Friday, 20 July 2007

Kemalism at bay

DEPENDING on whom you ask, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan comports himself like someone confident of a new term, or desperate for one. On July 17 he said he would leave politics if voters don't give him an outright parliamentary majority in Sunday's elections, and his opponents roasted him for it.

Erdogan predicts that his Justice and Development Party (AKP) will win about 315 seats in the 550-member parliament. A poll conducted for Raymond James, a securities broker, gives him 298 seats - still enough for a single-party government. It is important for Turkey, Greece and the region that they are proven correct.

Erdogan's strong card is the economy. Over five years his Justice and Development Party (AKP) has doubled GNP to $400 billion, lowered inflation by two-thirds to below 10 percent, and more than doubled per capita income to $5,477. Foreign investment, an indicator of foreign confidence, shot up from just over a billion dollars to over $20 billion.

Under Erdogan, too, Turkey became an official European Union candidate; it took a first step in distancing the military from civilian affairs by demoting the National Security Council to an advisory role; and it scored a major foreign policy victory when it withdrew support from the staid Rauf Denktash in northern Cyprus. That allowed Turkish-Cypriot enthusiasm for a political solution to visibly outshine that of Greek-Cypriots for the first time in 30 years, and altered Western perceptions of the status quo.

These achievements amount to the best period of governance Turkey has had in many years. So why are the elections hotly contested? One reason is electoral arithmetic. In 2002, AKP won a sweeping parliamentary majority with just 34 percent of the vote because all but one other party failed to clear a 10 percent threshold to enter parliament. In a three-party parliament with lots of independents, AKP is expected to hold fewer seats with about 41 percent of the popular vote.

The other reason is that an overtly religious party has now demonstrated competence and staying power, introducing a debate about whether Turkey really needs to cling to secularism. The Welfare Party, from whose ashes the AKP sprang, lost the confidence of the Turkish mainstream after it attempted to re-orient foreign policy towards the Muslim world.

That made many secular Turks suspicious. They say Erdogan and his prime minister, Abdullah Gul, have a fundamentalist agenda to dilute the secular state founded by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk in 1923, and perhaps prepare the way for a political revolution in another generation.

They point to Erdogan's flirting with the idea in 2005 of criminalising adultery, in accordance with strict Islamic law but against the Turkish constitution. More recently, Erdogan proposed overturning a ban on graduates of religious high schools, or imam hatip, from entering the civil service.

Secularists have also objected to the appointment of religious men at the head of central institutions. The president refused to approve Erdogan's nominee to head the central bank. But Temel Kotil, who heads Turkish Airlines, has performed well. (He is credited with banning pork from in-flight meals and introducing non-alcoholic sanitary towelettes, but also with turning around the airline's image and performance.)

To suspect that AKP is a group of men bent on creating an Islamic republic seems to require a peculiarly Turkish paranoia. It is the sort of paranoia that sees Turkey's European Union candidacy as a Trojan horse, because it requires human and civil rights concessions to ethnic and religious minorities such as Kurds and Christians. These have been withheld out of fear that minorities of all kinds are bent on ripping Turkey apart. That fear may have had some foundation in 1923, but is surely outmoded.

To an observer, the only real threat to the sanity of the Turkish state seems to come from an excess of those hormones instilled by its founder - nationalism and statism.

The two parties poised to share parliament with AKP - the Republican People's Party (currently in opposition) and the Nationalist Action Party - are both screamingly nationalistic to European ears. The latter, for instance, wants Turkey to invade northern Iraq in order to stanch the flow of terrorism from the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK).

That is a dangerous proposition, because while Turkey used to carry out mopup operations in northern Iraq with a nod from Saddam Hussein, today it is in danger of becoming bogged down in a full-scale fight with autonomously-minded Kurds, not just PKK guerrillas. That would be a second step towards regionalising the current mess in Iraq - assuming that Iran has already taken the first.

Already Turkey is reputed to have amassed 200,000 men on the Iraqi border, and on July 19 may have carried out its first bombing inside Iraq.

Even if it invades Iraq after the elections, the AKP has, from the Greek standpoint, a record of acting better than any of its opponents sound. It has tried to bring Turkey closer to the European Union and done everything it could to discourage a misguided US invasion in Iraq - including refusing passage to US troops. Were an AKP government in control of the military, it is even conceivable that disputes in Cyprus and the Aegean could be resolved, because they are requirements for EU entry.

But the cul-de-sacs that now hold Turkey back internally - its refusal to reopen a Greek Orthodox seminary, or to return property confiscated from minority foundations, for instance; that mar its foreign policy and chances of EU membership, such as its continued occupation of Cyprus (see our retrospective on pages 8-9); and the military assertiveness that makes Turkey a potential liability abroad - stem in large part from the nationalistic and statist republican philosophy of Kemal Ataturk. That philosophy now needs a major overhaul.

Sunday's elections are being held on the cusp of AKP's most ambitious challenge so far to the Kemalist establishment. They were triggered by an impasse over the replacement of the president, whose term officially expired on May 16. The president approves senior judges, chiefs of staff, constitutional court members and appointees to the Higher Education Council, which elects public university rectors and decrees rules of conduct. AKP would be virtually unopposed if it were to control that position in addition to parliament and the executive. If, as seems likely, AKP wins re-election, the real battle will begin.

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