The talk of a different Turkey
There was much hope vested in the new government of Turkey and its new charismatic Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Erdogan who previously as Istanbul?s mayor did much for the city?s development- enhanced water supply, cleared slums, tackled the environment issue and even planted thousands of trees. It is ironic that the very same man today is ready to sacrifice green spaces for various construction projects. It was during his time as a mayor of Istanbul that Erdogan ? graduate of imam-hatip school[i]– endorsed the many tenets of political Islam. There was the ban on alcohol in municipality ran restaurants. He portrayed himself increasingly anti NATO and UN seeing them as United States lackeys. He was even against Turkey- EU accession. It was Erdogan who said ?You cannot be secular and a Muslim at the same time. The world?s 1.5 billion Muslims are waiting for the Turkish people to rise up. We will rise. With Allah?s permission, the rebellion will start?[ii].
Somewhere along the way between being the mayor of Istanbul, then losing that position, a short time spent in jail for reciting a poem[iii] and him running for the seat of the Prime Minister, Mr. Erdogan changed. Or so he claimed. He realized that political liberalization was the way forward if we wanted to remain in power. He convinced the 51 parliament members of the banned various Islamists parties- the AKP predecessors to join the new party while embracing all of Turkey, from right, left, devout or not. Erdogan promised that he has changed. And his new party too sang a different tune. Gone were the days when there was anti- Western sentiments or talk of religious Turkey. A new party was in the house claiming no demands for a religion- based state, no Islamic association with Erdogan even once saying, ?I am not an Islamist- I?m just an observant Muslim and that?s my own business?. Similarly the EU accession talks were also back on the agenda. Erdogan succeeded in convincing many, including the many of the secular-minded Turks that Turkey was about to change.
It is also important to look at the political and economic environment of Turkey during the time of AK party coming to power. The previous government coalitions were unstable; there was little reform, not to mention a growing public debt. The 1999 earthquake and a corruption scandal between the president and his cabinet in 2001 were perhaps the last catalysts of the upcoming collapse. It was against this setting that the newly formed and untested AKP came to power with an outright majority (gaining 34% of the national vote, 66% of the parliamentary seats) as a result of the high electoral threshold and the previous government failing to secure even a single seat.
Gradually Turkey?s economy began to improve. Following an IMF diet with cuts in public spending market confidence returned, interest rates fell, and the economy began to grow. Most importantly the AKP was praised for taming the military power known for its previous coups[iv].
Despite the following two re-elections in 2007 and 2011 (a historic victory[v] since an introduction of multiparty democracy in 1946 not to mention the increased percentage in votes: 34.28 in 2002, 46.58 in 2007, 49.90 in 2011) respectively the shining beacon of hope was slowly overshadowed, this time by other emerging issues as the long- existing Kurdish and the Alevi rights, human rights and freedom of expression limitations, censored media, lack of freedom and on a much larger scale the AKP?s creeping Islamisation (introduction of Koran classes for primary-school pupils, revival of Islamic clerical training for middle schools[vi]) and growing conservatism. Since its re-election in 2007, AKP successfully managed to fill many of the country?s decision- making institutions with AKP people including the judiciary, provincial governorates, and large construction companies winning the bids for various large-scale development contracts. As a result, ?His self- belief long ago swelled into rank intolerance. His social conservatism warped into social engineering?[vii]. Many in the country today fear Erdogan would do anything at his disposal to stay in power including changing the constitution to let him run for yet another term[viii] (in addition to giving the president the unlimited authority that would grant him the right to issue decrees, dissolve the parliament, to call new elections, and decide whether or not to send the country?s military into action). In fact changes to the current constitution envisaged by the prime minister would allow Erdogan to run for president in the next elections expected in 2014. As one recent Economist article put it ?He [Erdogan] has a majoritarian notion of politics: if he wins an election, he believes he is entitled to do what he likes until the next one?[ix]. The veil willfully hanging over Erdogan impedes him from seeing that no longer does he need to live the life of an underdog struggling against what used to be strong military power in order to create a civilian democracy.
Today, long gone are the days when the newly elected Prime Minister and his cabinet spoke of religious tolerance and observing Islam as ones? own business. Similarly not too long ago, in 2007, Egemen Bagis, Erdogan?s foreign policy adviser was quoted saying ?We are against central government telling people how to live their lives? and yet this is precisely what the Turkish government has been doing more so since 2007.
It won?t be an exaggeration to add that behind the true intensions of Erdogan and his government lays a much deeper goal- a shadow war of some sorts against the secular lifestyles. Whether it is against abortions, adultery, arts, the alcohol, or anything else that the current Turkish government claims ?Islamically inappropriate?. It is no doubt that the AK party managed to change much of the countries? legislation along the Islamic sensibilities. After being in power for over a decade now, the ruling power went from socialist policies to crony capitalism, and form secular and pro- western policies to religious and Muslim world centered policies.
Time for a new change
Today, almost two months since protests began, Turkey is more polarized along the religious lines than it was ever before, thanks to the ruling party?s inability to hold dialogue with general public and a simple understanding that forceful imposition of values- religious or non- religious- is not a way democracy works. Neither it is a democracy when the country?s Prime Minister acts as the sole leader while relying heavily on the ballot box and its previous turn out. It is now clear that the ruling party since coming to power has done everything to further consolidate Erdogan?s own power[x] at whatever cost.
It is no doubt that Turkey has come far under Erdogan and AKP. The economic growth, new roads, dams, airports and infrastructure megaprojects (though the latter?s benefit for the society is still contested) are all among AKP?s achievements. No one claims this to be otherwise. However, it is also a case that religious rhetoric and conservative policies of Erdogan in the past few years have been building up tension that was bound to burst. Past developments are in the past- Turkey needs more than just new infrastructural developments. It needs a new generation and a new leadership. A generation that is not brought up on paranoia, or fear, or ultra nationalism or separation and a leadership who can once again promise its citizens a new beginning. Turkey needs a generation that sees religion not as a threat to personal freedoms but a personal choice and a country where these choices are respected equally and not hold up against them. Above all, Turkey needs a leadership that does not differentiate among its citizens based on their religiousness. It is time for a new Turkey where politics and religion are no longer inseparable but merely serve as a reminder of a Turkey of past replaced by yet another phase of new and better changes to come.
[i] Schools to train government employed imams
[ii] The Economist, ?Recep Tayyip Erdogan: Turkey?s latest Islamic leader is the country?s most popular politician?, September 20, 2001, last accessed on July 22, 2013 http://www.economist.com/node/788318
[iii] Originally sentenced for ten months, Erdogan served only four
[iv] Andrew Finkel, ?Viewpoint: What not for Turkey?s ruling party?? October 31, 2012, last accessed on July 22, 2013, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-20141894
[v] Previous Islamic rooted parties as the National Order Party, the Nationl Salvation Party, the Welfare Party, the Virtue party were all banned.
[vi] The Economist, ?Turkey erupts: The new young Turks?, June 8, 2013, last accessed on July 23, 2013, http://www.economist.com/news/briefing/21579005-protests-against-recep-tayyip-erdogan-and-his-ham-fisted-response-have-shaken-his-rule-and
[vii] The Economist, ?Democrat or sultan?? June 8, 2013, last accessed on July 22, 2013, http://www.economist.com/news/leaders/21579004-recep-tayyip-erdogan-should-heed-turkeys-street-protesters-not-dismiss-them-democrat-or-sultan
[viii] According to Turkish state constitution Prime Minister can only run for three consecutive terms
[ix] The Economist, ?Democrat or sultan?? June 8, 2013, last accessed on July 22, 2013, http://www.economist.com/news/leaders/21579004-recep-tayyip-erdogan-should-heed-turkeys-street-protesters-not-dismiss-them-democrat-or-sultan
[x] Jay Cassano, ?Turkish protests are about democracy not religion?, June 5, 2013, last accessed on July 19, 2013, http://www.thenation.com/article/174677/turkish-protests-are-about-democracy-not-religion#axzz2ZVKZY8pj