Sunday, 9 December 2007

Turkish Politics: Society Progresses not the Politics

I have not commented on this since Hrant Dınk was assassinated. I think for one thing, I was rather depressed by the total failure of the the political parties to seize the opportunity for reform. I'm still depressed about it, but I'm used to it. Certainly the economy and society is developing and growing. This process has come about through pragmatic accommodation of reforms which do not originate from within the Turkish political system. There is no real political force on behalf or real reform. The closest thing to that is a mixture of business lobbying, NGO lobbying partly funded by the EU and George Soros, and intellectual-journalistic opinion mongering.

Since Dınk's murder there has been a general election. I am afraid to say that political reform was not at the centre of the election. This reality has been obscured by a seemingly endless number of western commentators who are able to believe that the AKP, the governing party, is a party of modernising liberalising reform. These commentator also include Turks writing in western publications, but since it's difficult to meet Turks who believe such a thing and such a view has become less popular the longer the AKP has been in power, it really has to be concluded that they are fitting into a view that westerners need to believe.

The AKP government is certainly a lot better than might be expected given the Sahria law politics background of most of them. An organicist ideology of a pure Muslim-Turkish nation has involve into a developmentalism which implictly accepts change as defined by the European Union, World Bank, associations orientated to international business and the EU, and the more internationally oriented writers and academics. That is certainly not the platform the AKP compaigns on. It bases its appeal on nationalism, Muslim identity and patronage. Reforms are explain on the explicit level in those terms, not in the way westerners would like to understand them. Every political movement needs a bit of demagogy but the AKP's foundation is in demagogy against the elite and the non-Muslim/Turkic. Despite the western image their plains for political reform do not go beyond a minimalist adaptation to EU harmonisation requirements.

The trouble with the other parties is they are no better. The main opposition which is no better, is the 'social democratic' CHP. They are more a party of the secular state and the established middle and upper classes than a social democratic party. The social democratic element is in a statism and protectionism, expressed in opposition to some of the economic liberalisation of the reform process. This allowed them to be painted as more anti-EU than the AKP. I would say that claim has no underlying relation to reality whatsoever, but expect to hear more of it. I don't beleive the CHP deserve any sympathy. The other thing which has led d western commentators to paint them as less reformist than the AKP is the huge demonstrations for secularism which took place as the possibility approached that the new President of the Republic would be an AKP figure with a wife who wears a Muslim headscarf at all times in public. These demonstrations were seen as expressing an alliance between CHP and the armed forces, well maybe. There was no real chance of a coup, and if they were attmetping to pressure the democratic process they failed miserably. On one level it was all very self-defeating. Demonstrations were dominated by the Turkish flag as secularism was defended with reference to the nation state. The demonstrations looked like demonstrations on behalf of a strong state from a nationalist point of view. The idea that the AKP is any less nationalist or statist is absurd. They are less close to the army, but if they could co-opt the army they would, they are rooted in an Ottomanist ideology in which the state is defined by a father-sultan, sharia law, the Sultan's bureaucracy and the military which originally had a Jihadist function.

The consequence of this movement and subsequent manouvres at the top is that the President is an AKP man with a headscarved wife, but the President is the affable moderate former foreign minister Abdullah Gül, not the strong man of the AKP, Recep Tayyıp Erdoğan who is aggressive and demagogic in manner. This may be bad news for Erdoğan who everyone think longs to be President, but good news for the AKP which keeps its strongest figure at the centre of government and party politics. Whatever the personality of the President, the office inevitably leads to diastance from party politics and most government functions. If AKP lsoes its strongest figure to the Presidency it could well experience political decline, accelerating the disconnection between President and party. As Erdoğan will know have to wait to be President, it is even more likely that his Presidency will coincide with a down turn in the unity and popularity of the AKP. During the manouvres, the AKP managed to look like it had the democratic high ground by declaring it was in favour of the direct election of the President, that idea has disappeared since, maybe it will come back, I'm not expecting it

There is a new constitution being prepared, so that will put the AKP to the test and the CHP. Expect a minimalist adaptation to EU standards, not a big step forward. Things both AKP and CHP have been very quiet about: gay rights, sub-national identity, free speech, limiting executive privilege, university autonomy.

The third party is the ultra-nationalist MHP, who are more of a negative force in Turkish politics. No one expects them to have realistic proposals, they will just create the problem of how to get them to accept changes. The third party in the election was the Democratic Party, whichwas a failed attempt to relaunch the classical Turkish centre-right. Goodbye to them. The fourth party in the election, but the third in the National Assembly is the Kudish autonomy leftist DTP, the most important party in Turkey for many western left-wingers. Contacts with the DTP may, however, not be a successful substitute for interacting with the other 96% of Turkish voters, even including those tiresome ultra-nationalists in the MHP.


Nihat said...

Barry, I think your reading of Turkish politics is very apt. You are so right about the AKP's not being any less nationalist or statist. It's hard not to be depressed really.

Barry Stocker said...

Thanks Nihat. I wish I could be more optimistic. Maybe there is more open reformist just round the corner; or maybe it will need an end to Erdoğan and Baykal as party leaders, which is some way off in all probability, before politics can open up again.