WHY ALL THE CONJECTURE ABOUT TURKEY?

Not a week goes by without reading an article about Turkey and the governing party, the AKP, in which the economic and the reformist wonders of the AKP are applauded and the newly emerged Anatolian conservative middle class is not mentioned as the magnificent result of the AKP’s free market oriented capitalist economic policies, one of the best performers of its kind in the world.

It is a Turkish lady named Gonul Tol, the Director for the Center for Turkish Studies at the Middle East Institute, doing the honors in the December 21st issue of the Foreign Policy magazine this time out.

The piece is confidently titled “Why Turkey is not turning Islamist.” I personally am not claiming it is definitely turning Islamist; it certainly may not be, but has this particular writer been granted special powers by the Almighty to be able to know with such clarity that Turkey is not turning Islamist? Just as I have no way of knowing what the future may hold for the Turkish people, she has no way of foretelling, either. Particularly because Tayyip Erdogan, the Turkish Prime Minister and the AKP leader, has been granted by the recent referendum the power to practically handpick the majority of the members of the high judiciary (the judicial branch) in addition to all of Members of the Parliament from the AKP (the legislative branch) and all the ministers in his cabinet (the executive branch) which he already could handpick even prior to the plebiscite. Of course, I am aware the new constitutional amendments do not state that the PM elects whomever he chooses. However, is Tol aware that the majority of the judiciary, including the members of the Constitutional Court, will be elected by the parliament, which the AKP MP’s handpicked by Erdogan control, and the President, whom the same parliament controlled by the AKP and handpicked by Erdogan elected? To put it succinctly, the Prime Minister directly or indirectly controls all three branches of the government. Who then, other than the Prime Minister, could possibly know? On the other hand, which other democratic leader in the world runs his nation according to the laws he wants on his own and with the judiciary he picks should adjudication be necessary? Dictators do, but who else? Surely we know that dictators put on a democratic veneer for their undemocratic behavior; who can guarantee Erdogan has not?

We are told,

“The diverse structure of the AKP’s support base has a moderating effect on the governing party’s policies, mitigating against the likelihood of Turkey transforming into an Islamic state.”

How would that happen if suddenly Erdogan were to decide that there will be no more elections? How would the AKP’s support base manage to make sure that the likelihood of Turkey transforming into an Islamic state diminished? Theoretically speaking – at which the writer is apparently excellent, they could go to their MP’s or the judiciary. Nevertheless, how could anyone be sure that those handpicked by the PM himself would go against his wishes? Again, Tol has the presumptive answer:

“The AKP’s candidate selection in the 2007 elections points to the party’s deliberate effort to do exactly this.”

The party’s deliberate effort? Does she have a clue how the party selects its candidates? Does she have an inkling how theTurkish people then elect their MP’s? The party leader selects the candidates, puts them in an order of preference in each district, and then according to the results of the vote for each party in each district, that many candidates enter the parliament for that party from that district. Hence, how “the diverse structure of the AKP’s support base” can have a real moderating effect would be anyone’s guess at best and in the “Ayatollah Ali Khamenei fashion” at worst.

She also contradicts herself when she says,

“Turkey’s deteriorating relations with Israel and flourishing ties with
Syria and Iran have given the skeptics resonance in Washington and
heated the debate about AKP’s Western democratic credentials…
This misreads both the AKP and the domestic dynamics within Turkey,
however. The AKP’s voter base is both socially and politically heterogeneous
with diverse and sometimes conflicting interests, which forces the AKP
to move towards the center of the political spectrum in order to maintain
power.”

As I have pointed out above, the AKP voter base no longer has any real power to move the party to the middle. That can only happen if Erdogan feels like it. Moreover, the fact that Erdogan has moved Turkey’s foreign policy in a radical direction invalidates any claim that the party’s support base has had any influence on its policy. Pew Foundation’s latest poll of the Middle East clearly shows that the Turkish people overwhelmingly do not support cozying up to Hamas or Hezbollah; yet the AKP and Erdogan have taken on a strong pro-Hamas role while befriending Hezbollah. In addition, when asked if Islam plays a large role in politics, 69% of the Turkish people now say it does whereas the number was 45% in 2002, the year when the AKP rose to power.

The recent myth of the rapidly rising Islamic bourgeoisie under the AKP rule is another falsity with regard to Turkey. There most definitely is a new Islamic elite reaping the benefits of the everpresent corruption that has been operational in the traditional relationship between the Turkish governments and the Turkish business world. The corruption existed before, and it is still there. The difference is that it used to be coalitions which competed with each other to hand out government projects to their own cronies, but to their chagrin, ended up limiting the handouts due to infighting. Now under the single-party AKP rule, Erdogan basically hands them out or allows his ministers and bureaucrats to allocate the tenders among the businesses as it is not too difficult to surmise that without the PM’s approval, the political and bureaucratic careers could easily come to an end. As a consequence, two groups have benefited the most in the last eight years. First, those close to Erdogan and the party have become the new elite. Secondly, the old wealthy elite, who have not withheld their political support for the AKP, most notably TUSIAD (the Turkish Industry and Business Association) – coincidentally, where Dr. Tol worked as the program manager.

The single-party rule which indeed has caused the corruption to go nearly out of control – Wikileaks cables even suggest that PM Erdogan himself holds eight bank accounts in Switzerland, has also proved to be a blessing as Turkey did not have to get tangled up in coalition bickering and as in the 1950’s and 1980’s, could afford extended single-party terms, which always coincide with higher economic growth as things get done without the internal competition by coalition parties. This, combined with the global economic prosperity preceding the ultimate collapse in 2008, blessed the AKP with visible accomplishments. To be fair, the AKP’s handling of the economy, deliberately or accidentally, proved impressive in its first four years in power, while not abandoning the financial discipline of the Kemal Dervis era (2001-2002). On the other hand, the AKP’s economic performance has been arguable at best since the last quarter of 2006, when the party appeared to forego the fiscal discipline (to engage in the election economy of handouts to regions of mass poverty) in return for good election results. Turkey’s foreign reserves which were 26.7 billion dollars in 2002 has gone up steadily over the years to 75.4 billion dollars in August 2010. This basically explains the consistency shown by the Turkish Lira against the US Dollar and the Euro, which in return gives us an idea about how Turkey has managed to keep the inflation rate in check while financing its economy mostly via borrowing – a fact that no writer ever mentions – in addition to massive privatization to foreign investors. The external debt held by Turkey has gone from 129.5 billion dollars to 277 billion dollars in the third quarter of 2008, then decreasing to 266.6 billion dollars by the first quarter of 2010. In the same time period, foreign direct investment increased from 1.1 billion dollars in 2002 to 22 billion dollars in 2007, only to go down to 18.3 billion in 2008 and then steeply to 7.9 billion dollars in 2009. These statistics do not go against the possibility that confidence by international capital in Turkey increased over the first five years when the AKP governed with fiscal responsibility and then ebbed following a decline in confidence for whatever the reasons may have been.

However, what is clear is the fact that the unemployment rates during the AKP tenure have not decreased and stayed over 10.3% until reaching 13.6% in 2008. In addition, there has not been a newly emerging middle class among the pious Anatolians. The only reason such an impression has been made on the outsiders is the fact that for the first time in Turkish history, someone made an attempt to organize small- and middle-size business people and regional associations around Turkey and formed TUSKON in 2005. TUSKON does appear to hold summits, meetings and conferences and engage in trade bridge programs to enable Turkish businessmen to interact and hopefully do business with their foreign counterparts. On the other hand, the effectiveness of such activities, while useful I am sure, is still debatable at this moment in time. The real problem that stands in the way of most small- and mid-size Turkish businesses who try to market their products internationally is the high taxation by the Turkish government in all aspects, from energy to employment taxes, and the AKP has not done much to change it. Turkish businesses who prove able to export to other countries are for the most part, big businesses, to which the AKP surely caters in exchange for discreet political support or at least for not going on opposition and which are able to acquire financing in the international arena, often investing globally. On the other hand, a new Anatolian Islamic elite has certainly emerged and become an economic factor. Even the old wealthy elite are now in a position to partner up with the new elite to be able to get government contracts or take part in privatization.
Then, the writer openly claims that the Ergenekon trial is

“an important step toward democratization, insofar as it challenges the military’s legal ability to intervene in political affairs.”

But then goes ahead to list all the shady and undemocratic behavior by the AKP government, which basically nullifies her strong initial statement. Her shallow wording also renders it unlikely that she has actually read any of the thousands of pages of the indictment, nor does she seem to have read about it anywhere other than in the international media or in the Turkish media outlets close to the AKP.
She continues,

“However, one cannot turn a blind eye to the human rights violations triggered by the trial. Some implicated in the case, including military officers, journalists, political activists, academics and leaders of NGOs have been held without charge for several months before the release of indictments. The government has brought lawsuits against journalists who have reported on the Ergenekon case. The frequent ban of websites, including YouTube, and the increasing pressure on newspapers critical of the government, continue to violate freedom of expression and restrict citizens’ access to information.

After eight years in power, the AKP is faced with a choice between continuing its commitment to liberal economic reforms and democratization or yielding to authoritarian and conservative demands. If the 2011 elections hand the AKP another term in government with at least 38 to 40 percent of the popular vote, which many believe will be the case, the AKP will have the backing to continue the reform process it has embarked on since 2002. After eight years in government and two electoral victories with substantial majorities, it is clear that the AKP does not have a covert plan to establish an Islamic state.”

What is she saying? Is the AKP committed to liberal reforms and democratization, or is it risking yielding to authoritarian and conservative demands? If it is committed to democratization, why is Dr. Tol concerned about risk of authoritarianism? If the AKP may be yielding to authoritarian demands, then how is it clear that the AKP does not have a covert plan to establish an Islamic state? After all, it was only on September 12, 2010 that Erdogan was able to do away with the remaining obstacles to a possible authoritarian rule. How does Gonul Tol know he does not have the intentions? Did Erdogan or one of his men tell her? Let’s say she was told, how can she know it is not a lie?

In theory, the writer may know what she is talking about. In reality, she has no idea and is just feeding the reader rehashed media junk.

And junk about Turkey is all the Foreign Policy magazine has been publishing on Turkey. Shame on them for risking their established credibility. Then, one cannot help but wonder, “Risking it in return for what?”

Okan Altiparmak is a consultant and a filmmaker based in Istanbul, Turkey.

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About OkanAltiparmak

Okan Altıparmak is a consultant and a filmmaker based in Istanbul.
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