Turkey's Maturing Politics

Other blogs can bring you up to speed on the competing conspiracies that make it exceedingly unpleasant to talk to Turks about politics this summer. However, two recent insightful articles help shine some light on the current political situation here. They help support my theory that shutting down AKP may be the best thing to happen to Turkey, but not for the reasons you might think.

The first, and best, is the Economist's overview, Flags, Veils and Sharia. It cuts through the bullshit promoted by both sides in an attempt to get at how Islamist the country really is. The vague headline of a Guardian article written by Fadi Hakura, Turkey Turns West, does little to illuminate his argument that the turmoil in the country might be a sign of political maturity rather than impending doom.

Whether or not you believe the constitutional court will ban Turkey's ruling party (AKP) in early August (safe money says it will; though I believe that there's a chance a deal will be cut at the last minute), both articles touch on two very important points that tend to get overlooked in this overheated debate: First, AKP got in this mess because it misread its mandate and overstepped political boundaries. Second, this may be the best opportunity yet for a genuine opposition to emerge and check AKP's power.

First, AKP has enjoyed genuine public support. It won 47% in the July 2007 Parliamentary election. (The argument promoted by anti-AKP partisans is that it doesn't enjoy majority support is a ridiculous red herring. I'd like them to point to a ruling party in a European parliamentary system that has achieved majority support. Since when has majority support been a prerequisite for political legitimacy in a multiparty democracy anyway? Since never). AKP emerged from the 2007 elections with a mandate. However, as parties with weak opposition tend to do, it completely overplayed its hand.  The Economist writes:

Had Mr Erdogan made an effort to reach out to secular Turks, “we might not be where we are today,” concedes a senior AKP official. He missed several chances. The first came last autumn when the AKP was trying to patch together a new constitution to replace the one written by the generals in the 1980s. Mr Erdogan never bothered to consult his secular opponents. He ignored them again when passing his law to let girls wear headscarves at universities. Critics say that his big election win turned his head. “Erdogan accepts no advice and no criticism,” whispers an AKP deputy. “He’s become a tyrant.”

In its early years, AKP succeeded because it did what smart political parties everywhere do: it built a base by focusing on bread and butter issues -- economic development, anti-corruption, unemployment, inflation-- that topped Turks' list of concerns. By doing so, it temporarily shelved the secularist/Islamist debate that has been simmering below the surface since it took power. When the party took its eye off the ball this spring and clumsily removed the ban on headscarves  in universities -- an issue far, far down Turks' list of concerns but important to AKP's religious constituencies -- its public support dropped accordingly (according to polls I haven't seen but it stands to reason) and, in a very Turkish twist, it found itself fighting for its survival in the courts. This was a serious miscalculation and the party is paying a high price.

The critical test for AKP (should it survive the legal challenge) or its inheritors (if it doesn't), is whether it learns from this misstep. AKP was born when its predecessor, the Welfare party, was banned in the late 90s for Islamist leanings. AKP emerged as a savvy, message-driven (by regional standards) party that learned that you win elections by paying attention to voters' top concerns. Local elections are scheduled for early 2009. If AKP survives, Turkish voters have the chance to weigh in and remind the party that if Turks wanted Islamists in power, they could have voted for Saadet (which they didn't).

Lesson one: In mature democracies, parties that misread public attitudes are held accountable (though I wish AKP could be punished at the ballot box, rather than in the courts).

The second important consideration that the Guardian piece briefly touches on is the impotence of AKP's opposition. I don't have the privilege of voting in Turkish elections, but if I did, I'm not sure who I'd vote for.  I'm not convinced that AKP will protect the rights of the non-believing minority, especially women.  Unfortunately, there is absolutely no other political force -- especially the incompetent, corrupt CHP -- that I would trust to look out for my interests. The lack of viable alternative  contributes to the hysterical insecurity of Turkey's secular urban elite. I'd be hysterical too if the only person representing my political interests was Deniz Baykal.

Fadi Hakura writes:

Recent opinion polls indicate plummeting popular support not only for the AKP but for all the major parties. The percentage of undecided voters has risen fivefold since January. The polls also show the AKP and the secularists are blamed equally for the political mess. Forty-five per cent of Turks - a figure rising fast - want new political structures. An electoral earthquake could be in the offing.

Rumblings can be heard from liberal-minded, secular-leaning politicians who wish to build coalitions of right and left, are comfortable with individual choice about headscarfs or alcohol, and are protagonists of radical reforms.

Further proof of these dramatic changes can be found in the unprecedented silence of the military throughout the court case. During past crises, the "guardians of secularism" were always to the fore, but not this time. Sensing that Turkey is fast becoming a diverse society, the military is attempting to adapt. Turkey is increasingly peppered with capitalist-friendly conservatives, liberal secularists and moderate nationalists, all of whom are at odds with the one-size-fits-all state system.

It remains to be seen whether the military really is adapting to an increasingly diverse society (there's plenty of evidence to suggest otherwise). Hakura is right, however, about the new space opening up for political parties that genuinely represent the contours of Turkish public opinion, rather than the artificial secularist versus Islamist construction we have now. I would love to see the data on which he bases this assumption.

Even a casual observer can tell Turkey's political landscape is too complicated to be neatly sewn up by two political parties. Where do pro-western secularists turn? Nationalist/statist Islamists? Old school socialists? Soros-funded provacateurs? Greens? Surely there's room for new parties and smart young leaders to emerge from the unwieldy bloc that was AKP.  A more capable political force representing Turkey's minority secularists might do more than anything to temper AKP and increase secularists' political confidence, even as the disproportionate political and economic power they've enjoyed for 70 years slips through their fingers.

In the end, it may be that the disbanding of AKP may be the best thing that can happen to Turkish politics, but not because it puts a lid on the creeping Islamism secularists see around every corner. A ban issued by a constitutional court is a bit harsh and hard for western liberals to stomach, but this undemocratic tool may, in the end, increase political accountability and pluralism in Turkey.*

*Worst possible outcome? AKP cuts a deal to save its ass, emerges from the court case with few challengers and its leadership punishes rank and file members who considered a post-AKP political life. That would be bad.