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Turkey - normal at last?

About the author
Murat Belge is editor of Iletisim Publishing House and Yeni Gündem and is Head of the Department of Comparative Literature at Bilgi University.

Linking Europe, Asia and the Middle East – secular yet Muslim – the fate of Turkey could hardly be more important in our new epoch of ‘war on terror’ and ‘clash of civilisations’. Its election on 4 November 2002 produced a paradoxical result. The victory of a popular, Islamic right-wing party might prove to be the kind of break from the past the country needs.

Before the elections, media commentators talked incessantly about a need for renewal. Over the last twenty odd years, the word ‘new’ in Turkey has acquired almost magical connotations, because of the political straitjacket imposed on society by the military regime of 1980, which guaranteed the repetition of the tedium of the country’s present into the future.

Clinton went on about being a ‘New Democrat’, then Blair invented ‘New Labour’ for the UK and Schroeder the ‘New Middle’ for Germany. But these ‘new’ things came and went without much effort. They were positioning exercises by parties, not the expression of a national obsession.

In Turkey the question is different. What ‘renewal’ will the system allow? The legacy of secular, military dictatorship punctuated by coups followed by indirect military rule has produced a blocked system. How much difference could there possible be with a ‘Law for Political Parties’ which makes it obligatory for every political party to be ‘Atatürkist’, which makes it illegal for a party to mention the presence amongst us of people other than Turks (under threat of being closed down)? The same legal framework gives every advantage to party leaderships to arrange party congresses, determine lists of candidates and shape their party in any conceivable way. With such laws it is unlikely that even ‘new’ faces will fail to repeat the ‘old’ commonplaces.

Top down

The elections took place within the framework determined by the same laws. These oblige parties to score more than 10% of the total vote to gain entry into parliament. Parties whose overall votes remain below this incredibly high barrier cannot have any representation. Modern election systems, such as the German one, are proportional and ‘top up’ the results to make them fair. In Turkey there is a ‘top down’ system. Thus the Kurdish party, if I may mention its existence, got well over 50 per cent of the votes in Diyarbakir in the east of the country. But because it got less than 10 per cent overall, its candidates were disqualified.

These laws and regulations were elaborated in the 1980s in order to put a right-wing party, under the leadership of a retired general, into parliament and give it a clear majority. It did not work then, as Turgut Özal with his Motherland Party came out as the winner. This time, it favoured Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP). The system gave him 65% of the seats with 34% of the votes. The only other party that managed to squeeze into parliament is the People’s Republican Party (PRP).

Because of this, I’m afraid we will have to consider the PRP for a moment, the party supported by much of the ‘left’. Nominally it is the oldest political party in the country, founded by Kemal Atatürk. In fact, it was closed by the military in the 1980s but re-founded a few years later. In the last elections, in 1999, it failed to pass the 10% hurdle under the leadership of Deniz Baykal. Baykal resigned and bided his time. He did not have to wait for too long. This year he was once more elected as chairman and has since introduced various right-wing strategies, which are presented as a form of ‘Blairism’.

The party’s greatest asset, as the country approached the November elections, was that it had been out of parliament and consequently could not be held responsible for anything that had happened.

It is high time for the left in general to re-think its position and its future. Although the PRP received many of its votes and got just under 20% overall, much higher than in 1999, this was not quite the success it seems. The former leftist, now antiquated, Prime Minister Ecevit’s party plummeted from 22% to less than 2%, and many of its voters clearly failed to transfer their allegiance to the PRP.

At any rate, the AKP and the PRP are now the only two parties to make up the Turkish parliament. None of the many others who ran could get over the 10% threshold. But this is a really quite novel situation for Turkey, although probably not exactly what was meant when the media harped on about ‘renewal’ in politics. No one willed events to configure this way. Indeed, the outcome was also a failure for the media.

And much else. The three parties of the previous ruling coalition – Ecevit’s Democratic Left Party (DSP), the Motherland Party (ANAP) of Turgut Özal run by Mesut Yılmaz since Özal’s death, and the Nationalist Action Party (MHP) of the Greywolf movement – have all been sent packing. Two of their leaders have already made statements about resignation and it is hard to see how their parties can bring themselves together after such a clear defeat.

The prevailing opinion is that they were punished by the Turkish people, who held them responsible for the economic crisis. This is probably quite correct, but Çiller’s True Path Party (Turkish party names, dating from the 1980s remind one of Fenimore Cooper novels!) was not part of the coalition, and consequently not responsible for the crisis. Nevertheless, it too fell short and is now out of parliament altogether. Çiller talked (incredibly loudly) about winning ‘power’. Now, they are not even in ‘opposition’.

This shows how determined the electorate was to get rid of the ‘old political establishment’. In addition to which, Erbakan, the unchanging leader of the traditional Islamist party in Turkey, was also crushed.

There was another interesting case. Cem Uzan, a young businessman and member of a family of bankers and media patrons who ran into trouble internationally for his unusual economic deals, decided to participate in the elections, perhaps in imitation of Berlusconi. He created the Young Party (GP) and started an extremely expensive election campaign, with free concerts and banquets all over the country followed by his nationalist–populist speeches. The polls, showed him as the ‘likeliest third’ to cross over the threshold as his TV and radio stations blared out his speeches. Finally, his support stuck at around 7%; very high considering, and greater than the Kurdish Nationalist Party (HADEP) scored throughout the country.

The Young Party, or something like it, could come to replace the MHP, the traditional hard-right Nationalist Action Party. This remained strong in backward and conservative Central Anatolia. Its brand of racialist nationalism, anti-communism and general militancy used to be good enough to draw support from the more traditional petty bourgeoisie of provincial towns. But it has failed to become popular among urban youth. It may be that the support Uzan and his Young Party found in these elections, from a surprising number of young people from the shanty towns as well as among some university students, marks an important turning point in the history of Turkish fascism – a transformation from provincial reaction towards an urban milieu. Whether or not Uzan will devote the rest of his life to such a mission, it will be difficult for the MHP to reach out for this potential. But the social roots and tendencies are there. We have been warned.

What young people look for

Let us take a respite for a moment and try to understand the patterns of behaviour of the young people in shanty-town areas. What is the reason for their choice of religiously or nationally radical parties, and how will it evolve in the future?

Young people in their early twenties were born during the years of the military regime and grew up under the repressive ideology of that time. Whether in or out of school, this was their ‘food for thought’. They had no experience of the atmosphere of the 1960s and 1970s when, in spite of all the bursts of repression, there was a dynamic left-wing student activism that sought communication with the working class. Throughout the 1990s, the bloody fight with the Kurdish PKK weighed heavily over society, with the media doing its best to feed reactionary chauvinism.

Until the 1980s the Turkish electorate was moderately right wing. In other words, it preferred the capitalistic methods of the right wing to the harsh paternalism and Jacobinism of the ‘étatist’ Republican Party. It was able at special times, such as after the 1971–73 military intervention, to raise Ecevit’s Social Democratic Party to prominence, yet always reacted to the political process with a certain common sense, in a way that was relatively rational and predictable.

But when the new youth of the big city slums especially, but also all over the country, began to make its presence felt in the elections, the so-called ‘protest vote’ began to determine the outcome. This was why support grew for the Welfare Party (Islamist Party of the 1980s) in 1995 and, after that, the Nationalist Action Party in 1999. Now, AKP has won the biggest landslide so far.

This points to the Turkish paradox

Migration from the countryside to the cities has been and remains massive, and is accelerating. Society, especially the state, was not and still is not prepared for the consequences. Few precautions have been taken to make life bearable for the newcomers. Turkey has all the aspirations, and the producers of the aspirations, of ‘a consumer society’ without ever having passed through a stage of ‘welfare society’. Young people have bad schooling, no social or cultural facilities, and little opportunity of finding a job. The result is a dynamic and overpowering turmoil, which creates the socio-psychological need for a more conservative ideology and system of values.

The ‘modernising’, ‘secularist’ system of the Republic has so far been unable to offer society a secular system of values. Its étatist, state secularism delivered from above, has sought to replace traditional religious ideology, which was the ‘cement’ of society, with a nationalist ideology that has strong racist overtones. It has failed to present the people with an alternative they feel is legitimate and it has deliberately stopped any intellectual emancipation which might lead to a climate of critical thinking.

So today when the Turkish population of the second half of the Republican era behave as if they are in favour of political Islam, they are not, really, as the Kemalist secularists fear, trying to go back to the golden days (the ‘Age of Felicity’) of the time of the Prophet. They are searching for the spiritual (but also material) help of religion.

The ‘headscarf’, which has become such an explosive symbol over the last twenty years, is not really the aggressive instrument for showing off some kind of identity that it has been made out to be. It is something much more defensive. There is a small minority of militant Muslim women who do use it as a banner in their struggle; but for the majority it is a sign that the wearer is a devout Muslim of sound morality and does not wish to be molested in the unfamiliar urban wilderness.

The Kemalists have their difficulties in understanding this as a social not a religious question – particularly as they are culturally completely cut off from the masses. However, some of the Islamist politicians would also act in a wiser way if they could see the mechanism in the context of migration and upheaval, and stop interpreting it as a sign of the eagerness of the masses to establish a sharia law.

There are very few people in Turkey today who are willing to forego the material comforts of the modern world. Everyone wants to share in the higher standard of urban living portrayed in glossy magazines.

Erdoğan shows his face

Tayyip Erdoğan went on TV after it became clear that his AKP had won a massive victory. He warned his followers against provocations of any kind and asked them to refrain from noisy expressions of joy. He reiterated his promise that there would be no interference in people’s lifestyles. He talked about the party decision to accelerate the process for joining the European Union (EU) and its decision to cooperate with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) in trying to solve the country’s economic problems. He said that the issue of the ‘headscarf’ is not an urgent item on the AKP agenda.

Since the first electoral success of the Islamist party in 1995, people have debated the question of ‘takiye’. This is a Shiite concept, meaning that a person has to conceal their real ideas when living in an environment which is hostile to them. The hard-core secularists have tried to persuade the rest of the society that when Islamist politicians talk like Erdoğan, no one should believe them. It is only a tactic they use until they take hold of all the reins of power and show their real face. More or less the same people argued in very much the same way about communism until 1989.

But the AKP split off from the Welfare Party (RP) in the late 1990s after a serious disagreement within the party, which was kept as confidential as possible at the time. The main issue was the role of the leadership in bringing the party to an impasse by unnecessary, if mainly symbolic, acts of tension.

This quarrel ended in a split that was probably not takiye. Subsequent developments, and now this November’s elections, show that the AKP version of the Islamist movement – which explains itself in terms of its moderation – has been warmly received by many people. Its 34% is much higher than anything achieved by Erbakan.

The strength of support for them should persuade the secularists and the military that a compromise, and not a hostile confrontation with Islamists, is the only way to achieve internal peace. The Islamists are trying to get into the system instead of sharpening their swords outside – just as the students in headscarves want to get the education they need in the universities. Exclusion is hardly wise.

Modern Turkey originated with Kemal Atatürk and ‘Kemalism’. It needed to legitimate a republican regime – and the President himself – in a society used to living under the authority of one single dynasty for many centuries. It produced an ironic result. To be conservative, especially in religious matters, became anathema. Ottoman history was looked down upon, because it and religion were held responsible for the general underdevelopment of the Turkish society, now reborn from its ashes.

In the process the country’s rulers, who were hardly left-wing, lost the natural support systems drawn upon by conservatives everywhere: tradition and religion. What AKP is trying to achieve today may be described as an attempt to retrieve the lost Turkish conservatism. There are conservative people in every society, whether we individually cherish that ideology or not. It is only normal that there should be conservatives in Turkey as well. They would like to respect their history as they interpret it and to establish with their religion the relationship that they themselves judge proper.

Large sections in Turkish society have become used to living a modernised form of Islam as well as many who feel comfortable in a purely secularised lifestyle. They are able to negotiate ‘peaceful coexistence’ and can learn to live together without trying to impose change on others. Only in this way can Turkey genuinely become a society which is both Muslim and democratic. There is a lot of talk and boasting about this, but with so many bans, tensions and so much mutual suspicion, the rhetoric is not convincing. For the first time, however, this dual identity might become a reality. Turkey needs a kind of ‘Muslim Democratic Party’ and the AKP seems to be eager to step into this role, hitherto unclaimed.

If all the actors play their roles with patience – if provocations of many possible kinds can be foiled – then, much to everyone’s surprise, the ‘renewal’ supposedly offered by the November elections could indeed lead to the development of a politics in Turkey that might normalise its political life.


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