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Friday, September 17, 2010

A More "Democratic" Turkey?

The Turkish electorate just resoundingly (58% of those who voted) passed a referendum that could very well end Turkey's definition of democracy. Turkish democracy is not like other versions of democracy; well, maybe not until now.

'Hurray!' you say?

Read on and, when you're done, let me know if you still think this is a positive development for Turkey or whether you think, as I do, that this is the most troubling development in Turkish politics in recent memory.

The Man. The Vision.

Modern Turkey (born out of the progressive vision of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk after World War I) bears little resemblance to other nations formerly part of the Ottoman Empire. This could be because it was the center of the Ottoman Empire and change came quicker to the seat of power; or (more likely) it could be due to the revolutionary visions of Ataturk.

As Stephen Kinzer points out in Reset: Iran, Turkey, and America's Future (a book I highly recommend reading if you're interested in the subject; for the record I don't agree with all of Mr. Kinzer's conclusions but, as he has a habit of doing, he has framed the context in a way that is easily understood and exceedingly rational), Iran and Turkey went through almost simultaneous revolutions at the beginning of the 20th century. Reza Shah (Iran's revolutionary leader) imposed modernism and western principles upon his people without asking, much as Ataturk did in Turkey. The difference is that Ataturk was able to institutionalize his vision of a more representative 'democracy' of sorts that would transition over time once people got used to the idea, while Reza Shah had trouble letting go to the power he had obtained.  Ultimately this led to a political crisis in Iran, one which led to the political rise of previously underground religious fundamentalists. The rest is history.

In the last few years of his life Ataturk was not extremely involved in politics, choosing instead to trust in the institutions and people he had put in place while he enjoyed, how shall I say, his more indulgent personality traits. Knowing that Turkish culture was deeply rooted in a political Islam that was not always (and might never be) compatible with the western ideas for which he fought so fiercely, he put in place several checks and balances that would ensure the continuity of his vision of Turkey's future, including an independent judiciary and military that would not succumb to the pressures of communism, Islamism, etc.

Right about now you might be telling yourself (if you've made it this far) that my description of Ataturk makes him seem a bit megalomaniacal (yes, I enjoy making up words), touting his vision of the future as the only way forward despite fierce objection from almost everyone in the country at the time save a few close military and civilian advisors. Alas, you would be right. Ataturk did what he thought was right for the long-term future of Turkey and his beloved fellow Turks after spending much of his life hobnobbing with intellectual elite in Paris, London, Istanbul, Beirut, etc. He knew that his ideas were revolutionary and, as humans, we are naturally against change, especially in the short term. So he just did it largely without consultation, using the military as the steadying force behind his ideas.

The difference between Ataturk and Reza Shah, Ernesto 'Che' Guevarra, Hitler, and other revolutionary leaders of the 20th century, is that Ataturk was right and has led Turkey to be what it is today. His ideas, and the techniques he used to institutionalize them, were exactly what Turkey needed coming out of the ashes of the Ottoman Empire. Travel to Turkey (there are many reasons most foreigners fall in love with Turkey, most of which come back for repeated visits and some of which never left; politics, alas, is probably not one of them) and you see the fruits of his 'vision' everywhere: in the Starbucks, in the youth showing off the latest fashions, on Istanbul's bustling Istiklal Caddesi, in the street protests, and in the hearts of those Turks (like me) who yearn for the continuation of our society of western openness to compliment Turkey's own rich cultural heritage. You see it in the eyes of Turks young and old, male and female, Christian, Jewish and Muslim, walking the streets of our cities with confidence and without the fear of reprisal.


It took at least a generation after Ataturk's death for people to truly embrace this modern, western way of life; but there is a reason why Turks are so vehemently nationalistic, so protective of their secularism, so proud of being a unique social, cultural, and political entity on the world stage. Most Turks (including most likely much of the 58%) enjoy the freedoms their modern state affords them and would not welcome a Saudi- or Iran-like limited existence. I guarantee that even those that voted for the referendum would not want to go down the path of these theocracies that regularly limit human rights. Not after having lived in the Turkey I know and love.

That's why the results of this referendum (and indeed the fact that it was conceived by the AK Party in the first place) are so troubling.


The Underlying Problem and the Repercussions of the Referendum.

58% of voters chose 'yes' on the referendum that, among other things, limits the political power of the military and places the judiciary square in the palm of the ruling Islamist AK Party. Most people don't realize what they have until it's been taken away from them; a fatalistic, yet not all that impossible possibility after this referendum.

Let me explain.


Western electorates are not like the Turkish one. In the west, the fundamentals of Jeffersonian democracy hold strong because the hedge against a manipulative, weak, unpopular, corrupt, etc. government is the ever-present promise of elections. In the U.S., this fear of elections (more specifically a fear of getting voted out of office) has led to the 24 hour-a-day, 365 day-a-year election cycle that is arguably not healthy. This is the exact opposite problem that Turkey faces today.

Well-organized, grassroots campaigning in rural and poor areas of Turkey has solidified a solid, religious base for the AK Party. Previously not very interested in politics, these Turks have been drawn into the electoral process by the promise (and, in most cases, delivery) of services for the poor, cleaner cities, and functioning bureaucracies. To their credit, the AK Party has delivered these things and there is a reason why they continue to be popular amongst a section of this largely religiously conservative population. This group is much more concerned about, quite legitimately so, their continued ability to get government services than the threat of fundamental Islam creeping into politics, thus allying Turkey closer to Crown Prince Abdullah than PM David Cameron (who, for the record and despite his open support for Turkish PM Erdogan, seems to realize that Turkey's continued look to the west is crucial; I agree with him that the west can not afford to lose Turkey).

The problem is that, unlike in most western democracies, a viable political alternative to the AK Party does not seem to exist. Given their chance to shine in the '90s after the untimely death of one of Turkey's great modern secular leaders, Turgut Özal (a pious man of meager, rural origins who himself kept the military out of politics not by constitutional referendums but by moving the country progressively more towards westernization and modernization), the secular parties drowned in their own corruption and ineptitude, turning off many people to politics and, more importantly, opening the necessary political space for a well-organized group led by savvy politicians (like current PM Erdogan) to thrive. The secular parties (ideologically representing around 60%+ of Turks in my non-scientific opinion) are themselves divided, much as are many western democracies, into groups representing all sections of the political spectrum (left, center left, center right, etc.). The difference is that in Turkey they are divided into many more parties (easily over 20), with the "full of talk, not of action" Cumhuriyet Halk Party (CHP) bumbling in the lead, filling the 'best of the worst' opposition role with about as much gusto as Al Gore at a dinner party.

So if a viable political alternative to the AK Party does not exist, i.e. a check and balance played by most opposition parties in western democracies, who will ensure that the government truly maintains the path towards modernization, fulfilling the dream not only of Ataturk but of millions of Turks who enjoy the many freedoms largely not afforded to citizens during the Ottoman days of yesteryear? Who is the check? Who ensures the balance?

Simply put, thanks to fragmented and futile secular politicians who have repeatedly failed to capitalize on rising unease against the increasing Islamization of the AK Party, there remain few options. Without the military and judiciary, the last bastions of Kemalism in public Turkish life that have controversially (and to their discredit not always fairly) maintained the course of Turkey towards the west, those options become basically non-existent, opening the floodgates for the AK Party to do almost anything they please.

Among other things, this referendum takes these powers, the only watchdog elements left in modern Turkish politics, away from the military and the judiciary. Among other things, this referendum allows them to place fundamental Muslims loyal to the AK Party on judiciary benches across the country and systematically take the power of the military away from the secular generals and put it into the civilian hands of nepotistic AK party cronies.

Accepted by 58% of Turks, hailed by President Obama as a evidence of the "vibrancy of Turkey's democracy," and much to the excitement of a no-named NY Times editorialist, the referendum essentially kills Turkey's unique style of democracy that has consistently ensured the continuation of secularism by maintaining the separation between mosque and state. Who says such Jeffersonian ideas are well-suited for a complicated geo-political place like Turkey? Perhaps, given the aforementioned complexities in Turkish political life today, democracy a la turca is the best version for Turkey.

Almost as an afterthought, the NY Times editorial says that "to work, [the changes brought on by the referendum] will also require Turkey’s political leaders to exercise restraint." And if they don't exercise restraint? What then? Who will stop them from moving Turkey down the path of theocracy? A European Union that has repeatedly distanced itself from Turkey? An America that desperately needs to appease one of its last allies in a region that today remains overtly hostile to any US involvement?

What about a Saudi Arabia, a Libya or an Iran that has everything to gain from the increased involvement of Islam in Turkish politics? Will they encourage Turkey's Islamist leaders to exercise restraint?

I don't think so.

In conclusion, thank you 58% of Turkish voters, President Obama, and no-named NY Times editorialist for failing to see the larger picture and, most importantly, opening the floodgates to Erdogan and his cronies to institutionalize their brand of Islamic 'democracy' under the cloak of western 'democracy.' This referendum could lead to increased radicalization of opposing political and religious elements in Turkey. In a worst case scenario, without the military and judiciary watchdogs and depending on how the AK Party deals with their new-found total domination without opposition, it could lead to open revolt in the streets led by secularists who do not see any other way to protect their way of life.

I sincerely hope I'm wrong.