Whither Turkey?

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan addresses AKP members of parliament, January 5, 2010

Recent arrests and the questioning of top military commanders over an alleged plot to create chaos in Turkey have many in the international media and elsewhere wondering if the Justice and Development Party, or AKP, which came to power in 2002, is spearheading an Islamist takeover.

Can these arrests be seen as the latest act of a once seemingly Western-friendly AKP government on a mission to fulfill its Islamist ambitions? Current tensions between Israel and Turkey and major new initiatives in Turkish foreign policy toward once-shunned states in the Middle East seem to point to the same concerns of a Turkey turning her face from West to East.

Although the genuine concerns of foreign observers and Western governments need to be addressed, predicting the future of Turkey from its changing foreign policy without an awareness of the domestic context results in problematic conclusions. A blinkered perspective explains why most foreign commentators have misread how and why the AKP came into power and how it maintained growing support from Turkish society, at least until 2009.

The AKP generated broad support not because it claimed roots in an Islamist movement but because its pro-EU, pro-foreign investment, pro-democracy and pro-reform policies have attracted votes not only from its natural base of conservatives, but also from liberals, leftist groups, marginalized ethnic groups such as Kurds and even non-Muslims. All attempts by the Kemalist elites of the Turkish state and the armed forces to undermine the AKP’s coveted position through orchestrated social campaigns and politicized judicial efforts have led to wider support for AKP at home and abroad as a victim of anti-democratic power structures.

However, the March 2009 local elections recorded only a 39 percent victory for the AKP, a significant drop from its 47 percent majority in the previous election in 2007. In retrospect, the AKP began losing its momentum in 2008 when it became perceived as a party that seeks to fill the pockets of its own supporters and punish anyone who stands in the way. In other words, the Turkish public was reacting to AKP in the same way it reacted to the other established parties that the AKP defeated in 2002.

Efforts to regain AKP’s image of reform after the 2009 elections initially resulted in a burst of renewed excitement, particularly over promises to address the Kurdish issue and the problems faced by the Alevis, a religious and ethnic minority group of some 10 million, as well as proposed democratic changes to the current military-friendly Constitution.

Yet, the AKP failed to implement any of these initiatives. Its silence over the closure of the Kurdish party, DTP, and subsequent arrests of Kurdish politicians lost it credibility as more and more voters realized that the AKP’s democratic vision lacked substance.

Meanwhile, on the economic front, unemployment soared to a record high while the AKP publicly maintained the patently unsupportable argument that the global economic crisis had bypassed Turkey because its banks were soundly managed and capitalized. It is no surprise that currently AKP’s support hovers around 34 percent, a record low for the party.

The rise and slippage of the AKP reveals much about the mood in Turkey that is often overlooked. Whenever the AKP achieved significant steps towards EU accession, economic growth, foreign investment, democracy and human rights, it gained broad popular support. When the AKP slowed down on reform and relapsed into power games and autocracy, it lost votes.

The AKP’s volatile popularity reflects where Turkish society is today: Europe-looking, yearning for more democracy and economic liberty and, at the same time, trying to maintain a conservative culture and strong national identity. The greatest portion of the society wants a meaningful engagement with the world, not a return to an isolationist Islamist state. A study done by Sabancı University in 2009 found that the ratio of Turks who want Shariah Law in Turkey went down to 10 percent from 26 percent ten years earlier in 1999.

The Kemalist elites have never been able to reflect the country’s reality outside of the golden triangle of Istanbul-Ankara-İzmir. By insisting on a peculiar type of secularism and national identity, they have alienated large sections of the Turkish society. That is why all of their attempts to treat Turkish society like a herd that will hand power back to them have not worked.

Today, for the first time since the foundation of the Republic of Turkey, a military coup looks impossible. The armed forces and the old elites now know that they are not any longer a law unto themselves. Turkish society has discovered its voice and has become the primary engine behind reform and progress.

If this reading of the deeper social and political tensions in Turkey is correct, then recent changes in Turkish foreign policy cannot be seen simply in terms of a religious re-orientation of the country or an aggressive Islamist policy. Turkey must be understood on its own terms as a country which is evolving towards a stronger democracy that wants to be a proactive and independent actor in the world.

Where this will take Turkey and what this will mean for United States-European Union-Turkey relations and stability in the Caucasus and the Middle East are open questions. That is why Turkey needs close support from the U.S. and EU more than ever before to ensure a soft landing.

Ziya Meral is a London-based Turkish analyst and a PhD candidate at the University of Cambridge.  Jonathan Paris is a senior fellow with the Atlantic Council’s South Asia Center.  This essay was previously published in HurriyetReuters Pictures.

Image: Erdogan.jpg