Turkey’s crisis and the European Union

George Schöpflin
23 July 2007

Turkey's general election on 22 July 2007 has resulted in a decisive victory for the ruling Adalet ve Kalkinma Partisi (Justice & Development Party / AKP) of prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The AKP's 46.5% of the vote, more than twice as much as the two largest opposition parties, has reaffirmed its position as Turkey's most powerful political force. But this is far from a straightforward vindication of democracy. Turkey remains a deeply divided country in the midst of a major crisis whose outcome - the clarity of the election result notwithstanding - looks likely to be distinctly uncomfortable for the country and for the European Union which it aspires to join.

George Schöpflin is a member of the European parliament for Fidesz (Hungarian Civic Union) and was Jean Monnet professor of politics at University College London.

Also by George Schöpflin in openDemocracy:

"Putin's anti-globalisation strategy" (10 July 2006)

"Israel-Lebanon: a battle over modernity" (8 August 2005)

"Hungary: country without consequences" (22 September 2006)

"Hungary's cold civil war" (14 November 2006)

"The European Union's troubled birthday" (23 March 2007)

"Russia's reinvented empire" (3 May 2007)In bare outline, the crisis is the unsettled conflict between Kemalist secularism and Islam that has been at the heart of Turkey's trajectory ever since its emergence as the successor of the Ottoman empire. Kemal Atatürk imposed a modernising revolution on Turkish society, insisting that the country's future was to be a progressive, secular European state. The armed forces were to be the guardian of this legacy, and have fulfilled this role to the letter. Paralleling this and closely linked to Kemalism has been the emergence of a secular, European society that has held onto power throughout Turkey's modern history. Those representing secularism long held most of the levers of power, but - and this is the key, one recognised in the aftermath of the 22 July election by some prominent Atatürkist supporters - they failed to transform the majority of Turks into their own secular image.

The result is that there are, in effect, two Turkish societies. The first is secular, European and persuaded of the rightfulness of its civilising mission. The second remains attached to Islam, is devout to varying degrees and has gradually developed a set of ideas strong enough to resist secularism; in its more recent manifestations, it has offered a vision of Turkey as a democratic-Islamic state.

In terms of power, the secularists control the armed forces, the presidency, much of the public administration, the judiciary and the economy. The Islam supporters, who insist that they are not fundamentalists, have now consolidated their solid majority in parliament (even though the peculiarities of electoral arithmetic means that a 12% increase in their vote since the November 2002 election translates into a decline in the number of their seats to around 340 of the 550-member assembly in Ankara). This is, then, the Turkish paradox: secularism relies on its claim to be European, but does not command a majority of the votes, so that its European credentials are increasingly dissociated from democracy.

Turkey's design-flaw

There are further strands and ironies in this state of affairs. An important one is that this collision between the two Turkish societies has in some respects been triggered by Turkey's application to join the European Union, which (both before and since the formal agreement to ratify the process on 3 October 2005) is beset by serious political and sociological problems (The cultural-religious problem - that of the compatibility of Islam and Europe - attracts much of the attention and hostility, though it is far less clear-cut).

The political problem is that Turkey has some of the features of a democracy, sufficient perhaps on occasions in the past for Turkey to have met the democratic criteria for membership of the European Union; but that the tightening of these criteria over time has raised well-founded doubts about the country's credentials. The point that elections on their own are not enough to make a democracy is relevant here; Slobodan Milosevic (for example) passed an electoral test seven times in Serbia though few would claim he was a democrat.

Behind this political problem is one of what might be called institutional design. Atatürk - and his successors - made the armed forces the guardian of secularism first, and of democracy (and commitment to Europe) second. If there was a conflict between secularism and the others, then secularism would overwrite democracy and thus Europe. The armed forces have intervened in politics four times since 1945 (in various overt and covert ways) against governments that the generals decided were either too corrupt or too Islamic.

The "design-flaw" was not necessarily a mistake at the time of the creation of the Turkish republic in the 1920s, when the standards of democracy were less stringent - and, indeed, when democracy was very far from being the default condition of Europeanness. The problem is that the Atatürk dispensation became rigidified, embodying the rather implausible idea that the armed forces should guarantee democracy. Yet the system was relatively stable, and it did have a crude equilibrating mechanism - the military takeover or the threat of it - to prevent the politicians from pursuing strategies that would have threatened the Atatürk dispensation.

True, the system helped Turkey to avoid a rightwing dictatorship in the 20th century (unlike its neighbour and rival Greece). It also helped the country to begin the painful process of modernisation, of transforming "peasants into Turks" and into urban inhabitants - though not completing the equation and making them citizens, essentially because of the design-flaw. There was and is no role for the demos in the Atatürk model. The concept of citizenship is necessarily a restricted one when there is no true popular sovereignty; and as long as the armed forces have the right to intervene in the political process, there cannot be.

The lineaments of crisis

The transformation of Turkish society, however, has been slow. It is eight decades since Atatürk began the process and his successors have not been able to complete the project of making Turkey into a western-style, modern, democratic society. The dilemmas of latecomers to modernity, the problems of a top-down transformation - reinforced by the particular Turkish condition of being simultaneously a post-imperial country and an underdeveloped one - would always have been daunting. The self-selected elites that ran the country were reluctant (possibly rightly so) to trust the people with power for fear that they would use it for purposes at variance with the original strategy of constructing a western-style modernity.

Also in openDemocracy on Turkey and Europe:

Murat Belge, "Turkey and Europe: why friendship is welcome" (15 December 2004)

Fred Halliday, "Turkey and the hypocrisies of Europe" (16 December 2004)

Fadi Hakura, "Europe and Turkey: the end of the beginning" (5 October 2005)

Daria Vaisman, "Turkey's restriction, Europe's problem" (29 September 2006)

Fadi Hakura, "Europe and Turkey: sour romance or rugby match?" (13 November 2006)

Katynka Barysch, "Turkey and the European Union: don't despair" (27 November 2006)

The dilemma of redistributing power has been present since the French revolution and latecomers to the construction of modernity have the immensely difficult task of timing their redistribution. If they get it wrong, and the redistribution is delayed - the temptation to delay seems irresistible - then the population cannot (maybe permanently) acquire the knowledge and competence of a demos with a full sense of agency and responsibility.

In Turkey, arguably, the secular elite that has controlled the terms and discourses of Turkish modernity has been more than a little restrictive in discharging its historic task (a far from unique stance); as a result, it has found itself at a considerable distance from a population which refused to adopt the discourses, idioms and models of the modernity that the secular Turkish elite constructed. As this relationship unfolded, the non-secular elite carrying a dreaded (to the secularists) alternative - one that offered both Islam and a kind of modernity - was waiting in the wings.

At the same time, the system of military supervision of elected civilians, coupled with the support of secular middle strata, has been stable and capable of self-reproduction; it is not a military regime tout court. What has disturbed it has been Turkey's long-nurtured aspiration to join the European Union and the necessary preparations demanded by EU conditionality. Neither the civilians nor the armed forces was motivated by a pure commitment to Europe, though to some degree a kind of Europeanness was present in their strategic thinking.

The government of Recep Tayyip Erdogan (since its election in November 2002) has had some Islamic colouring and retained much of its popular support on that basis; in other words it has represented very largely those who had not been assimilated to the Turkish secular model of modernity, but were traumatised by their experience of moving towards that modernity (though it has also managed to incorporate other strata of society). This is the standard experience of the first two generations of former peasants trying to find their place in a very alien urban world.

Erdogan's pursuit of EU membership since his election in November 2002, therefore, was at least partly instrumental in that it aimed to demonstrate his democratic and European credentials to the sceptical generals and to dilute their suspicion of his government. The armed forces, on the other hand, wanted Turkey in the EU for the opposite reason: to ensure that an Islamic government (worse still, an Islamic modernity) would be thoroughly changed by EU conditionality.

The tension in Turkey is matched on the European side, where there is some confusion between secularism and democracy. The Turkish generals read Europe as democratic and secular; this led them to believe that in the eyes of the EU one was a necessary condition of the other, and that democrats were automatically committed to secularism. Perhaps they overvalued French laicisme.

But this causal nexus is not really so strong, certainly on the European left (which is ready to make concessions to Islam that it would not make to Christianity) but equally among many on the right (who believe that Islam and either secularism or democracy are incompatible anyway).

What has happened in 2007 - in the extensive pre-election constitutional tussles over the identity of the next president and who should elect him (to be decided in a referendum in October 2007) - is that these two conflicting motives (those of the soldiers and those of the civilians) clashed and produced a major crisis. This crisis probably happened - at least in the form it has - only because Turkey had sought EU membership so determinedly. It was precisely by being exposed to EU conditionality and the scrutiny of the Europeans that made clear the institutional design-flaw at the heart of the Turkish political system: namely that democracy and armed-forces supervision of elected politicians are irreconcilable.

It is only a minor irony that attempts to draw attention to this contradiction in the Turkish political system have tended to be ignored, marginalised or denounced in Turkey as "hostile" or as "manifestations of anti-Islamic sentiments". Erdogan himself has regularly repeated the proposition that Europe is a Christian club and thus prejudiced against Islam. This wholly ignores the depth of secularism in Europe and overlooks the reality that a secularism constructed from Christian antecedents is bound to be different in a myriad ways from a secularism constructed from Islamic antecedents (though that's a message few want to hear).

The weight of origin

A further factor is relevant in the Turkish picture, one that not even the clear-cut election result will be able to resolve. The moment when institutions, including countries, come into being generally marks them for a long time, usually for many years after the problems that the founders faced have been resolved. In Turkey's case, a special characteristic was that of the original mismatch of population and territory and the initial terms on which Turkey was to emerge from the chrysalis of the Ottoman empire as a newly hatched state.

The reference is to the Treaty of Sèvres of 1920, which would have left the new state with far less territory than it actually ended winning by force of arms. The treaty's terms gave sizeable areas of what became Turkey both to Greece and to an independent Kurdish state in the east. But the victory in battle that reversed Sèvres did not eliminate its legacy, which was the lasting insistence that only Muslims and only Turkish-speakers could be "real" Turks.

This proposition is very deeply encoded in the Turkish national narrative and helps to explain some of the puzzling obstinacies that the country exhibits when confronted by the less than salubrious bits of its past. Indeed, the escape-route of "secularism" is used to suppress almost all manifestations of non-Sunni Islam, and accounts for the deep suspicion of the relics of Christianity (and its modern proponents) in Turkey. By the same token, the Armenian genocide has to become a non-event, a kind of negative founding-myth of the new state, one that is even safeguarded by the criminal code. Similarly, the proposition that the Kurds should enjoy cultural and local autonomy is regarded from this perspective as wholly unacceptable.

The problem of 2007

The eruption of political crisis in Turkey in 2007 has made it a European Union problem, to which the union has responded with indecision, evasiveness and a vague hope that it would somehow go away. True, direct intervention by the EU would unquestionably exacerbate the situation; and, equally, only Turks themselves can resolve the problem of who, in the end, rules - the armed forces or parliament. But the EU could certainly have stressed the incompatibility issue from the outset, even before launching the negotiations in 2005. If nothing else, the EU could have tried to offer a route out of politics for the armed forces.

Thus the EU has a kind of off-stage responsibility for the crisis, in that it set itself up as the chief arbiter of democracy (under the "Copenhagen criteria") without consistently spelling out to Turkey that this would mean a de facto constitutional revolution. The EU's mission to spread democracy and human rights should have dictated nothing else. Instead, the pretence that Turkey had already met the Copenhagen criteria when negotiations began has been damaging all round.

Another way to define the problem of 2007 is that it is about reconfiguring the Turkish political system in such a way as to reflect the will of the people. Recasting the constitutional order to ensure that it is both fully democratic and secular would mean transferring full power to a population that is, in fact, neither. The 22 July election result has demonstrated that the attraction of political Islam - even in the "moderate" form represented by the AKP - remains widespread, and this places a question-mark over the extent of secularism's reach. Likewise, whether the Islamists fully recognise that sizeable swathes of the population are indeed committed to secularism and reject an "Iran-lite" solution is an open question. After the election, the situation has the potential to move towards a polarisation with far-reaching consequences.

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