Understanding Turkish Politics

Recently a full-page advertisement appeared in several major Turkish daily newspapers. The ad featured three Turkish Prime Ministers, past and present, under the banner heading: ‘Demokrasinin Yıldizları’ –  ‘Stars of Democracy’.
Well, Turkey is a democratic country – and democracy requires that citizens can, within reason, say, and even publish full-page newspaper ads about, pretty much anything they want. However, the fact that someone (or a group of ‘someones’) felt the need to fund such an ad suggests that democracy itself, and those who uphold it, are not outside the realm of debate in this country. The matter of who these ‘someones’ are, is a question I will return to later.

Turkey is a young democracy. In 2010 it is celebrating its 87th year. Not so young in terms of a human lifespan perhaps, but short enough in relation to the span of human history. The Republic of Turkey was founded in 1923, and the first open national election was held in 1946. In 1950 a rival party was elected to power for the first time. There will be people in their 70s and 80s in Turkey today who may have seen Mustafa Kemal Atatürk in the flesh – and the occasional nonagenarian who was around at the actual foundation of the Republic.
Compare the time-frame with that of France, for example, or the United States, great early leaders in the establishment of republican democracy. A five-year-old French child who witnessed the storming of the Bastille would have turned 100 in 1889 – when Atatürk himself was only eight years old. An American five-year-old present at the funeral of George Washington would have celebrated her 100th birthday in 1894.
85 years after the US Declaration of Independence, the young republic fought a terrible civil war in which 620,000 combatants and an unknown number of civilians lost their lives. Its territorial borders were still expanding, in theory, until 1959, when Alaska and Hawaii were added to the list of States. In practice, the US Government was still adding to its territory by means of war against foreign nations until 1898, or perhaps even 1945 if you count territories seized from the Japanese after World War II. The Philippines never actually achieved State-hood, but, in fact, only gained independence from the US in 1946. Slavery was finally abolished nearly 70 years after the Constitution set out to ‘establish justice . . . and promote the general Welfare’, but institutionalized segregation and disenfranchisement continued into the second half of the twentieth century, accompanied by exploitation of, and violence against African Americans.
Check out the record of France in the years after the foundation of the Republic. A scant twelve years on, Napoleon had overthrown it and declared himself Emperor. After the rest of Europe ganged up and got rid of him in 1814, the French decided to restore their monarchy. That lasted, in one form or another, until it was thrown out in favour of the Second Republic in 1848. French partiality for absolutism and guys called Napoleon Bonaparte resulted in a Second Empire, which lasted from 1852 until the disastrous war with Prussia in 1870. The Third Republic seems to have come into being at this point largely by default, for want of a monarch willing to be restored, rather than from any major desire in France for democratic government. The French are currently into their Fourth Republic, which came into being after the dubious doings of the wartime Vichy regime.
Clearly getting a modern-style democracy up and running is not an easy matter, despite the simplistic beliefs of guys called George Bush (even well-established democracies seem to have a hankering for dynasties, have you noticed?). Turkey’s founder, Atatürk, himself recognized that force of arms might create a nation, but consolidating, developing and maintaining it was a more difficult and ongoing task. Perhaps farsightedly, he avoided siring any children who might have been a temptation to Turkish dynasticists.
Anyway, to return to the advertisement that began this article. The first matter that aroused controversy in Turkey was the fact that the third member of the democratic triumvirate was the current Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan – a man who served prison time a few years ago for supposedly threatening the Kemalist nature of Turkey; whose wife infuriates secular Turks for her insistence on wearing a head-scarf; and who is often suspected of harbouring a secret agenda to return the country to a state of Islamic Sheriat rule.
Well, I’m not party to the machinations of high-level Turkish politicians – but I have been around long enough to be able to make certain observations. From 1995 to January 1999, Turkey had no fewer than five Prime Ministers who were either pretty corrupt, pretty self-seeking or pretty old (or some combination of the three). When RT Erdoğan’s party took the reins of power in November 2002, the Turkish Lira was valued at around 1,500,000 to the US dollar, down from a high of 1.7 million in 2001. One consolation for investors for the 80%+ inflation rate was that interest rates on bank term deposits were that much or higher. Within two years, the rate of inflation had fallen to manageable single figures, allowing Erdoğan’s government to delete six zeroes from the Turkish Lira, which is currently hovering around a respectable 1.50 to the US dollar.
In March 2003, GW Bush led an anti-terrorist alliance into Iraq, to unearth weapons of mass destruction that the United Nations, in their namby-pamby, liberal wetness, had been unable to find. Leaders of the Western world, for the most part, threw their various weights behind him. ‘Crusade’ was a word Bush used early on, but realizing his mistake, he became extremely eager to have Turkey’s 99% Muslim population with him. There was talk of an $18 billion aid package to reward such loyalty and support. In the end, the Turks didn’t go – and there are no doubt many patriotic citizens of the UK who would wish that their own PM at the time had been of such an independent mind.
But what about the other PMs in the ‘Stars of Democracy’ ad? The gentleman on the left of the picture is Adnan Menderes, who became, arguably, the first genuinely elected Prime Minister of Turkey, when his Democrat party won power in 1950. You might say it was a watershed event in the progress of democracy in Turkey – but was the nation ready? The Republic had been founded on principles of secularism. The Muslim religion had been seen as a hindrance to progress and modernization, as a force for reaction – and Atatürk had done his best to pull its teeth and limit its power. The great man, however, had one major advantage over those who followed him into the seat of Turkish power: he didn’t have to win elections.
Aspiring political leaders in the post-1946 era of Turkish politics have had to come to terms with the need to win the support of an overwhelmingly Muslim electorate. As a result, many of the measures instituted by Atatürk in the name of secularization, have been undone, or undermined, by subsequent governments. For example, the use of Turkish in religious ceremonies was substituted or encouraged in place of Arabic in the new republic. The stated reason was the general move towards a pure Turkish language to replace the hybrid Ottoman of the imperial elite. It may be, however, that reformers recognized that general unintelligibility, and arcane knowledge limited to those-in-the-know, are powerful factors in the maintenance of a mass religion. As an aside, it would be an interesting exercise to trace the correlation between increasing use of vernacular languages in worship, and the decline of Christianity in the West.
Whatever the reason, Menderes’s Democrat Party reinstituted the Arabic call to prayer that sounds five times a day from minarets on Turkish mosques. His government also set up special secondary schools, called İmam Hatip, for the training of imams and preachers. Apart from these sops to the religious faithful however, the Menderes Government presided over a period of rapid mechanisation, industrialisation and economic growth, and remains the only administration in Turkey to have won three consecutive elections. It’s a little surprising, then, to learn that the end came as a result of a coup by army officers in 1960; and not content with unseating the poor guy, the military leaders actually had him hanged, along with two of his ministers.
I guess it is small consolation for his family (and the man himself, wherever he may be) but his reputation was subsequently restored to such an extent that there are now city streets and parks named after ex-PM Menderes, and even the international airport in Izmir, Turkey’s third largest metropolis. It’s possible that the soldiers who staged the coup felt they were justified, since it is widely believed in Turkey that the army has the final responsibility for upholding the secular democratic republic. However, there were two further military takeovers at ten year intervals after the first. Following the last one, in 1980, the junta actually used religion to counter the perceived threat of socialists and increased the construction of Imam Hatip high schools. Turkish politics is a complex business.
The other figure in the advertisement, the guy in the middle, is Turgut Özal. Mr Özal himself was apparently quite a strong Muslim, from a pretty orthodox background. In the 1970s, he had actually stood for parliament (albeit unsuccessfully) as a candidate for the National Salvation Party, an overtly Islamicist party, led by Necmettin Erbakan (who was later ousted from the Prime Ministership, and banned from politics, by covert military intervention). Surprising, then, that Mr Özal was one of the few politicians favoured by the military leaders of the 1980 coup, despite also having been undersecretary to the deposed PM, Süleiman Demirel. He served as deputy PM to General Kenan Evren, the leader of the coup, then became PM when his Motherland party won a majority after democracy was restored in 1983. For better or worse, Özal is credited with having brought capitalism to Turkey. Under his leadership, the country was opened to a flood of imports, the process of privatisation of state assets was begun, and a 30 year period of hyper-inflation got off to a flying start – the Turkish Lira depreciated by 1400 % against the US dollar from 1980 to 1988. A chequered career, to say the least!
As all good Christians know, there are sins of commission, and sins of omission, so perhaps it may be interesting to consider which Turkish political figures are absent from the ‘Stars of Democracy’ ad. Clearly the salient absentee is Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. Well, perhaps it could be argued that, whatever his credentials as military leader, reformer and statesman, he isn’t especially notable for his commitment to democratic elections, so let’s leave him aside. However, it’s also noticeable that no other leader of the Republican People’s Party (CHP) got into the picture either, despite its being recognised as the heir to the Atatürk legacy. But maybe that’s debatable. The military leaders of the 1980 coup, who also saw themselves as upholders of the Atatürk ‘Way’, actually banned the CHP from participating in politics – and it stayed that way until 1992. Since its re-emergence on the political scene, CHP has been conspicuously unsuccessful – this lack of electoral success finally resulting in the internal ousting just last month, of its leader of 18 years, Deniz Baykal.
In the end, then, dazed and confused by the apparent impossibility of making sense of all this, I decided the only smart thing to do was to check out who had actually funded the insertion of that full-page ad in the Turkish dailies. Well, there at the bottom of the page was the acronym SDP, and a web address, so I checked it out. That was a month or so ago, and the website was covered with ads for various Islamic institutions and events – clearly, you’d have to think, the public face of an organization with major religious interests. Then, as I was finishing this blog, I decided to check the site again, and behold . . . not an ad to be seen, nor the slightest hint of anything religious. Weird, man! Why would you suddenly clean off all the paying ads from your website? Unless, perhaps, you were concerned that curious people like myself might think you had a secret agenda.
Well, who knows? Democracy is a word that can cover a multitude of sins. The German Democratic Republic (East Germany) was not particularly noted for upholding the freedom and rights of its citizens. In the Democratic Republic of the Congo (formerly Zaire) where the Second Congo War has been raging for twelve years, 5.4 million people have allegedly died, making it the world’s deadliest conflict since World War II. The occurrence of rape and other sexual violence has been described as the worst in the world, and the DRC’s people have the world’s lowest per capita GDP, according to the IMF.
I have no intention of comparing Turkey to either of the foregoing manifestly undemocratic regimes. There is no doubt in my mind that Turkey’s present government, like most of its predecessors of the past 60 years, was democratically elected. But democracy is a fragile flower. It needs nurturing – and it can be easily poisoned. I have seen, in my own country, organizations funded by wealthy individuals, or small groups thereof, hiding behind a façade of democratic good intentions in order to push their own agenda of self-interest. Again, I have no quarrel with the choice of those three worthy gentlemen as ‘Stars of Democracy’. But something about that full-page ad made me nervous at the time – and the feeling hasn’t gone away.
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4 thoughts on “Understanding Turkish Politics

  1. Another informative and witty article Alan, thank you!

    I'm gonna be influenced by my current new line of work and suggest a spelling change: “Shari’a,” not “Sheriat” — you are so Turkish! 😉

  2. Connect! This is the magic word. I do not think many people have made this connection you made or even thought about the ad. As you stated those three men were framed as “stars of democracy” by an organization with some religious interest in it. They were so generous that they could pay full page ads! Those men were sure some of the agents of Turkish politics however it is a big question if they were/are the stars (of democracy). People are usually are governed by the discourse created by others. Appearently, some people wanted to shape Turkish people's thoughts. It is hopeful that it doesnt work on everybody. It is more hopeful that it doesnt work on you as one of us!
    Great article. Thanks for sharing.

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