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Democratization of Power in Turkey

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Pir-Mohammad Mollazehi
Expert on Indian Subcontinent & Middle East Isuues

The Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has declared his government’s new package for the promotion of democracy and democratization of power in the Middle Eastern country. Although, given the existing circumstances in Turkey, Erdogan’s package of democracy has been considered a major step forward, it has not been actually accorded a warm welcome. At least, neither the ethnic political groups which are inclined toward leftist “Kurdish” tendencies, nor the Turkish ethnic groups with conservative and nationalistic tendencies, have appeared enthusiastic about the new package. On the contrary, they have even shown their opposition to this package. The main question is “will the Islamist government of the Justice and Development Party become successful in achieving the goals it has defined for the country and hopes to realize through Erdogan’s democratization package, or will the package finally fail?”

The success or failure of Erdogan’s proposed package of democratic reforms will depend on various factors not all of which is controlled by his government. The reason is that the entire society of Turkey does not believe in a similar picture of the country’s future outlook as well as its regional and international standing. In general, one may daresay that the present-day Turkey has not yet achieved an established national identity. Despite expectations from the government and its main mottos, the government of Justice and Development Party has not been able to provide Turkey with a well-established identity. Therefore, in terms of identity and under the present circumstances, Turkey is facing three different types of identity around which various political forces in the country have been organized. In summary, those three identities can be recapped as follows:

1. An Islamic identity emanating from the legacy of the Islamic Ottoman Empire;

2. A Turkish identity based on the historical legacy of Turkish empires in Central Asia; and

3. A European identity which looks forward to being assimilated into the European Union.

In reality, these three different types of identity are challenging one another, each banking on the special forces that support it. The problem, however, is that the powerful non-Turk ethnic minorities are not part of the ongoing identity challenge and their ideals for the future Turkey is quite different from those cherished by the majority of the Turkish population. The Kurds and Alawite minorities of Turkey can be considered the most important non-Turkish ethnic minorities in the country that follow up the existing challenge over the political power from the standpoint of their own ethnic interests. As a result of this situation, their expectations have been in contradictions with those of the Turkish majority. Under such circumstances in Turkey, democratization of the political power seems to be more an ideal for the Islamist Justice and Development Party in order to maintain power, instead of being an idea based on real hypothesis which may help the government to achieve this goal. Therefore, oppositions to Erdogan’s proclaimed plan can be explained along the same lines. The early efforts made by the Justice and Development Party to highlight the historical power that Turkey had under the Ottoman rule, were in fact aimed to defend Islamist politicians against allegations that they were trying to acquire a purely European or Turkish identity. They were trying to do this by drawing the attention of the Turkey’s public opinion to a more tangible period of power, which in terms of time interval, is not very distant from the power-thirsty mentality of Turks. It is clear that this issue was, in fact, a reaction to the European Union’s refusal to take in Turkey as a new member. However, the idea has largely failed to put all the Turkish people on the same track and bridge the existing gaps among various viewpoints that currently exist in this country. Therefore, one may allege that when it comes to the identity of the Turkey, we are still facing a fragmented society.

This issue is important to the maintenance of domestic stability in Turkey in that the supporters of every one of the aforesaid identity-based groups consider themselves to be absolutely right and are seriously of the opinion that the future outlook of Turkey actually depends on the adoption of their desired form of identity. At the same time, when it comes to Turkey’s approach to European Union membership, the idea has supporters among both the Islamist figures, who seek to revive the grandeur of the country’s past Islamic empire, and those who seek to promote Pan-Turkism ideas in the country. Perhaps, one reason for this situation is that the general mentality of Turks has conceded to the superiority of Europe. The main orientation of those who support a purely Islamist identity for the country is, naturally toward the Islamic and Arab worlds. On the other hand, those supporting a Pan-Turkism identity are more inclined toward Turkish ethnic groups that inhabit the Central Asia; East Turkestan, which also includes China’s Xinjiang Province; as well as other ethnic minorities of Turkish origin that live in other countries and have, so far, maintained their Turkish identity. The Justice and Development Party considers itself as representative of the Islamist line of thought and identity, while the rightist Republican People's Party supports an identity based on Pan-Turkism. Ahmet Davutoglu, the foreign minister of Erdogan’s government, can be considered as the most important theoretician behind the idea of the Islamic – Middle Eastern identity of Turkey. At first, he was effectively able to promote Turkey’s regional policy before the breakout of the latest developments in the Middle East. By doing this, he had made the new Islamic identity of Turkey understandable and defensible for the majority of the Muslim masses in the region. The main axis of that idea was manifest in Turkey’s policy of “reducing tension with neighbors.” For a short period of time, it seemed that the new policy of Turkey would be totally successful. In reality, however, this did not happen. The issue of the conflict between Palestinians and Israel, on the one hand, and the flare-up of the ongoing political crisis in Syria, on the other hand, actually brought Davutoglu’s foreign policy to standstill. This situation could have provided the supporters of Pan-Turkism as well as those who advocated a European identity for Turkey with a golden opportunity. Perhaps, here lies the main secret which underpins democratic reforms purported and advocated by Erdogan. That is, he aims to not only keep the reins of power in the hands of the Islamist figures, but also to create some form of immunity against the growth of identities that lean toward Pan-Turkism, a people’s republic, and even Turkish secular elements. On the other hand, Erdogan is trying to prevent those supporting a European identity for Turkey from acting outside the framework and control of the Islamist government.

Despite the above facts, there are more diverse realities with respect to “Erdogan’s democratic” reforms, which cannot be easily ignored. At least, as far as those reforms which pertain to the “Kurdish” ethnic group are concerned, one of the reasons why the European Union does not consider Turkey as a country matching up to the European standards of human rights, is the situation of the Kurdish minority in this country. In the eyes of the European authorities, as long as “Kurds” have not been given rights equal to the main body of Turkey’s population, the country cannot be considered a truly democratic state as per the existing European standards. The democratic reforms declared by Erdogan are still a long way behind the expectations held by the country’s Kurdish population and can barely satisfy the standards set by the European countries. In reality, Erdogan has had serious reservations for the announcement of his democratization package. He is rightly aware that even this limited degree of reforms would be unacceptable to the Republican People's Party of Turkey, which still sticks to rightist ideas of Pan-Turkism, as well as to the staunch followers of [the founder of the secular Turkey, Mustafa Kemal] Atatürk. Some analysts even believe that his plan is, in fact, the product of a clandestine agreement he has reached with the “jailed leader of Kurds,” Abdullah Öcalan. At the same time, Erdogan is also aware of the reality that his plan for implementing democratic reforms in the country will even fall short of drawing support from the Kurds because ethnic demands put forth by “Kurds” go well beyond the teaching of the Kurdish language in private schools.

The truth, however, is that the Islamist government of Turkey has actually taken one step toward democratization of the country in spite of all the obstacles and problems that face it. Therefore, it would be logical to assume that this is just a preliminary step and if Erdogan passes this test with success and manages to keep the power reins in the hands of the Justice and Development Party, he is sure to take more serious steps in future. In the meantime, “Europe” and “Kurds” serve as two main factors which can determine the success or failure of Erdogan’s reforms plan. At present, Erdogan is on the right track and should take more practical steps in order to find a final solution to identity-related challenges of Turkey. Otherwise, it would be possible to assume that despite his government’s claims to having presented an Islamic model of power, which alleges that it can bring together Islam and modernity, Islam and democracy, as well as Islam and development under its umbrella, the country may find itself caught in the middle of a new wave of the Islamic Awakening of the type which has been already seen in the Arab Spring developments. In this way, the political scourge which has befallen the Syrian government of President Bashar Assad for the past couple of years and in which the government in Ankara has been playing an active role, would certainly await Turkey as well.

Key Words: Democratization of Power, Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Islamic Identity, Turkish Identity, European Identity, Kurdish Population, Justice and Development, Mollazehi

More By Pir-Mohammad Mollazehi:

*Violence in Middle East: http://www.iranreview.org/content/Documents/Violence-in-Middle-East.htm

*Syria Power Change Inevitable: A Realistic Analysis of Russian-American Deal over Syria: http://www.iranreview.org/content/Documents/Syria-Power-Change-Inevitable-A-Realistic-Analysis-of-Russian-American-Deal-over-Syria.htm

*Simplism in Dealing with Syria Crisis: http://www.iranreview.org/content/Documents/Simplism-in-Dealing-with-Syria-Crisis.htm

*Photo Credit: The Star Online

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