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Richard Falk: Ten Years of AKP Leadership in Turkey

September 6, 2012

There are heartening signs of improved relations between the civil and military arms of Turkey's government, but much work remains.

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Image from Flickr via Stephen Hill

By Richard Falk
By arrangement with Richard Falk

Nothing better epitomizes the great political changes in Turkey over the course of the last decade than a seemingly minor media item reporting that Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his wife Emine Erdogan attended a private iftar dinner(the ritual meal breaking the Ramadan fast each evening) by the invitation of the current Turkish Chief of Staff, General Necdet Özel, at his official residence. It was only a few years earlier that the military leadership came hair trigger close to pulling off a coup to get rid of the AKP leadership. Of course, such a military intrusion on Turkish political life would have been nothing new. Turkey experienced a series of coups during its republican life that started in 1923.

The most recent example of interference by the military with the elected leadership in Turkey took place in 1997 when Prime Minister Necmettin Erbakan sheepishly left office under pressure amounting to an ultimatum, outlawed his political party, and accepted a withdrawal from political activity for a period of five years in what amounted to a bloodless coup prompted by his alleged Islamic agenda. Unlike the prior coups of 1960, 1971, and 1980 when the military seized power for a period of time, the 1997 bloodless coup was followed by allowing politicians to form a new civilian government. Really, looking back on the period shortly after the AKP came to power in 2002, the big surprise is that a coup did not occur. We still await informed commentary that explains why. For the present, those that value the civilianization of governance can take comfort in the receding prospect of a future military takeover of Turkish political life, and this iftar social occasion is a strong symbolic expression of a far healthier civil-military relationship than existed in the past.

On the basis of available evidence, Erdogan is opinionated and uninhibited in expressing controversial views on the spur of the moment, but not seeking to enthrone himself as head of a newly authoritarian Turkey.

Improving Turkish Civil Military Relations

Somewhat less dramatic, but not less relevant as a sign of this dramatic turn, is the remembrance that shortly after the AKP initially gained control of the government in 2002, it was much publicized that the wives of the elected leaders were not welcome because they wore headscarves at the major social gathering of top military officers at its annual Victory Day Military Ball held at the end of summer in Ankara with much fanfare. A similar issue arose a few years later when ardent Kemalists insisted that Abdullah Gul should not be allowed to serve as Turkey’s president because his wife’s headscarf supposedly signaled to the world that he did not represent the Turkish secular community in the European manner associated with the founder of the republic, Kemal Atatürk.

Recent court testimony by the former Turkish Chief of Staff, Hilmi Özkök, confirms what many had long suspected, that there existed plans in 2003-2004, supported by many high ranking military officers, to overrule the will of the Turkish electorate by removing the AKP from its position of governmental leadership and impose martial law. Such grim recollections of just a few years ago should help us appreciate the significance of this recent iftar dinner between the Erdogans and Özels as a strong expression of accommodation between military institutions and the political leaders in Turkey. Such an event helps us understand just how much things have changed, and for the better, with respect to civil-military relations.

We can interpret this event in at least two ways. First, indicating a more relaxed attitude on the part of the military toward Turkish women who wear a headscarf in conformity to Islamic tradition. Although this sign of normalization is a definite move in the right direction, Turkey has a long way to go before it eliminates the many forms of discrimination against headscarf women that continue to restrict their life and work options in unacceptable ways from the perspective of religious freedom and human rights. Secondly, and crucially, these developments show that the armed forces seems finally to have reconciled itself to the popularity and competence of AKP leadership. This is significant as it conveys the willingness to accept a reduced role for the military in a revamped Turkish constitutional system, as well as exhibiting a trust in the sincerity of AKP pledges of adherence to secular principles that include respect for the autonomy of the military. This latter achievement is quite remarkable, a tribute to the skill with which the Erdogan in particular has handled the civilianization of the Turkish governing process, and for which he is given surprisingly little credit by the international media, and almost none by the Turkish media. Such an outcome was almost inconceivable ten years ago, but today it is taken so for granted as to be hardly worthy of notice.

In 2000 Eric Rouleau, Le Monde’s influential lead writer on the Middle East and France’s former distinguished ambassador to Turkey (1988-1992), writing in Foreign Affairs, emphasized the extent to which “this system [of republican Turkey], which places the military at the very heart of political life” poses by far the biggest obstacle to Turkish entry into the European Union. Indeed, Rouleau and other Turkish experts believed that the Turkish deep state, consisting of its security apparatus, including the intelligence organizations, was far too imbued with Kemalist ideology to sit idly by while the secular elites that ran the country since the founding of the republic were displaced by the conservative societal forces that provided the core support to the AKP. And not only were the Kemalist elites displaced, but their capacity to pull the strings of power from behind closed doors was ended by a series of bureaucratic reforms that have made the National Security Council in Ankara a part of the civilian structure of government, and not a hidden and unaccountable and ultimate source of policymaking.

Continuing Political Polarization Within Turkey

At the same time, despite these accomplishments of the AKP, the displaced ‘secularists’ are no happier with Erdogan leadership than they were a decade ago. (It needs to be understood, although the available language makes it difficult to express an important attribute of Turkish politics: the AKP orientation and policy guidance has itself also been avowedly and consistently secularist in character, although the leaders are privately devout Muslims who steadfastly maintain their religious practices of prayer and fasting, as well as foregoing alcohol, but their political stance on these issues is not very different than that of their opponents. Indeed, quite unexpectedly, Erdogan in visiting Cairo after the 2011 Tahrir uprising urged the Egyptians to opt for secularism rather than Islamism.) Those that identify with the opposition to the AKP, and that includes most of the TV and print media, can never find a positive word to say about the domestic and foreign policy of the AKP, although the line of attack has drastically shifted its ground. A decade ago the fiercest attack focused on fears and allegations that the AKP was a stalking horse for anti-secularism. The AKP was accused of having ‘a secret agenda’ centered on an Islamic takeover of the governing process, with grim imaginings of ‘a second Iran’ administered strictly in accordance with sharia. The current unwavering critical line of attack, in contrast, is obsessed with the unsubstantiated belief that Erdogan dreams of being the new sultan of Turkey, dragging the country back toward the dark ages of authoritarian rule. It is odd that the same opposition that would have welcomed a coup against the elected leadership a decade ago now seems so preoccupied with a fear that the far milder AKP is incubating an anti-democratic project designed to weaken Turkish constitutional democracy and end the civil rights of the citizenry.

There are certainly some valid complaints associated with Erdogan’s tendencies to express his strong, and sometimes insensitive, personal opinions on socially controversial topics ranging from abortion to the advocacy of three-children families. He needlessly made an offhand remark recently that seemed an insult directed at Alevi religious practices. As well, there are journalists, students, political activists, and non-AKP mayors in fairly large numbers being held in Turkish prisons without being charged with crimes and for activities that should be treated as normal in a healthy democracy. It is difficult to evaluate this disturbing trend, partly because there are strong rumors that the AKP is not in firm control of parts of the bureaucracy, including the police, and thus these repressive developments are not entirely of its making, although this line of explanation is possibly expressive of the political situation it does not relieve the AKP from ultimate responsibility.

And there are also many allegations that Erdogan is laying the groundwork to become president in a revised constitutional framework that would give the position much greater powers than it now possesses to the distress of opposition forces, which merges with the allegation that he is a closet authoritarian leader. In my judgment, on the basis of available evidence, Erdogan is opinionated and uninhibited in expressing controversial views on the spur of the moment, but not seeking to enthrone himself as head of a newly authoritarian Turkey.

This persisting polarization in Turkey extends to other domains of policy, perhaps most justifiably in relation to the unresolved Kurdish issues, which have violently resurfaced after some relatively quiet years. It is reasonable to fault the AKP for promising to resolve the conflict when it was reelected, and then failing to offer the full range of inducements likely to make such a positive outcome happen. It is difficult to interpret accurately the renewal of PKK violence, and the degree to which it is viewed by many segments of Turkish elite opinion as removing all hope of a negotiated solution to this conflict that has long been such a drain on Turkey’s energies, resources, and reputation. The ferocity of this latest stage of this thirty-year struggle is not easily explained. To some degree it is a spillover of growing regional tensions with the countries surrounding Turkey, and particularly with the Kurdish movements in these countries, especially Iraq and Syria. There is also the strong possibility that elements of the Kurdish resistance see the fluidity of the regional situation as a second window of opportunity to achieve national self-determination. The first window having been slammed shut in the early republican years by the strong nation-building ideology associated with Kemalist governance of the country.

These various initiatives helped Turkey become a major player in the region and beyond, a government that almost alone in the world was constructing a foreign policy that was neither a continuation of Cold War deference to Washington nor the adoption of an alienated anti-Western posture.

Also serious is some deserved criticism of Turkey’s Syrian policy that charges the government with an imprudent and amateurish shift from one extreme to the other. First, an ill-advised embrace of Assad’s dictatorial regime a few years ago, followed by a supposedly premature and questionable alignment with anti-regime Syrian rebel forces without knowing their true character. Ahmet Davutoglu’s positive initiatives in Damascus were early on hailed as the centerpiece of ‘zero problems with neighbors,’ an approach that his harshest critics now find totally discredited given the deterioration of relations, not only with Syria, but with Iran and Iraq. Again such criticism seems greatly overstated by an opposition that seizes on any failure of governing policy without considering either its positive sides or offering more sensible alternatives. Whatever the leadership in Ankara during the last two years, the changing and unanticipated regional circumstances would require the foreign policy establishment to push hard on a reset button. Mr. Davutoglu has done his best all along to offer a rationale for the changed tone and substance of Turkish foreign policy, especially in relation to Syria, which I find generally convincing, although the coordination of policy toward Syria with Washington seems questionable.

In the larger picture, there were few advance warnings that the Arab Spring would erupt, and produce the uprisings throughout the region that have taken place in the last twenty months. Prior to this tumult the Arab world seemed ultra-stable, with authoritarian regimes having been in place for several decades, and little indication that domestic challenges would emerge in the near future. In these conditions, it seemed sensible to have positive relations with neighbors and throughout the Arab world based on a mixture of practical and principled considerations. There were attractive economic opportunities to expand Turkish trade, investment, and cultural influence; as well, it was reasonable to suppose that Turkish efforts at conflict mediation could open political space for modest moves toward democracy and the protection of human rights might be an appropriate context within which to practice ‘constructive engagement.’

Foreign Policy Achievements

It should also be pointed out that from the outset of his public service the Turkish Foreign Minister has been tireless in his efforts to resolve conflicts within an expanding zone of activity and influence. There were constructive and well organized attempts to mediate the long festering conflict between Israel and Syria with respect to the Golan Heights, encouragement of a reconciliation process in former Yugoslavia that did achieve a diplomatic breakthrough in relations between Serbia and Bosnia; he made a notable effort to bringing conflicting powers in the Caucasus together; bravest of all, was the sensible effort to bring Hamas into the political arena so as to give some chance to a negotiated end to the Israel/Palestine conflict; and boldest of all, in concert with Brazil, was a temporarily successful effort in 2010 to persuade Iran to enter an agreement to store outside its borders enriched uranium that could be used to fabricate nuclear weapons. These were all laudable objectives, and creative uses of the diplomacy of soft power, and to the extent successful, extremely helpful in reducing regional tensions, and raising hopes for peace. Even when unsuccessful, such attempts bold and responsible efforts to find ways to improve the political atmosphere, and to find better diplomatic options than permanent antagonism, or worse, threats or uses of force to resolve conflicts and enhance security.

These various initiatives helped Turkey become a major player in the region and beyond, a government that almost alone in the world was constructing a foreign policy that was neither a continuation of Cold War deference to Washington nor the adoption of an alienated anti-Western posture. Turkey continued its role in NATO, persisted with its attempts to satisfy the many demands of the EU accession process, and even participated militarily, in my view unwisely, in the failed NATO War in Afghanistan. Fairly considered, the Davutoglu approach yielded extraordinary results, and even where it faltered, was consistent in exploring every plausible path to a more peaceful and just Middle East, Balkans, and Central Asia, as well as reaching into Africa, Latin America, and Asia, making Turkey for the first time in its history a truly global political presence. His statesmanship was widely heralded, and quickly made him one of the most admired foreign policy architects in the world. In 2010 he was ranked seventh in the listing of the 100 most influential persons in the world in all fields (including business, culture, and politics) that is compiled periodically by Foreign Policy, a leading journal of opinion in the United States. Turkey had raised its diplomatic stature throughout the world without resorting to the usual realist tactics of beefing up its military capabilities or throwing its weight around. Its increasing global reach has included opening many embassies in countries where it had been previously unrepresented. This raised stature was acknowledged in many quarters, especially throughout the Middle East where Erdogan was hailed as the world’s most popular leader, but also at the UN where Turkey played an expanding role, and was overwhelmingly elected to term membership on the Security Council.

It should also be appreciated that Turkey has displayed a principled commitment to international law and morality on key regional issues, especially in relation to the Israel/Palestine conflict. The Syrian mediation efforts were abandoned only after Israel’s all out attack on Gaza at the end of 2008, which also led to Erdogan’s famous rebuke of the Israeli President at the Davos World Economic Forum. This refusal to ignore Israel’s defiance of international law undoubtedly contributed to the later confrontation following Israel’s commando attack on the Mavi Marmara flotilla of peace ships in international waters on May 31, 2010 that were carrying humanitarian assistance to the unlawfully blockaded civilian population of Gaza. Israeli commandos killed nine Turkish nationals in the incident, which caused a partial rupture of relations between the two countries that has not yet been overcome, although Turkey has adopted a most moderate position given the unprovoked and unlawful assault on its ship and passengers, seeking only an apology and compensation for the families.

It is especially suspect for the most secularized segments of Turkish society to complain about an authoritarian drift in AKP leadership when [they were] virtually pleading with the army to step in, and hand power back to them in the most anti-democratic manner imaginable.

There were other special Turkish international initiatives, none more spectacular than the major effort to engage with Somalia at a time when the rest of the world turned its back on an African country being written off as the worst example of ‘a failed state.’ Not only did Turkey offer material assistance in relation to reconstructing the infrastructure of governance. It also more impressively ventured where angels feared to tread: organizing a high profile courageous visit by the Turkish prime minister with his wife and other notables to Mogadishu at a time when the security situation in the Somalia capital was known to be extremely dangerous for any visitors. Such a show of solidarity to a struggling African nation was unprecedented in Turkish diplomacy, and has been followed up by Ankara with a continuing and successful engagement with a range of projects to improve the economic and humanitarian situation in this troubled country. In a similar spirit of outreach, Turkey hosted a UN summit on behalf of the Least Developed Countries (LDCs) in May 2011, and formally accepted leadership responsibility within the UN to organize assistance to this group of states, considered the most impoverished in the world.

More recently, Mr. Davutoglu together with Ms. Erdogan visited the Muslim Rohingya minority in the western Myanmar state of Rakhine that had been brutally attacked in June by the local Buddhist majority community claiming that the resident Muslims were unwanted illegal immigrants from Bangladesh and should leave the country. Bangladesh officially denied such allegations, insisting that the Rohingya people had been living in Myanmar for centuries. This high level Turkish mission delivered medical aid, displayed empathy that could only be interpreted as a genuine humanitarian gesture far removed from any calculations of national advantage, and above all, conveyed a sense of how important it was for Turkey to do what it can to protect this vulnerable minority in a distant country. Mr. Davutoglu made clear universalist motivations underlay his official visit by also meeting with local Buddhists in a nearby town to express his hope that the two communities could in the future live in peace and mutual respect. This trip to Myanmar is one more example of how Turkey combines a traditional pursuit of national advantage in world affairs with an exemplary citizenship in the wider world community. It is this kind of blend of enlightened nationalism and ethical globalism that gives some hope that challenges to the world community can be addressed in a peaceful and equitable manner.

Surely Turkey, as is the case with any democracy, would benefit from a responsible opposition that calls attention to failings and offers its own alternative policy initiatives, while being ready to give those in authority credit for constructive undertakings and achievements of the government. Unfortunately, the polarized and demoralized opposition in Turkey is strident in its criticism, bereft of the political imagination required to put forward its own policies, and lacking in the sort of balance that is required if its criticisms are to be respected as constructive contributions to the democratic process. It is especially suspect for the most secularized segments of Turkish society to complain about an authoritarian drift in AKP leadership when it was these very social forces that a few years earlier was virtually pleading with the army to step in, and hand power back to them in the most anti-democratic manner imaginable. Instead of taking justifiable pride in the great Turkish accomplishments of the last decade, the unrestrained hostility of anti-AKP political forces is generating a sterile debate that makes it almost impossible to solve the problems facing the country or to take full advantage of the opportunities that are available to such a vibrant country. It needs to be appreciated that Turkey viewed from outside by most informed observers, especially in the region, remains a shining success story, both economically and politically. Nothing could bring more hope and pride to the region than for the Turkish ascent to be achieved elsewhere, of course, allowing for national variations of culture, history, and resource endowments, but sharing the commitment to build an inclusive democracy in which the military stays in the barracks and the diplomats take pride in resolving and preventing conflicts.

Richard Falk is an international law and international relations scholar who taught at Princeton University for forty years. Since 2002 he has lived in Santa Barbara, California, and taught at the local campus of the University of California in Global and International Studies and since 2005 chaired the Board of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation.

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