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Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Turkey's Balancing Act

Well, the financial markets are happy at any rate. The Turkish stock market jumped 5% on Monday while the lira closed at a two-year high against the US dollar. Tayyip Erdogan (leader of the victorious Justice and Development party, the AKP) was also a happy man: “The new government will bring peace and stability" he informed us. I guess we had all better hope he is right.

Indeed there are plenty of reasons for satisfaction with the outcome of Sunday's elections in Turkey, and despite the very large number of outstanding problems still to be addressed, things could, at the end of the day, have turned out far, far worse. However, given the complex and tangled web of relations which surround Turkey's political life right now, there are also reasons, and plenty of them, for being at least a little nervous.

Before getting down to the nitty gritty, it is worth noting that in general general press and internet coverage of the Turkish election has been quite systematic and fairly informative. Manuel Alvarez of Election Resources has a summary of the results here, and a background briefing here. Among the many articles that caught my eye M K Bhadrakumar had a very insightful piece in the Asia Times over the weekend, with the rather provocative title of Turkey's Election has no losers (I will return to this below) , Bloomberg in the days before the election was full of information about how Tayyip Erdogan was busy flooding rural Anatolia - the AKP's heartland - with water and public money. Back in June the Financial Times had a useful background article on the city of Sivas, onetime stronghold of the main opposition Republican People’s party (CHP).

So now for the "nitty gritty". Well, basically, as we emerge from the initial bout of post-election fever there would seem to be three important issues facing the new government:

i) The Turkish Presidency
ii) Negotiations with the EU
iii) The Kurdish issue, and the tense relations which exist with the North of Iraq

The most immediate challenge facing Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is clearly the need to settle the choice of a new state president. After all, it was the Turkish Parliament's earlier rejection of Erdogan's candidate, Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul, which precipitated the elections in the first place. Supporters of the secularist opposition party CHP distrusts Gul, a practicing Muslim whose wife attracts a lot of attention due to the fact that she wears a head scarf in public. For supporters of the CHP - and in increased measure for supporters of the right wing Nationalist Action Party (MHP) - this is seen as a symbol of Islamic militancy. If Erdogan were simply to resubmit Gul's name this could well lead to a new deadlock, as the AKP lacks the two-thirds majority needed to push the nomination through, and even if they did have the necessary majority, any move to impose a president without some sort of consensus with the CHP would be pretty divisive.

However, there have been signs that the AKP leadership, fresh from the electoral triumph is eager to avoid yet another confrontation. "God willing, we will end the presidential election process without giving rise to any tensions,'' Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan was reported as saying after leaving his meeting on Monday with Turkey's current president, Ahmet Necdet Sezer.

Which brings us more or less directly to the second challenge facing the new Turkish governmernt, the need to continue the process of legal and administrative reform which will equip Turkey for European Union membership. Noises coming out of Brussels this week have already signaled the desire there that Ankara regain the lost momentum associated with Turkey's accession process. EU Enlargement Commissioner Olli Rehn is widely quoted as saying that he expects a new Turkish government to be formed quickly and that "It is essential that the new government will relaunch the legal and economic reforms with full determination and concrete results". In fact the EU froze talks with Turkey last December on eight of the 35 policy chapters which form the basis of the accession process, largely because of Ankara's reluctance to open ports and airspace to Cypriot ships and planes. It is to be hoped that the Cyprus situation is one which the new government in Turkey will now feel freer to address more directly and more constructively.

In fact both Brussels and Ankara have been busy trying to keep talks going on a largely formal and technical level in the meantime (by negotiating on the four chapters which have already been opened). One point of interest in the statements being made by Commissioner Rehn is the way they reveal the complex web of issues we are all involved in here, since he explicitly expressed the hope that Turkey will make "concrete progress" on freedom of expression and religion. Now this may be seen as being a reference to a whole battery of questions (to the Pamuk case for example, or to the case of politicians in Western Turkey who face legal threats for the mere fact that they argue for a new federal structure) but it could be read as saying that the EU, in a country where the majority of the population are of the muslim faith, would find nothing strange about the wife of a President wearing a headscarfe, indeed this could be thought to be only normal and proper in the same way as the pretender to becoming British head of state might be at one and the same time divorced and nominal head of the Church of England. In other words religious freedom can mean a lot of things, although this reality is likely to do little to mollify many of the supporters of the CHP.

So what we would seem to have here are the seeds of what essentially is quite a fragile dialogue, where in fact the two parties at the end of the day actually need each other. On the one hand the EU needs Turkey, in the sense that our idea of religious tolerance should expand to include the idea that there is nothing wrong, or out of order, with the wife of the President of a member state wearing a muslim headscarfe, and the AKP need support from within the EU in order to "anchor expectations" among those who come from the secular tradition that the reform process as it is evolving in Turkey is not set straight down the road towards the creation of an Islamic Republic.

The third major challenge facing the new Erdogan government is, of course, the Kurdish question, and the delicate relations with the new autonomous region in the North of Iraq. Even here there are some promising signs. For the first time in many years, the new parliament will include deputies with explicitly Kurdish affiliations. These politicians will have the rather onerous task of persuading the rest of Turkey that the Kurdish conflict can be settled by dialogue and negotiation.Obviously the whole situation is complicated by the emergence of the autonomous Kurdish region in northern Iraq, which many Turks fear may spur increasing Turkish Kurdish demands for eventual independence. Turkish troops are currently massed along the Iraqi border, in preparation for a possible incursion in pursuit of guerrillas based there. But Tayyip Erdogan is unlikely to bend to the military here - in particular since he takes the view that that the Turkish military has already made 29 incursions into Iraqi territory since the 1990s, without dislodging the guerrillas - and is far more likely to use his sweeping election victory to open a dialogue with the Kurdish insurgents. Part of the reasoning behind this assessment lies in the little detail that the AKP scored a remarkable victory in the Kurdish south-east itself, doubling their support in these largely Kurdish areas, and obtaining an absolute majority of the vote there (52%). The main Kurdish party inside Turkey, the DTP, took 23 seats, putting it in the new parliament for the first time since 1994. The first indications are not discouraging. According to the Toronto Star, a "jubilant" Aysel Tugluk, one of the 23 Kurdish politicians who won parliamentary seats, declared from the Kurdish city of Diyarbakir that "We want to turn a new page...We want to start a process of dialogue and reconciliation in parliament to resolve the (Kurdish) problem......We will not be a source of tension ... We will act in a spirit of tolerance and understanding."

Problems and possibilities abound. On the one hand, given the fact the AKP lacks the desired two thirds majority, the DTP deputies could offer an interesting point of support (shades of the Spanish PSOE, and its recent alliance with the "separaratist" Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya - ERC - here). But any such "alliance" would be fraught with danger, since the DTP is not the Catalan pacifist ERC, but far more akin to the outlawed Basque Batasuna, insofar as the DTP is widely considered to be the political wing of the PKK. However, the long term stability and prosperity of the Turkish state passes down the road of resolving once and for all the "Kurdish issue", and Erdogan well knows this. So we should expect to see some sort of tightrope balancing act emerging, and again the EU can well play an active and constructive role here.

Of course the other part of the picture here is the regional government of Kurdistan, which is situated just to the south of Turkey's border. Officially, Turkey does not recognise the government led by Massoud Barzani. But there have been continuing rumours of attempts to set up a secret meeting between the Turkish foreign minister, Abdullah Gul, and Barzani, who it might be useful to remember, when he was leading the Kurdish insurgency against Saddam Hussein, was in the habit of travelling on a Turkish diplomatic passport. There are already signs that this kind of meeting may now officially take place. Clearly the Turkish army has emerged from the elections rather bruised and battered, and they are unlikely to be in the mood for a highly risky gamble, and in particular one which would meet with virtually universal condemnation and disapproval. Indeed as M K Bhadrakumar argues, in the above cited article, there may be reasons for doubting that the invasion threat was ever more than politically oriented sabre rattling:

This is where outsiders run into a problem in appreciating the range of the Turkish military's political agenda. It is very simplistic to view the military's opposition to the AKP as the manifestation of a straightforward struggle between the forces of secularism and Islamism. The military's political agenda is multi-layered. It is so apparent that "terror" replaced "secularism" as the hot-button issue for the Turkish military, even as the election campaign got under way in recent weeks.

That's because the military saw that the only way the AKP could be stopped in its tracks, despite its impressive record of reform and economic growth, would be by making Erdogan appear to be "weak on terror". The Jerusalem Post commented, "Threatening to attack the PKK [Kurdish Workers' Party] in northern Iraq has [proved] a powerful propaganda tool for the Turkish military ... the military has pushed security concerns to the forefront in order to reinforce an image of the AKP as indecisive and soft on terrorism and to benefit the nationalist and secular parties with which they have close ties." The military's muscular intervention in the political scene in the past few weeks actually generated electoral support for the ultra-conservative MHP.

The interest of the Turkish military in the outcome of these elections are also wider than simply political ones. As Vincent Boland noted in the Financial Times, there are also economic interests at stake:

There is no question that the military has a huge stake in the outcome of this election, for political, ideological, and even commercial reasons. Its huge economic interests, from automotive to insurance, held through the armed forces pension funds, are a pillar of the secular business establishment.

All of this lead Manuel Alvarez (in e-mail comment) to point out to me that, rather than a simple mapping of the Spanish transition process, events in Turkey have an additional Mexican "feel" about them:

In many ways, it seems to me that Turkey is more like Mexico, which underwent a revolution around the same time as Turkey, featuring - like Turkey's - a strong secularist (or if you will, anti-religious) component, although in both countries there is a large underclass that has remained fairly religious, official policies notwithstanding. In that regard, Erdogan's AKP is not entirely unlike Mexico's National Action Party (PAN) - which regards itself as a Christian Democratic party.

To be certain, there are major differences: Mexico's PRI remained in office for half a century after CHP was voted out of power in Turkey, the Mexican armed forces have played no role in the political process for a long time, there's no major far-right party, and the Mexican government came to terms with the Roman Catholic Church in the last years of PRI rule (an event made possible by the transformation of the Church in the years following the Second Vatican Council, which contributed to defuse the old Church-state conflict in Spain as well).

So, in conclusion, are there grounds for optimism? I think so, and many of these are economic ones. The Turkish economy has been booming in recent years. In the past five years, growth in gross domestic product has exceeded 7% annually, and exports more than tripled to over $95 billion for the year ended June 30. Despite the recent "correction blip" last summer, Turkey would appear to have remained on course, and Morgan Stanley's Sehan Cevik is even arguing that Turkey has the potential to become a trillion dollar economy in the next ten years. Against this background the AKP would seem to have the cards well stacked in their favour, and the old corporatist elements in the Military and the CHP would appear to lack any significant external support, either strategically or financially.

Stronger growth hasn't however substantially reduced Turkey's unemployment rate. Unemployment has remained stubbornly high, and is currently running at about 10% according to the Turkish Statistical Institute. And in the cities, where hundreds of thousands of rural workers flock each year in search of jobs, unemployment was at 12.6% in 2006. So far the voters have stayed with the AKP, but this patience will reach a limit, and in this sense doing something to substantially raise the living standards of its electoral base will become an important priority of the AKP in the coming years, and it is this need which can constitute a powerful leverage instrument for those who know how to use it.

Among these we are unlikely, it seems, to find M. Nicholas Sarkozy, who interestingly enough would seem to share far more with the thinking of the trounced CHP than ever he does with the so-called neo-liberal AKP. Sarkozy has put the whole Turkish entry process into question, and has most notably been widely quoted as saying that Turkey has "no place" in Europe. So was the defeat for the CHP also the first substantial defeat for Sarkozy as French President? Well lets certainly hope so. Clearly there are indications from the statements of people like Rehn that calmer heads will prevail, and it is not without interest that Portugal, who holds the current EU presidency has been a staunch supporter of Turkey's EU ambitions, and has expressly stated the aim of moving ahead with negotiations during their coming six-month term. Could we be seeing more than one party onto a sound thrashing here? Definitely one to watch.

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