Turkey’s Elections: Watershed or Continuity?


On the weekend of June 11/12 Turkey goes to the polls to elect a new parliament. Opinion polls show that for the third time since 2002 Mr. Erdogan’s AKP will most likely form the government. Western media are increasingly warning of Erdogan’s autocratic style and “anti-democratic” tendencies. Some of the Western tabloids warn of the danger of him turning Turkey into an openly Islamist regime – which is utter nonsense, if one can go by the recent past.Turkey’s economy has doubled its GDP since AKP came to power in 2002, and even more remarkably, it has left its devastating past of 5-year boom and bust cycles behind which had ravaged the economy in the last decades of the previous millennium. According to Erdogan, by 2050 Turkey’s should be the second largest economy in Europe behind Germany.  And: Turkey’s economic progress has been spread quite widely within the country. While the Western-based, European-minded entrepreneurial class in Istanbul has become rich, the boom has increasingly spread to Anatolia – witness the thriving business centers in Trabzon, Kayseri, Erzurum and beyond. This is where Erdogan’s wide support comes from, a conservative, religious middle class and hard-working population, recently proud once more of its economic success and newfound geo-political role as a bridge between Western Europe and the Middle East.

This success story reminds me of my only face-to-face meeting with Erdogan, on the occasion of the 2003 Annual Meeting of the IMF and World Bank in Dubai. There I was introduced to him (who had only recently become allowed to take up his role as prime minister) in my role as Turkey’s representative at the Board of Directors of the World Bank. Erdogan resided in the most oriental-ostentatious  Presidential Suite in the Burj-al-Arab hotel, at that time the only 7-star hotel in the world. He lodged there at the invitation of the government of Dubai and was proud to show this gold and brocade residence to his guests (who thought this not really appropriate for the World Bank’s largest client). After the formal meeting, he came up to me, took my hand and looked into my eyes for what seemed interminable 2 minutes. Since he is quite a bit taller than myself I had to look up to him to hold his gaze. His grip was that of a Canadian lumberjack, trained ex-footballer that he was. After 2 minutes he let go of my hand and declaimed: “Turkey is right now under the sea level, with a thin sheet of ice covering the sea’s surface; both of us must try and get Turkey out from there, above the sea and into the sun!” And with that he made a very wide swinging motion with both his arms from left around his knees to the right above his right ear, kind of like a double-handed half golf swing. The only thing I could say was: yes, prime minister, I will try to do my best; then I was dismissed. This memorable episode was one of the most charismatic moments of my professional life which showed me that there was a man of conviction who would make sure that his intentions were achieved.

It was also under Erdogan, that in 2005 the EU opened the (now more or less stalled) accession negotiations with Turkey. His government has used this process widely to implement economic and political reforms. The exceptional role of the military (which sees itself as the guardian of the secular legacy of Ataturk, and has effected a cycle of military coups in the past) has been reduced in a lengthy political power struggle, such that political meddling of Europe’s largest army is a thing of the past; economic reforms have made Turkey very attractive for foreign investment and have boosted employment; some opening towards the strong Kurdish minority has occurred, including the admission of Kurdish media and Kurdish schools, even though most recently Erdogan has struck a more nationalist tone, ostensibly to gain votes at the expense of the third-largest party, a staunchly anti-Kurdish, populist, nationalist group which as a result might not gain the necessary 10% of the vote to secure seats in parliament. This high threshold remains one of the bones of contention with the liberal opposition within and outside the country.

Western media report more on Erdogan’s attempts to once more admit veiled women into the public space, an attempt which the constitutional court struck down. Both Mr. Erdogan’s and his former ally and increaseingly rival, the President, Mr. Gul’s wives wear the veil in public – which is used by some Western media to claim that Erdogan wants to erect an Islamist regime.  Erdogan has openly stated that after this election (which will give him his last permissible mandate as prime minister) he would like to change the 1980 constitution which was adopted after a military coup. This is a legitimate and necessary objective, its assessment depending, however, on its content. It seems quite conceivable that he would like to have a French-style Presidential democracy – with him as president to override the 3-time restriction as prime minister.

Clearly, in spite of all the above success stories of Turkey, there are some worrying signs: the recent incarceration of high-ranking army personnel may go beyond legitimate fights against potential coups; incarceration of critical journalists and pressure on media who criticize his increasingly intolerant behaviour; the recent publication of sex offenses of 10 MHP party leaders – belying their pious Islamist declamations; while this may be seen as legitimate campaigning, this case  goes further than potentially increasing AKP’s chances of gaining a constitutional majority in parliament: legitimate questions have arisen of who spies on whom in Turkey, with whose permission? Liberal media fear an increasingly intolerant and big-brother-type police state in the offing.

Still, overall, Turkey’s recent 10-year history is an impressive success story: a thriving economy, an increasingly open society, a very serious attempt to play its increasing geo-political role in the region, even at the expense of endangering its previously close relations with Israel (as a result of Israel’s outrageous raid on the Turkish aid ship “Marmara” for Gaza), its supportive role for the democracy movements in the Mediterranean countries, its serous (but fruitless) efforts to solve the perennial Cyprus question – all this should find positive recognition also in Western Europe’s appreciation of this important country. We in Western Europe also need to recognize that our own standards of democratic behaviour cannot be imitated 1:1 in other parts of Europe and the world. Where we have to insist and must not acquiesce, is humand rights protections. Erdogan’s AKP and the newly respectable main opposition party (CHP) are struggling for which form of domecracy suits Turkey best: we should leave it up to them to choose. It seems likely that Erdogan’s vision will prevail in the short and medium run. We all should recognize and appreciate this in bringing Turkey closer to the European Union. The West needs Turkey to stabilize our Southern Neighborhood and as a positive role model for the Arab world. Instead of bedevilling Turkey, we need to recognize the impressive improvement in democracy standards of the last 10 years and work with Turkey as an equal partner towards our mutual benefit.

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