June 01, 2011

Politics in Turkey: Vibrant and Active

I'm a political scientist, so I went into Turkey with enough academic background to make some sense of the politics there. However, I did not go to Turkey with enough historical background. I learned quickly that to understand Turkish politics, one must know modern Turkish history and the contributions of one particular man who shaped the Turkish state.

A little background is thus in order. Modern Turkey arose from the dying embers of the Ottoman Empire, which existed for nearly 500 years. Ruled by a number of sultans, the Ottoman Empire at one point possessed enough lands and territories and maintained control over enough vassal states to resemble the Roman Empire at its height. In fact, it conquered the remnants of the Roman Empire, capturing Constantinople in the 1400s and making it the capital. The Empire and its leaders were known in the West as fierce, ferocious and ruthless. However, the Ottoman sultans also were acknowledged for their tolerance and willingness to allow diverse groups such as Jews and Christians to live relatively freely and unmolested within the Empire and to practice their religions in peace.

Large portrait of Atatürk, Istanbul

By the start of World War I, the Ottoman Empire was dying. It entered the war as an ally of Germany with the hopes of acquiring its lost lands, but did not acquit itself well for the most part. The only exception to this was a stand by Turkish troops against the British at Gallipoli. The commander of the Turkish troops at Gallipoli, Mustafa Kemal (known as Atatürk), became a hero in Turkey. He used this popularity to seize power and establish the modern Turkish state on the foundations of secularism. In his view, the Turkish state had to be strong and drag the Turkish people to prosperity. While his state was not democratic, he put through a number of government actions that stressed education, literacy, a West-oriented international policy, and market reforms. Above all, he argued that the Turkish state should resist association with Islam and promote and maintain secularism. Before he died, he was THE political leader in Turkey. In Stephen Kinzer's wonderful book, The Crescent and Star, Kinzer quotes Atatürk's motto as government "for the people, in spite of the people." He literally dragged his reluctant nation into the 20th century and in many ways set it up to be a vibrant democracy. Since his death, his cult of personality lives on in Turkey. His tomb in Ankara is a huge draw from all over the country. There's also a mini Mt. Rushmore, where Atatürk's head is carved into a large rock, in Ankara

Turkey's Mt. Rushmore: Atatürk in stone

However, democracy has come in fits and starts. After Atatürk, successive leaders saw their role as preserving his legacy, but not necessarily realizing his vision. The Turkish military, which considers itself the guardian of Atatürk's legacy, staged coups whenever they sensed too much democracy or too much religion creeping into the Turkish state. Kinzer argues that only with the election of the current prime minister, and his vision of a Turkey where Islam and democracy are compatible, has Turkey truly entered a democratic era, much to the consternation of some mired in the past.

When we arrived in Turkey, the populace was preparing for elections to be held in June. Everywhere, signs promoting the promises of various Turkish politicians were out and evident. Campaign rallies were being staged at least every other day. Party campaign vans blaring music and sporting large images of a candidate drove slowly down streets. The current party, the Justice and Development Party (the JDP, also known in Turkish as the AKP), has been in power for eight years and is poised to be elected to another eight years. A moderate Islamist party, it challenges our assumptions about Islamic parties by not only being credited with helping Turkish democracy flower, but also being Western-oriented and committed to the ideal that democracy and Islam can coexist and even flourish together. I cannot emphasize how this conception of democracy can shatter stereotypes in the U.S. who view Muslim countries as anti-democratic at best and active supporters of terrorism at worst. On the contrary the opposition forces in Turkey, the parties aligned with secularism, nationalism and in many ways, Ataturk's Kemalist values, are often linked with anti-democratic forces.

My wife, Megan Kamerick, stands next to an armed Turkish military guard at Topkapi Palace

For example, coinciding with our arrival were a number of revelations about the Turkish military's plans to stage a coup to topple the JDP government in 2005, and sex-tape scandals that were undoing the fortunes of another nationalist party, the MHP. A huge leap for Turkish democracy was that these issues were being discussed openly in the press and among the populace, and cases against military personnel were being prepared for trial. At least one major journalist in Turkey admitted in an interview with a newspaper during our stay that in the past, the media didn't question the military and sometimes actively colluded with it in anti-democratic behavior. That these types of activities are being brought into the light gives promise to Turkey's democracy. This doesn't mean that Turkish democracy is firmly rooted, but it's a major step in that direction.

One way in which Turkey hopes to cement its democracy, according to some journalists that we met with, is through its application to the European Union. While the EU waffles about whether it will accept Turkey in 2015, when Turkey formally comes up for membership, and finds many reasons (many justified) to question Turkey's commitment to democracy, Turkey forges ahead with its application. The EU may ultimately be uncomfortable with a Muslim country in its ranks, but the journalists told us that in meeting the application criteria, Turkey will strengthen its democracy and its commitment to individual and human rights. In that sense, Turkey wins regardless of whether it is accepted or not.

There is a question of whether Turkey even really needs the EU. If considered part of Europe, it currently has the strongest economy thanks to pragmatic government policies that mix free trade and openness to foreign investment with healthy government social policies. It is also the third fastest growing economy in the world. Politically, it has worked hard to forge good ties with all of its neighbors, save Armenia, and it has taken more of a leadership role in Middle East politics by steering a pragmatic course. It has chastised Arab states to recognize Israel's right to exist, has criticized Syrian leaders for their heavy-handed actions against popular protest, and as a member of NATO has exerted its influence on NATO policy in Libya.

Turkish Cypriot woman dances in Istanbul in event promoting tourism to North Cyprus

However, Turkey has some foreign policy issues that continue to fester. Relations with Armenia, which wants Turkey to admit and atone for what they see as a genocide against Armenians in the early 20th century, have not been good though the president recently visited Armenia to watch a soccer game. It was the first time that a Turkish government official has officially visited Armenia. Turkey also has had significant difficulties with their largest minority population, the Kurds. A Kurdish separatist party, the PKK, has committed acts of terrorism against the Turkish state and continues to be a major thorn in the side of the Turkish government. Finally, the Cyprus issue continues to be an ongoing problem with Greece. Turkey occupies the northern third of Cyprus, the only supporter of the Turkish Cypriot nation.

March in support of the "Spanish Revolution" in Istanbul

A really positive thing for Turkish democratic development is the activity of civil society. Turks are always ready and willing to talk about Turkish politics in general and specifically. Gatherings and protests are common. One afternoon toward the end of our trip, as my wife and I walked down Istiklal Avenue, a main thoroughfare that is a busy slice of the modern Turkey, we happened upon two demonstrations. One march supported workers that had lost their jobs. Another group rallied in support of the Spanish voters who rejected their government. On that same street, political parties set up booths and handed out flyers and pamphlets for everything ranging from nationalist to socialist and even communist causes. Politicians we met with told us that turnout in Turkish elections is 80-90 percent of the voting population. This level of political activity can only mean good things for Turkish democracy.

Workers' rally in Istanbul

For us, Turkish politics seemed very complicated and hard to grasp, but we left with a better understanding of the political forces driving Turkey. In my opinion, Turkey still needs to make improvements, but its political system is a long way from where it was even 10 years ago. And what country doesn't need to make improvements? Democracy is not static, but an ever-changing and evolving creation. I'm convinced that Turkey is doing many good things in the political arena.

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