Tuesday, 13 October 2009

Forget Wonderland. Through the Looking Glass, lies Turkey

If asked to take a guess, would you suppose that:
A western-oriented, secularist, aggressively modernising party would be in favour or its country joining the EU?
An army would be traditionally conservative and sympathetic to religion and tradition?
A populist government would always make sure they carry the people with them?

Yeah, you would, wouldn't you?
Only if you were talking about Turkey you'd be wrong.

In Turkey, the populist Islamist government currently in power is in favour of EU accession and the secularist, traditionally westernising opposition (the CHP, Atatürk's own party) are vocally against all reform efforts and, although theoretically in favour of accession, effectively blocking the path to EU by demanding that the EU 'respects' Turkey in ways that make no sense to the EU whatsoever. Not that the Euros mind. All delays to Turkey's accession are well and good by Brussels, but that's another story altogether.

Meanwhile the AKP is locked in a battle to the death with the country's high-profile, aggressively secularist military who, quite frankly, loathe the AKP and everything it stands for and are – possibly, maybe – trying to undermine the government quite actively. A series of leaks (more on this in a minute) have caused the army's otherwise impeccable reputation to suffer and for the first time in the Republic's eight decades, the people are losing faith in the military and are beginning to see the value in purging politics from military influence and putting the soldiers back in their box.

The AKP, of course, agrees and has been trying to do just that for the best part of a decade now. But do they manage to carry the people with them?
No sir.
They manage, magically, to make the people feel excluded from proceedings and by-passed as the government is acting on what everyone in principle agrees upon but without any public debate or evident deliberation. And although agreement over the bottom line is there, these are vital questions affecting the nature and future of the Turkish polity and reform without deliberation is unacceptable in principle, agreement notwithstanding.
You'd think that for sheer ease the government would have capitalised on the popularity of the idea, being populist and all. But paternalistic habits die hard and even populists take a leaf out of the book on old school Turkish politics traditions.

Under normal circumstances you would expect the opposition to make the most of the government's failures roundabout now. But don't hold your breath.
The opposition is even more paternalistic than the AKP who have nothing to worry about because the CHP seems hell-bent on working itself into extinction one statement at a time.

First of all, the CHP are perceived (and dismissed) as a mouthpiece for the increasingly discredited military. This, at least, gives them something relevant to say as, when not saying what the generals want them to say, the CHP have little to say that is of any interest to the people. Out of touch? And then some as the CHP have been outside power for the best part of two decades and once, after the 1999 elections, also outside Parliament. Popularity is evidently not the word here but has the CHP leader Deniz Baykal resigned to let a more credible (not to mention likeable) candidate to take the reigns? Like hell he has.

Now being perceived as the mouthpiece of the military wouldn't have been all that bad had it not been for a series of recent leaks and almost-scandals that show the military getting really jittery, planning coups, plotting against the government and against powerful religious brotherhoods, particularly against the Gülenists. Obviously, none of these plots have come off – or I would have been blogging about that instead – and most of them have been stopped by the military leadership themselves but the fact remains that people believe the military is taking things too far. All cries that the memos are fabricated or that the army purges itself fail to drown out the feeling that the time is right for change.

The people want it.
The Gülenists want it.
The AKP want it.

So why is it not happening?

Well. Bits of it are happening. Change is afoot and has been non-stop since 2001. To a Turkey buff like me the changes that have come to pass in the past 8 years are immense, mind-boggling, 'I never thought I'd see this' type changes. But to the naked eye, things are not as great. To the close-up look of a Turkish citizen or the bird's eye view of an external observer, change is slow, sluggish, halting, half-hearted and above all: a bit of a sand-castle on the surf. Because you can reform all you want, unless you tackle the constitutional foundations of the state, it's like selecting toppings before you make sure you have enough flour to make a pizza.

And what I mean by that is this: for all the bravado and all the radical mini reforms, the AKP's policy has been a balancing act so far. Pushing change as far as it can go before things snap, break, shatter and come back to bite you in the proverbial rear. The AKP's genius – if you will permit me the term – is that they have managed to play on all their opponents' weaknesses while using their opponents' ideas to further their own cause. And it has worked. It has worked well enough to keep the AKP in power, to keep the EU happy and the accession process ticking over. It has also helped accomplish important and much needed reforms and keep the people on side. Most of the time.

But a balancing act rarely bodes well as a sign of decisive political will, which is what fundamental constitutional reform would entail.
In short.
Turkey's constitution was written by the army in the 80s. It reflects their ideas, it promotes their priorities and it upholds their role as guardian of the Republic.
This constitution has been massively amended. It is now a patchwork of ideas and a lot of the 'in your face' militaristic provisions have been removed. So what? The heart of it remains and it will always do until someone has the political balls to say 'enough of this, let's make a new constitution that tells the soldiers what to do rather than the other way round'.

But who is going to be that guy?
And assuming we get 'that guy', where on earth will he start?
Where do you start in a political system where nothing is what you expect, allegiances are very idiosyncratic and nobody ever says exactly what they mean because there are laws against that.
And even when things seem aligned, groups seem to agree, consensus seems almost inevitable nothing ever happens like you'd think it would. Because you are through the looking glass and nothing is as it seems.

And as with the fairytale, so with Turkey, while the white rabbit, the mad hatter and the queen of hearts indulge in their games, express their quirks and pursue whatever takes their fancy, it is the common folk that have to dodge the Cheshire cat, ensure they hold onto their heads and try to build for themselves a semblance of normality despite it all.
And you can't help but think that, given the circumstances, 'that guy', 'those guys' the people who can visualize and implement real change are exactly the people who are trying to get past the cat and the deranged queen of hearts. The people who could change it all are exactly the people who are too busy trying to build a life, despite it all.


  1. Spot on. Turkey is such an “Alice in Wonderland” country (or were your metaphors from “through the looking glass” I always get the two confused). Personally I am apprehensive at both sides.
    I remember a couple of years ago having a drink with a Turkish acquaintance in Istanbul. She was an educated secular woman, modern, widely travelled and naturally a Kemalist. So my shock was even greater listening to her reply, after I made a throwaway comment on the amount of national flags on display. I was subjected to a long tirade on the origin of the Turkish flag and how the army is the sole protector of secular freedoms or otherwise Turkey would go the Iran way and how Europe just doesn’t get it. (Apparently it was Ataturk that envisaged the flag after seeing the moon and a star reflected in a pool of blood shed by the martyrs of the war of independence- and all that to a Greek!)
    She was of course reciting some primary school history lesson, but it was still weird that this sort of primitive nationalism is found amongst educated, secular Turks.
    On the other hand I have found many pro-European pro-AKP Turks that want nothing else but join the EU, limit the influence of the army and have their religious rights fully respected. The only snag is that I met those Turks away from the centre of Istanbul, in an all-male company, in an area where you didn’t see any uncovered women and there was a mosque every couple of blocks. I am not sure that they will like all the changes EU will bring to their lives .The drinks I had with them were non-alcoholic.
    So the people we can have a glass of wine with are not our friends, while the ones that are culturally the farthest from us, want desperately to join our –rather- exclusive club. Does anyone see a way out that will not disappoint everyone involved?

  2. @ christos L – thank you although I must say the idea of Ali Babacan in a blue flock and apron amuses me on many a dull afternoon...

    But on a serious note, what I love to call the 'Kemalist poster children', the people who are as the man himself would have wished them to be (secular, westernised and, of course, Kemalist), are a very interesting breed. Open-minded when it comes to everything and anything. Other than Kemal himself.

    Obviously nationalism works in very similar ways the world over and these narratives are always – one some level – fabricated. Yet Turkey is unique among non-Communist societies: Nowhere else does ideology have such a fierce hold over pretty much EVERYONE and everything. Is this on some level state-sponsored and state-controlled? Of course it is. But it is orchestrated rather than imposed and that makes all the difference: the people (like your friend) carry it forward with conviction, energy and gusto.

    As for Atatürk envisaging the flag... I have heard that story too. The fact that this was one of the many Ottoman standards is conveniently forgotten. Even though every other flag in the Middle East and North Africa looks like a variation thereof. Nevermind. We Greeks still believe in teh 'secret school' that never existed and the devsirme (paidomazoma) that stopped in the early 17th century because people started offering their children to the authorities for the better life that would get them.
    National histories involve, well, lies. What can you do.

    But I must confess that on one level I share the Kemalists' apprehension. Is there such a thing as liberalisation and democratisation in the name of religion? I personally fear religion in politics like a vampire fears dawn and although I admire some of what the AKP have done, I don't think there is space for religion in politics and for me they are already taking it too far. And of course the Kemalists are right. We don't know what the AKP may do next. But why don't we know? Because the Kemalists have made it illegal for the AKP to tell us what they intend to do next.

    Turkey needs to put its own topsy turvy house in order before it can decide whether joining the EU is a good idea. But the longer they take, the further away the EU is from where it was last time they checked. And the whole cycle begins again. Like a bureaucratic version of groundhog day.

    So let's drink to world peace, a glass of wine with those who don't want to know and a glass of ayran with those who do... and let's hope they get talking to each other before it's too late...

  3. I think Turkey is not Alice yet. Although a lot of what you are saying is true you seem to forget one thing: All parties in Turkey are hoping to get away with some permanent exclusions from the aquis communitare.
    They have done a lot but on such issues they have done nothing but show. Relations with armenia were supposed to be normalised after the signing ceremony only to afterwards freeze them until the Nagorno karabach is resolved.

    At the same time it is not recognising a EU member, the republic of Cyprus until after the Cyprus problem is resolved.

    The social and religious issues are also stagnated which AKP is hoping to manage to armstrong Europe into accepting. The Kurdish issue is stalled and religious toleration is under threat.

    So Alice in wonderland? More like Hide trying to bully his way into a club by showing only his Dr. Jeckyl side.