ANKARA: The Real Meaning Of The Turkish Elections (2)

By Richard Falk*

Today’s Zaman, Turkey
Aug 8 2007

In these respects, what remains uncertain in Turkey after the
elections is the nature and future of Turkish democracy, whether
its discriminatory and repressive characteristics will be removed
by stages or, on the contrary, will be now reinforced by a harsh and
unpopular renewal of military activism.

PM Recep Tayyip Erdoðan (R), and FM Abdullah Gul, salute cheering
supporters of their AK Party, outside headquarters in Ankara. The AK
Party won parliamentary elections by a big margin on July 22.

Such a renewal would be extremely unpopular with the public that
supports the policy agenda of the AK Party. It would also almost
certainly send the Turkish stock market into a tailspin, scare away
foreign investors and likely cause the decline of the lira and the
return of high inflation. These latter circumstances may inhibit
reliance on extreme tactics by opposition forces. In the past, it
could at least be argued that military intervention served the cause
of political and economic stability in the country. Under present
circumstances, even most secular conservatives would agree that any
military intervention would result in dangerous and unpredictable forms
of political instability. At the same time, it is hard to envision at
this point either side backing down on the presidential nomination. The
very problematic nature of any interference with the governing process
by the military would almost certainly cause a populist backlash,
which in turn would likely intensify its repressive character.

Beyond these defining issues of inclusiveness and the civilianization
of Turkish constitutionalism, there exists the shape of Turkish
nationalism. As with headscarves, the 1982 Constitution and
accompanying legislative enactments were extremely restrictive when
it came to freedom of expression and thought. Penal Code Section
301, criminalizing any assertions deemed by prosecutors to "insult
Turkishness" and used to indict such eminent cultural figures as
Orhan Pamuk and Elif Safak, stand before the world as a decisive
demonstration that Turkish nationalism contradicts fundamental human
rights associated with liberal democratic norms and practice. As
long as 301 remains a part of Turkish law, the European opposition to
Turkish EU membership rests on defensible grounds (although several
EU members seem unashamed of their somewhat similar anti-defamation
laws). Part of the promised effort by the Erdoðan leadership to revive
the Turkish campaign for EU membership is a much needed and desired
constitutional overhaul that is much more supportive of freedoms for
the Turkish citizen.

Democracy can only flourish if the citizens are free to speak their
mind and social and political truth allowed to emerge from the
marketplace of ideas. When using the word "genocide" gives rise to
potential criminality and even assassination, the political culture
needs to be restrained by the receptivity of the rule of law to free
speech, however distasteful to parts of the society. As it happens,
the recent World Court decision denying Serbian responsibility for
genocide in Bosnia suggests Turkish nationalists need not be so afraid
of opening the Armenian issue to fuller debate.

Further in the background are several foreign policy concerns. Part
of the reality of the deep state is associated with control over
Turkey’s strategic relations with the United States and Israel. From
a democratic perspective, it seems clear that Turkish sympathies
are much more responsive to the Palestinian struggle than official
diplomacy conducted by Ankara would suggest. Even a constructive
initiative designed to acknowledge the legitimacy of Hamas as the
elected representative of the Palestinian people was rebuffed by
the secular establishment fronting for the military. And it was only
the responsiveness of the Turkish Parliament to public opinion that
saved the Erdoðan government from disastrously backing the American
invasion of Iraq back in 2003. For Turkey’s democracy to mature fully,
its strategic relationships need to better reflect its political
identity and democratically determined national interests, but such
goals will not be attained without a long and hard campaign.

In the short term, Europe and the United States have strong reasons
of their own to avert a Turkish crisis of the sort that could unfold
in the months ahead. In this sense, the general impression caused by
the insistence of the global media that the July elections should
be seen as Islam vs. secularism are extremely unhelpful, throwing
oil on a simmering fire. What could be helpful would be governmental
and diplomatic assertions by foreign leaders of confidence in the AK
Party, a more forthcoming European attitude toward the EU accession
negotiations and the advocacy of a more balanced approach to Cyprus,
especially renewed support for the Annan plan and a UN role.

Of course, the winners in the elections can do their part to help
avert the looming crisis by being tactically cautious without losing
sight of their strategic goals relating to democracy and nationalism.

What this means concretely is difficult to specify. It would certainly
imply an approach to the election of a president that gives the
military an opportunity to move gracefully away from their earlier
stand of implacable opposition. The AK Party exhibited this sort of
intelligent prudence when it refrained last spring from organizing
counter-demonstrations that would certainly have been larger and more
impressive than those of the old secular forces, but also dangerously
more polarizing of the country and destabilizing.

Nowhere in this panorama of concerns does the issue of political Islam
appear as a genuine concern even in its diluted form of interpreting
the election as a victory of "moderate Islam" set off against the
modernist secularism of the Euro-American variety. The banner of Islam
is being waved not by Islamists but by those increasingly isolated
opposition forces in Turkey that see no constitutional path that
leads them back to their former position of hegemony in relation
to government, market and societal mores. In these circumstances,
confusing the terms of struggle depends on a strategy of tension
that creates some impression that only a military takeover can avoid
a Turkish descent into chaos. Such a strategy seems ill-conceived
considering the level of support that the AK Party currently enjoys,
which includes the confidence of both the business world and the
Turkish masses. When I asked a non-religious private car driver
employed by a secular family who he favored in the elections, his
response was revealing: "Am I stupid?" This was his way of saying that,
of course, he gave his vote to the AK Party. One can only wish that
there are similar responsible voices in the military, the opposition
and abroad that are also not stupid!

* Lecturer at Princeton University on Political Science and
International Relations 08.08.2007

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