against Kurdish activists, and the slaughter
of two Turkish Christians and a German missionary in the southeastern
city of Malatya in April 2007. These attacks were not carried out by
religious fundamentalists, as was often insinuated in the press.

Evidence suggests the authorship of extreme nationalist groups,
such as one called Kuvva-i Milliye Derneði, whose new members are
made to swear on the Qur’an and a gun.[2] The court cases, most
of which progress very slowly, have shown that the perpetrators were
connected to parts of the state apparatus, either as informants or
as double agents.

Parallel to the violence, a myriad of prosecutions were mounted
against public intellectuals — Nobel Prize laureate Orhan Pamuk,
novelist Elif Shafak and publisher Ragýp Zarakolu, to cite but a
few — for statements questioning official conceptions of Turkish
historiography. Accompanied by vicious hate campaigns in the
nationalist and parts of the mainstream media, and coupled with the
assassinations, these court cases further contributed to a sense of
real intimidation. Yet probably the most momentous rupture was the
murder in January 2007 of Turkish-Armenian journalist and activist
Hrant Dink in broad daylight, in front of the newspaper Agos in
central Istanbul. The killing seemed to squelch the free and frank
debate on the fate of the Ottoman Armenians in 1915, initiated by
a groundbreaking conference at which Dink spoke, and the resulting
revisionist histories. Also extinguished was the life of a remarkable
man, whose love for his country and commitment to the reconciliation
of Turks and Armenians was a challenge to those whose project of a
modern Turkey ignores or even approves of the Armenian suffering for
which the Istanbul government was responsible. Despite the hostile
climate, more than 100,000 demonstrators took to the street to declare
that “We are all Hrant, we are all Armenians,” only to be
denounced by the nationalist press as traitors to the nation.

The ambient racism and retro-nationalism increasingly focused upon the
Kurds, with the CHP leader Baykal resorting to an anti-EU, anti-US and
anti-globalization discourse that resembled the language of Jean-Marie
Le Pen’s National Front more closely than that of a modern social
democratic party.

If the nationalist campaign first targeted liberal intellectuals and
their questioning of Turkey’s historical genesis, it soon turned
to an old standby of Turkish politics: the purported Islamic threat to
the secular state. Rumor spread that the military was hatching plans
to depose the AKP cabinet. One critical weekly, Nokta, was closed by
its owner after publishing a series on foiled coup attempts, as well
as what it said were the blueprints of a retired naval commander for
one of the aborted putsches. Like Pamuk and the others, Nokta’s
editor-in-chief was accused of “denigrating Turkishness.”
The message was clear. As Joost Lagendijk, co-chairman of the joint
Turkey-EU Parliamentary Commission, put it: “Do not tamper with
the military!

If you make critical hints, then you end up in this situation. From
now on, correspondents, editors and executives will think twice before
publishing something that is critical of the military.”

Yet it was only with the nomination of Foreign Minister Abdullah
Gul as president that a constitutional crisis arose. Capitalizing on
the prospect that the president’s wife would wear a headscarf,
groups such as the Association for Ataturkist Thought, the extreme
nationalist Workers Party and the CHP built mass demonstrations to
warn of the secular order’s imminent destruction. Some analysts
suggested that the demonstrations were an indicator of a “new
middle class,”[3] even though this term was initially coined
to describe the support base of the AKP, the small and midsize
industrialists of central Anatolia.[4] Credible observers like
Ali Bayramoðlu of the Yeni Þafak newspaper argued instead that the
demonstrators were an “out-of-fashion middle class,” and
exposed the link between the organizers and extremist groups plotting
a coup against the government. Although most demonstrators were acting
in good faith, and women in particular aired concerns about certain
conservative AKP policies, some also realized that they had become
pawns of a deeply anti-democratic, extreme nationalist crusade under
the guise of defending secularism.

Finally, on April 27, the armed forces published a blunt note on their
official website (known in the press as the “e-memorandum”
or, more darkly, the “e-coup”) declaring that the swearing-in
of a non-secular president (in other words, Gul) would lead to military
intervention to save the secular regime. The CHP, after lengthy
legal deliberations, walked out from the presidential ballot in the
parliament in order to render invalid the AKP majority’s vote for
Gul. When the Constitutional Court decided, at the CHP’s request,
that Gul’s selection was indeed null and void because of the lack
of a two-thirds quorum, the crisis reached its peak. Early elections
appeared to be the only way out of the deadlock, together with an AKP
initiative to allow for direct elections for the presidency. Although
the current president, Ahmet Necdet Sezer, returned the reform package
to Parliament, the Constitutional Court ruled it constitutional,
hence paving the way for a referendum on a direct presidential ballot.

In spite of nationalist hate campaigns, court cases and the
e-memorandum, the Turkish electorate acted not out of fear, but out of
a libertarian reflex that has strong precedents in Turkish history. In
the first democratic elections of 1950, after more than two decades
of single-party rule, the majority voted against the CHP and for the
newly established Democrat Party. In the 1983 elections, the first
since the 1980 military coup, the voters defeated the generals’
party of choice and instead brought the charismatic Turgut Ozal into
power. In 2007, in the words of the Zaman newspaper, they responded
with a “people’s memorandum” to the e-memorandum.

PROSPECTS AND POINTS OF TENSION One of the first questions that
Prime Minister Erdoðan and the new parliament will have to deal with
is the choice of the new president, and later on, a referendum on
direct presidential balloting. There are ambiguous signs from the
AKP regarding the choice of the president. Senior party figures
have said that the process will be conducted in good faith and in
a “consensual manner.” Erdoðan, however, made a point of
appearing together with Gul, who insists on renewing his candidacy,
at AKP headquarters following the announcement of the election
results. At the same time, the prime minister acknowledged the unease
of secular citizens, promising a political style that is respectful
of individual political and lifestyle choices and the institutions
of the secular republic.

Much will now depend on the attitude of the CHP, which did not
benefit from the atmosphere of fear that it facilitated and whose
leader now seems incapable of accepting defeat. The party has
failed to stake out a position as a democratic alternative to
the AKP, let alone consolidate itself as a force of the left. In
the short term, the question is whether the CHP will continue its
politics of disengagement, destructive opposition, coalition with
anti-democratic forces and anti-EU and militarist discourses. If
so, the CHP might create new crises by blocking legislation and, in
particular, the presidential process. In the medium term, however,
the stakes will be higher: The party, already under investigation by
the Socialist International for its position supportive of military
interventions, will ultimately have to face suspension or termination
of its membership should it fail to disassociate itself from the
nationalist, militarist and racist talk of its leading stratum. The
success of internal opposition to Baykal will determine if the CHP
transforms itself into a modern, liberal, inclusive social democratic
party with a European outlook. Otherwise, it will further deteriorate
into an alliance of inward-looking extreme nationalists, disgruntled
former state elites and disoriented upper-middle class voters, who
are united by disdain for the lifestyles of the AKP cadres, many of
whom come from humble origins.

Another point of tension in the new parliament is the relative
strength of the extreme Nationalist Action Party, which seems to be
the only party that reaped rewards from the nationalist fear campaign,
the debates over Turkey’s threatened invasion of northern Iraq
and the mounting violence in the southeast. Party chairman Devlet
Bahceli defused the initial concerns that Nationalist Action might
pursue constant conflict with the Kurdish independent candidates. To
what extent a modus vivendi will prevail between these two blocs
depends on factors ranging from AKP policy toward northern Iraq to
the independents’ ability to play the political game according
to the rules of Ankara. Yet many agree that a Nationalist Action
Party in Parliament may be less aggressive than outside.

Turkey’s “double gravity” location within Europe
and the Middle East will also shape much of the AKP’s foreign
policy challenges.[5] In the Middle East, the government will have
to find a balance between the armed forces’ request for military
intervention in northern Iraq and a political solution to the Kurdistan
Workers’ Party (PKK) presence on Iraqi Kurdish territory. The
mandate it received, especially from its Kurdish voters, excludes a
bellicose stance.

Hence, the future will depend on the United States’ willingness to
take proactive steps toward containment of the PKK and its incursions
into Turkish territory.

On the European front, the AKP appears committed to reinvigorating
the quest for EU membership, despite the pre-election slowdown in
meeting the requirements delineated by Brussels. In his election-night
victory speech, Erdoðan underlined that the legal reform process will
resume. With many liberal intellectuals, like the constitutional jurist
Zafer Uskul, in the bloc of AKP legislators, prospects look good for
a new civilian constitution that will replace the military-imposed
and anti-democratic constitution of 1982.

The positive atmosphere could indeed lead to a gradual return to a
more EU-friendly outlook among the wary Turkish public, contingent,
of course, on statements from European capitals. French President
Nicolas Sarkozy’s insistence on every possible occasion, even
directly after the July 22 elections, that Turkey should have a
“privileged partnership” — not membership — do not bode
well. The EU, and especially the European Commission, could instead
use the sense of a new beginning to launch a charm offensive.

WINNING OVER HEARTS AND MINDS Compared to the late 1970s, when it
was a poor country with a patrician state and an elite bureaucracy
uninterested in the common man, the Turkey of today is another
world. It is rapidly transforming into an industrialized country with
a globalized economy, a predominantly urban population, a modernizing
infrastructure, unparalleled (if very unevenly distributed) individual
wealth and increasingly audible demands for rights from ethnic,
religious, cultural and lifestyle groups. The AKP, despite its
roots in political Islam, has succeeded in capturing the desires and
hopes of almost every other citizen of Turkey, providing a credible
alternative to the “Enlightenment fundamentalists” of
the CHP. It has also delivered on issues of infrastructure, health
care and social security, making a tangible impact on the lives of
lower-income people. To give but one example: The average citizen,
surely an internal immigrant, used to travel up to 20 hours by bus
from Istanbul to his or her distant homeland. Today, he or she flies
from Istanbul to Trabzon or Diyarbakýr.

In the field of cultural and individual rights and freedoms, the AKP
government has followed an erratic policy. Nevertheless, despite its
overly cautious position toward Kurdish rights, it has won over the
hearts and minds of a majority of the voters in the southeast. It has
become a defender of democracy, if not in its own right, then because
of its resistance to military interference in the democratic process.

Patrician overlords like Onur Oymen remain at a loss to understand
the reasons for their electoral demise, probably because they look at
the country through the lens of xenophobic conspiracy theories. Their
inability to come to terms with the “logic” of a globalizing
world and the erosion of what Bayramoðlu calls a “statist and
introverted caste system defending their comfortable status quo”
has exposed them as members of an arrogant elite that has lost it
hold upon society.

More importantly, it has deprived Turkey’s democracy of a
center-left party and a credible political opposition, with attendant
risks for a sustainable democratic process.

The landslide victory of the AKP has established beyond reasonable
doubt that there is no popular support for this military-bureaucratic
“caste system.” The AKP’s greatest challenge now is
to continue the legal and political reform process and to expand
the space of individual freedoms and rights without abusing its
prerogatives. If it succeeds in this, it will not only become the
party to transform Turkey into a modern European country. It will
also prove that political Islam, under the conditions of a secular
legal framework and economic progress, can transform itself into a
democratic political project with a strong ethical stance and respect
for diversity and human rights. With its strong mandate from the
people of Turkey, the new AKP government is highly unlikely to face
any substantial intervention from extra-parliamentary precincts. In the
future, July 22, 2007 may well be seen as the birthday of Turkey’s
second republic.

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