Saturday, October 8, 2011

The Rise of a More Civilian Turkey

By NAMO ABDULLA - Rudaw -- photo by

Before assuming office, Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey had to spend six months behind bars for publicly reciting a religious poem that a dominant military deemed a threat to the country’s secularism. Now he prays in public, and his government is sending military generals to jail.

It is part shock and part hope that Turkey’s massive military – with a budget proportionately bigger than that of the armed forces in the United States or Russia – is witnessing the demise of its hegemonic position to a civilian government under the leadership of Erdogan, whose influence and popularity reach far beyond the country’s borders.

The Turkish military, the second largest army in NATO, has carried out three coups of elected governments in the past.

But signs of the end of its dominance became clearer in July when the top army general, together with the leaders of the navy, army and air force, resigned in objection to their diminished influence. The government has arrested dozens of other military generals on charges implicating them in past coup plots.

There is, however, no indication that Erdogen’s Islamist-rooted party is turning modern Turkey into a religious state. Conversely, the United States and Europe hail the decline of militarism as a tribute to Turkish democracy, and as a step toward its accession to the European Union. It is even promoted as a model of Islamic democracy for the new Arab world.

“I think Turkey has been on a long track towards a greater democracy,” said Joost Hiltermann, deputy director of the International Crisis Group for the Middle East and North Africa region. “The military being fully put under the civilian control is a positive step.”

Among other Muslim-dominated countries, Turkey stands out as a melting pot of contradictions. It is a secular democracy ruled by leaders who pray five times a day. It even practices a more liberal version of Islam rather than the Sunni or Shiite extremism found in parts of Iraq and Lebanon. Sunnis and a sizable Shiite minority coexist peacefully.

While most Arab countries depend on oil for their state-run economy and use the natural resources as tools to insulate themselves from the people, Turkey boasts a free market in which a vibrant economy is thriving without having abundant oil reserves to rely on. It derives some 23 percent of its gross domestic product from tax, and the rest from trade, industry, service sectors and agriculture – a comparatively large percentage.

On September 12, 2010, a referendum was held in Turkey marking a watershed in Turkish history, just as a coup marked the same day 30 years before. Most Turks approved an Erdogan-backed constitutional amendment that provided civilian courts with the authority to prosecute military leaders, and allowed people to file lawsuits against officers who had been involved in the overthrow of past governments.

In addition to paving the way for reversing the domestic power balance, the referendum showed that none of the Turkish national and secular parties was in a position to challenge Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP), which secured a third four-year term in June.

“Mr. Erdogan has systematically subordinated the military under the control of civilian authorities,” said David L. Philips, former senior adviser to the US Department of State and a visiting professor at Columbia University who often writes on Turkey.

With some 79 million people, Turkey is a country with a mosaic of ethnic and religious groups located in a distinctive location between Europe and Asia. Its geostrategic position is home to one of the major US military bases. Since 2003, it has become the main route for Iraq’s oil and potentially gas to flow to Europe.

Turkey has always been an exceptional country in the Middle East. A non-Arab nation that is Muslim and the center of the Ottoman Empire which was a world power for centuries, it is also one of the few that never experienced Western colonialism, thanks to Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, who defeated forces sent by the Western Allies in World War I.

Following his victory, Ataturk established a secular nation-state in 1923. With his portraits and statues adorning every corner of Turkey -- from the famous squares to teahouses, from Facebook profiles to the currency in people’s pockets – Ataturk is widely revered as Turkish national hero.

His legacy, however, remains controversial. Although he brought victory and modernity to Turkey, his authoritarian vision to create an exclusive state based on “Turkishness” failed to contain millions of non-Turkish minorities, leading to decades of bloody conflicts such as the 27-year war with Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) that has claimed more than 40,000 lives.

The minority problem remains the biggest democratic deficit in Turkey. The military-dominated state, backed by a constitution that does not recognize any other ethnic group but Turks, had overlooked the Kurdish issue as a “security” problem.

Erdogan’s vision, however, is wider and addresses the prevalent poverty in the Southeast as a way to end the Turk-Kurd hostility. Erdogan has also lifted the ban on the private use of the Kurdish language, allowing a state-owned Kurdish-language TV to broadcast round-the-clock.

Yet Kurds say he has done nothing to solve their political problem, recognizing them as a separate ethnic group in the constitution, which denies their existence.

The European Union, which Turkey has been a candidate to enter since 1999, sees the fulfillment of minority rights as a key criterion for accession.

As Turkey emerges from the shadow of its military, many expect a more emboldened government to take more concrete measures to advance Turkish democracy and eventually meet the European Union’s demands.

“The government's commitment to genuine constitutional reform will be the best indices,” said Phillips. “Eliminating the current constitution and replacing it with a charter that enshrines individual and group rights is the next milestone in Turkey's democratic development. Constitutional reforms should also go hand-in-hand with reforms of the penal code and the anti-terror act.”

Turkey, under Erdogan, is an even better neighbor. Over the past few years, Turkey has followed a foreign policy promoting its cultural and economic expansionism in the Arab world, a goal pursued through a liberal policy it calls “zero problem” with neighbors.

In addition to promoting harmony, trust and visa-free-travels, the new approach has eased long-held suspicions among Arab neighbors, including turbulent Iraq and its Kurdistan Region where Turkish brands of shoes, clothes, movies and songs are widely sold in upscale shopping malls.

In 2010, Turkey’s trade with Iraq amounted to $6 billion, Turkish officials told the New York Times, and could become Turkey’s second- or third-largest export market.

As countries like Israel and the US remain uncertain, and even worried, about the potential negative implications the Arab Spring might yield for them in the wake of the collapse of their former authoritarian allies, Turkey is emerging as a big winner, and is starting to reorient its polices toward the new order.

Joining many other Muslim countries, it expelled Israel’s embassy in August and has called for an outright support for an independent Palestine. It also sided with the people and called for the end of authoritarian rule and crack down of Arab governments including Syria, a country with which Turkey shares the longest border.

For the US, Turkey’s growing sway is a desirable counterweight to the rise of Iran’s leverage in countries such as Iraq, where American troops are preparing to withdraw by the year’s end.

While the decline of the military’s power means more civilian control, many Turks worry that the country may suffer a lack of checks and balances under one-party rule and Erdogan’s creeping authoritarianism.

“We have to worry about that as well,” said Zafer Yörük, a political scientist at Izmir Economy University in Turkey. “Although the generals don’t have as much power as they used to, all the power now goes into the hands of prime minister and the government.”

In his tour to Egypt, Erdogan made a statement that answered critics who level harsher criticism than Yörük, accusing the premier of seeking a religious state closer to Iran than a democracy akin to the US and Europe.

“The Turkish state is in its core a state of freedoms and secularism,” Erdogan said on Egyptian television, as quoted by the Times. “The world is changing to a system where the will of the people will rule. Why should the Europeans and Americans be the only ones that live with dignity? Aren’t Egyptians and Somalians also entitled to a life of dignity?

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