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.