Erdogan leads Turkey - and the Middle East


By M K Bhadrakumar

Situating oneself in a fairly recent decade, if one were to suggest that someday Turkey, a staunchly secularist country, could have an Islamist head of government, it would have seemed a joke. And to suggest that an Islamist leader could as well prove to be the longest-serving leader in that country, second only to Kemal Attaturk, its founder and father figure, would have seemed a macabre joke.

"No way, the Pashas will never allow it to happen." That would be the repartee. The Pashas, or civil or military authorities, are confined to barracks. The results of the parliamentary elections held in Turkey on Sunday need to be put in historical perspective.

Without doubt, the resounding victory by the ruling party AKP
 
(Justice and Development Party) led by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, with a mandate of 50% of popular support is a landmark event. Victory was expected, but not on a scale exceeding the 47% mandate of the 2007 elections.

The heart of the matter is that Turkey is reaching unprecedented heights of economic prosperity and is a land at peace after several decades of strife, bloodshed and chronic political instability. The contrast couldn't be sharper with its neighborhood, which is passing through great upheaval and uncertainties.

Turkey's economy grew at a rate of 9% last year, second only to China's among the Group of 20. The economy is already the world's 17th largest and growing income is beginning to percolate and give people hope of a better tomorrow.

Today, Turkey borrows more cheaply than Spain; a far cry from the not-too-distant past when it used to hold a begging bowl before the International Monetary Fund (IMF). Yet, it also showcases the IMF's success. Turkey has been one of IMF's biggest borrowers - US$25 billion in the past decade - but is well-poised to pay back its debts by 2013. The contrast with Greece, a pristine European Union (EU) member country, is at once obvious.
Unsurprisingly, a Turkish name that spontaneously sailed into view as a terrific candidate for the vacant post of managing director of IMF was of Kemal Davis, who nursed the sick Turkish economy at a critical phase when it was in intensive care. Arguably, it would have been a bitter pill to swallow for EU member countries if a brilliant Turkish wizard were to be employed to restore their economies to recovery.

Explaining Erdogan's mandate
Ironically, as a Bloomberg report wrote, "Rebuffed in its efforts to join the EU, Turkey now borrows at 10-year yields lower than at least eight members of the 27-nation bloc." The Turkish electorate is grateful to Erdogan's government for successful economic management. However, Erdogan's renewed mandate to lead the country for a third successive four-year term demands a much broader explanation.

Personal charisma was certainly a factor, as there is no one today in Turkish politics who can even come up to his shoulders in sheer stature as a statesman. It is a saga that becomes the stuff of an absorbing political biography - a long journey from the backstreets of a Black Sea town to Ankara via Istanbul, from a prison cell to the office of the prime minister, from rabble-rousing Islamism to consensual politics, from a Turkish politician to a towering regional figure who might very well end up in the years ahead moulding the New Middle East in a far more enduring and humane way than the Ottomans from Suleiman the Magnificent could manage through centuries.


The Turkey which Erdogan inherited in 2003 was a practicing democracy in appearance but still had common characteristics with the authoritarian regimes of the Middle East.

The military as the self-appointed Praetorian Guards of the Turkish state; the strong authoritarian undercurrent of the "deep state"; coercion as the instrument to smother dissent; a form of secularism that was as militant and suffocating as any religious extremism; the deep-rooted religiosity of the common people who were observant Muslims but steeped in worldly concerns; and, the inability or refusal to comprehend and to come to terms with political Islam - these were as much features of the Turkish crisis.
Erdogan proved himself to be a "liberator" and a "conqueror". He gently eased Turkey to face the reality that practicing or holding religious beliefs is not antithetical to the state or modernity. The thought churning through the Turkish mind when Erdogan took over the leadership was whether the practice of women wearing headscarves was compatible with the tenets of a secularist state.

There are two Erdogans in evidence. In his first term, as he began the project to roll back the Turkish "deep state" and to ease the country of its dogmatic notions regarding the essence of secularism, he knew he was taking on a formidable challenge and a vicious backlash was to be expected.

So, Erdogan resorted to the politics of moderation and became a "centrist". He made great tactical use of Turkey's EU membership bid to push forward his reform program. This approach helped him form a rainbow coalition of large industrialists, Islamist conservatives and liberals, Kurdish nationalists and sections of the intelligentsia which were, per se, antithetical to the politics of Islamism.

The strategy of stooping to conquer paid off and Erdogan presided over what is arguably one of the most transformative periods of Turkish history. Turkey is indeed a vastly different country compared to what it was in 2002 when the AKP first came to power.

During his second term in office from 2007, Erdogan turned out to be a different man. He was much more assertive and confident, borne out of the awareness that he was no longer leading the party of the underdog - AKP had become a Turkish "establishment" party par excellence.

He saw no further use of his "centrist" coalition. As a prominent columnist put it in the Hurriyet newspaper:
Moderation brought the AKP popularity. Yet the more popular it became, the more the AKP felt it could ignore centrist consensual politics and the liberal vision of EU membership. In due course, the party abandoned the EU process and instead started to go after those who disagreed with it, including the media and the courts.

Ten years later, Mr Erdogan still has the support of Islamist-conservatives, but the rest of his coalition has abandoned him. Liberals have left the AKP for its lackluster commitment to Europe. Large businesses are disheartened by heavy-handed treatment of secular companies by the AKP.
The criticism is somewhat uncharitable. The EU didn't help matters with Germany and France in particular making it abundantly clear that Turkey's hopes of taking habitation in a common European home would always remain a pipedream. The AKP reacted to the EU's arrogance of politico-cultural superiority.

Erdogan's choices
Apart from the Westernized sections of Turkish elites, people on the whole resented the EU's attitude. Turkish nationalism, which has always remained a strong undercurrent, reared its head. Thus, on the one hand, Erdogan's hands were forced by the EU, while on the other hand, he estimated that it was also the smart thing to do - to seize the moment to career away from Western-style reforms toward Turkish-style reforms.

Underlying all this was Erdogan's own personality. He is an archetypal Turk who can be stubborn, who should never be rubbed the wrong way; impulsive and large-hearted, and amiable and dominating at the same time.

The path that Erodgan chooses to take in his forthcoming term is already a matter of animated discussion. The AKP's mandate translates as 326 seats in the 550-member parliament, which is 40 short of the two-thirds majority he needs to amend the constitution and four short of the 330 seats he needs to seek a referendum over a constitutional reform.

The AKP needs to draw the support of the left-of-center Republican People's Party (135 seats), the ultra-nationalistic Nationalist Movement Party (53 seats) or the Kurdish party Peace and Democratic Party (36 seats).

Erdogan has projected as a major agenda of the new government the drafting of a new constitution that would include "basic rights and freedoms", replacing the 1982 constitution drawn after the 1980 military coup d'etat. Few details are available as to what Erdogan has on his mind. Murat Yetkin, one of Turkey's most respected editors, wrote:
The voters wanted to see Erdogan and his government in power for another four years but asked him to seek compromise for a new constitution with opposition parties. Is Erdogan going to look for common ground with opposition and with whom? The answer to it will shape the Turkish politics in the months ahead.
In sum, Erdogan has to reconcile the two "halves" of Turkey - secular and liberal Turks on the one hand and a large established Islamic conservative elite with a well-organized political party on the other.

Equally, what lies ahead of him is also a challenge that these two "halves" should be willing to reconcile. Any disharmony can be disruptive while the high probability is that Erdogan will bring Islam and democracy together, since overarching all personal traits and political compulsions, he is also conscious by now that he is destined to be a man of history. Thus, he vowed to embrace the whole nation in his first victory speech on Sunday:
Our nation assigned us to draft the new constitution. They gave us a message to build the new constitution through consensus and negotiation. We will discuss the new constitution with opposition parties, civil society groups and academics. We will seek the broadest consensus.

We will draft a civilian, pro-freedom, participatory constitution together. It will be constitution of Turks, Kurds ... the Roma minorities.
What lends enchantment to the view is that it is all going to be Erdogan's and Turkey's choice - a choice that will be made not because of American or European pressure. (The deep-rooted "anti-Americanism" in Turkey is as intense as in Pakistan with only 10% Turks viewing the United States favorably.) Second, the entire Muslim Middle East is curiously watching the choices that Erdogan makes in his third term.

Erdogan is well-placed to plant an iron signpost for the road that the Muslim Brotherhood can take in Egypt or Jordan; what quintessentially Shi'ite empowerment can mean within a democratic framework in Iraq, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait or Bahrain without the Muslim psyche having to tear itself apart; how despite Arabism, the Middle East can still pull on excellently well with the West, as Erdogan indeed is doing, despite being an Islamist and a proud Turk.

Ambassador M K Bhadrakumar was a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service. His assignments included the Soviet Union, South Korea, Sri Lanka, Germany, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Kuwait and Turkey.



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