Tomorrow is election day in Turkey and it’s coming down to the home stretch! The Justice and Development Party (AKP) is likely to win about 30 percent of the vote, which would make them the senior partner in any coalition government, assuming they don’t win outright. The Republican People’s Party (CHP), founded by Turkey’s founder Mustafa Kemal AtatÃ¼rk, is polling at 15 to 20 percent. However, AtatÃ¼rk’s party is avowedly secular, so it’s unlikely the two would partner up.
The situation is making the military and other secular Turks very, very nervous. In 1997, the AKP’s predecessor, the Welfare Party, was eased out by the military in what many have called a “soft coup.” But that option isn’t available now. With the European Union still dangling the carrot of membership, the Turkish military can’t risk stepping in and mucking about with elections and democracy. But the powers that be in Turkey also worry that a government headed by an Islamist party wouldn’t be attractive to Europe either, so Turkey is kind of caught in a bind.
Further complicating the situation, Milliyet reported last week that Turkey’s top state prosecutor, Sabih Kanadoglu, has filed for the closure of the AKP, citing defiance by the party’s leader, former Istanbul mayor Recep Tayyip Erdogan, to give up his party post. Erdogan was banned from participating in politics after he read a poem “inciting religious hatred” in a mosque in 1997 and served four months in jail. Though the case won’t be decided for months, if the party eventually is shut down its supporters would see their votes wasted. All this legal maneuvering has been an attempt by the military and secular leadership to depress the vote on AKP, and as I was told when I was in Ankara, “Turkey is the graveyard of political parties.“
(For what it’s worth Sabah reported that U.S. State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said the United States is opposed to banning political parties. “The US supports democracy and broad political participation in Turkey and elsewhere,” he is quoted as saying. “We oppose the banning of political parties that are expressing their views in a peaceful and democratic manner.”)
Though Erdogan is banned by law from serving in a governmental post — such as, oh, prime minister for example — the suspicion is that he will work behind the scenes running the country, probably through a weak prime minister. There is also concern that his commitment to moderation and democracy is only skin deep. He was elected mayor of Istanbul in 1994 and promptly banned alcohol in the city’s restaurants. He has close ties with former Welfare Party prime minister Erbakan, who dined with terrorists and talked of pulling out of NATO. Perhaps most ominously, “You cannot be secular and a Muslim at the same time,” Erdogan said in 1995.
But he’s been crafty in how he has answered questions on how he would liberalize laws concerning the public expression of religion. For example, it is currently illegal for women to wear headscarves in universities, schools and government buildings or at government functions. This is a highly emotional issue in Turkey, with headscarves being a potent symbol of political Islam. Erdogan has been careful to not identify the AKP with this kind of controversy. Would his wife, an observant Muslim, wear a headscarf at government functions? “I wouldn’t bring her,” he has said, neatly not answering the question or assuaging Turkish women’s fears.
So what are the scenarios? Near as I can tell, they are as follows:
- The AKP wins decisively with enough seats in Parliament to form a government without resorting to a partner. The military might intervene or it might not. If it doesn’t, look for the AKP to be kept on a short leash.
- The AKP wins a majority, but cannot form a government, in which case they will partner up with — possibly —
Deniz Baykal’s Devlet Bahceli’s Nationalist Action Party (MHP). I think a coalition between the nationalists and Islamists could be one of the worst combinations. “The result will definitely be another coalition, an anomaly of very contradictory views,” said Prof. Deniz Ilgaz of Bogaziï¿½i University when I emailed her about all of this.
- The myriad secular parties in Parliament band together in a broad-based coalition together to keep the AKP out of power. The resulting government would be weak and ineffectual, and would pretty much cement the status quo. None of the problems of Turkey would be addressed, and the military would remain the de facto ruler of the country.
So what will happen and how might this affect the United States’ determination to open up some precision guided whoop-ass on Iraq, a fellow Muslim country and formerly a major trading partner to Turkey? We’ll have the outlines in a day. But one thing is certain is that the political landscape is about to change in unpredictable ways.
Happy 79th birthday, Turkey! You look weeks younger!
Mustafa Kemal Atatürk founded by the modern Turkish state Oct. 29, 79 years ago. For all of Turkey’s problems today, no one should underestimate the determination and accomplishment of Atatürk. In the face of hostile enemies, a skeptical world and a collection of peoples with no reason to band together, he forged a modern and Western-facing nation out of the ashes of the Ottoman Empire. Regardless of how people view the modern Turkey, it’s a damn sight better than what might have been had he failed. And for that I tip my hat to Father Turk.
I also think that were he alive today, he would have brought the same energy, determination (and, frankly, authoritarianism) to the problems of the Republic. But he’s not, and Turkey needs to step out of the great man’s shadow and move on. Atatürk was able to accomplish what he did because he didn’t worry about the democratic process. And his approach was exactly right for what was needed at the time. But today, Turkey must embrace a full democracy and remove the military from the decision making process. The slogan that adorns the steps leading up to Atatürk’s mausoleum in Ankara should be amended. Instead of “Sovereignty rests with the Nation,” it should instead derive from the people — all of them, Turks and Kurds alike. His admonition to the army to protect the nation from all enemies foreign and domestic should come with the appendix the people are not the enemy; they are citizens.
I’d like to think that Atatürk would recognize this. Turkey no longer needs a Great Man. It needs a great people.
Turkey has been making noises that the Iraqi Kurds should not get too hopeful about establishing a quasi-independent entity in the three governates they control in northern Iraq. Now, it looks like Turkey is ready to back up their words with force. (At least they’re consistent.) However, there is an election coming up in Turkey, so the possibility that this is all fodder for domestic constituencies cannot be ruled out.
On the they-really-mean-it side of the equation, ArabicNews.com is reporting that Turkish deputy prime minister Doulat Bahjali said that his country must reconsider its stance regarding northern Iraq. Since 1991 when it got dragged into Operation Provide Comfort (the allied establishment of the northern no-fly zone to protect Kurdish refugees from the 1990 – 91 Gulf War,) Turky has gone back and forth in its relations with the PUK and KDP. At times the relationship was warm enough that Barzani and Talabani, the leaders of the respective parties, traveled under Turkish diplomatic passports.
That has apparently ended with finality after the Kurdistan Regional Government convened its parliament in October and introduced a proposal for a federal republic of Iraq with a Kurdish entity in the north and with Kirkuk as its capital. Kirkuk, rich in oil and history is home to Kurds, Arabs, Assyrians and Turkomen, to whose defense Bahjali is leaping.
“The pressures which are imposed on the Turkomen under Saddam Hussein were great and that they are at the meantime exposed to a new threat by the two Kurdish leaders Masoud al-Barazani and Jalal al-Talabani targeting their cities of Mosul, Kirkuk and Arbil,” ArabicNews.com says. (Ed. I changed some spellings of towns in this quote.)
This backs up the it’s-all-politics argument, since the Turkomen are a natural ally of Bahjali’s National Movement Party, and bashing the Kurds is always a surefire way to rally the nationalist faithful. However, Turkish defense minister Sbah Eddin Oglo said Oct. 14 that Turkey intends to establish ‘a security belt’ in northern Iraq and that intelligence agencies have reported that Turkey has increased its troop strength in Iraqi Kurdistan from 4,000 to 10,000 troops.
All of this must be driving the United States crazy. The last thing it needs is a Kurdish-Turkish dispute in northern Iraq just when it’s trying to get its ducks in a row should shooting start. And this is exactly the kind of chaos various pundits have predicted would happen if Saddam is removed and regional rivalries are allowed to flare. But wasn’t that supposed to happen after a war?
Keep watching the Turks. They hold the key to all of this.
While in Ankara, Aykut and I spent a day trying to find the local offices of various Iraqi and Kurdish opposition groups including the KDP and PUK. We were looking for various officials who might be able to help me when I went to Diyarbakir in the southeast and on to Iraq, but we weren’t having much luck, and kept driving through twisty neighborhoods hoping the cops weren’t following us.
At one point, the comedy descended into farce, as we drove into a military residence area looking for the embassies. We found the embassies, but the PUK still eluded us. We drove past the Jordanian, Syrian and Saudi Embassies, but finally stopped outside the the United Arab Emirates while Aykut jumped out of the car and asked a bored-looking security guard for directions.
“Excuse me, where are the offices for the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan?” Akyut asked while I shrunk into my seat and tried to look invisible.
The guard, a Turk and apparently no friend of Iraqi Kurds, looked him up and down, looked me up and down, and then motioned off down the road.
Aykut dropped his bulk into the drivers’ seat and smiled at me.
“Don’t do that again,” I said.
He apologized, but at least the guard’s directions were good. We finally found the rather sad looking house that was the office for the PUK. No one was around except for a plainclothes guy who watched us closely and smoked a cigarette like a fugitive. He made me nervous, so we left to go meet A. Turan Demir, the deputy chairman of HADEP, the Kurdish party in Turkey. The transcript — from Aykut’s translation — follows:
Wow. I posted the proposed Kurdish and Iraqi constitutions last nightand my thoughts that the Kurds are asking for troubleand wouldn’t you know it? Today, the Guardian runs this. It’s more of that growling that I mentioned in my previous post, but what’s most alarming about this is Turkey’s charges that the United States is directing the Kurds: “It is beyond encouragement, (Washington) is directing them,” Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit told the Turkish paper Milliyet. “We will talk to the United States.“
If the United States is directing the PUK and the KDP, that would amount to a stunning reversal against Turkey, one of our most loyal allies in the region. I don’t think that we are, frankly, and these comments are likely playing to Ecevit’s nationalist base of support, which often views the U.S. with suspicion. (They still harbor resentments over Cyprus form 1964 and 1974.)
The United States needs Turkey more than it needs the Kurds, sadly, as the Kurds have only about 80,000 lightly armed peshmergas while the Turks have tanks and F-16s (bought from the United States, of course.) They’re also a NATO ally and Incirlik is a necessary base for running sorties in the northern no-fly zone.
But beyond that Turkey is valuable to the United States in that it provides a “good example” of democracy and Islam, serving as an effective ideological counterweight to Iran. It also has close ties to the Turkish-speaking peoples of central Asia and their energy reserves.
This is why the United States has been such a proponent of Turkey’s ascension to the European Union. America’s support is a complex web of self-interest (keeping a strong, democratic Muslim nation tied to the West) and pay-back (see military alliance above.) It’s also why the Kurds of southeast Turkey both admire and resent the United States. They admire it for its stance on the Turkey-EU issue, and they see membership as the key to economic recovery in that depressed region. They resent America because it was very very supportive of Turkey’s war against the PKK’s terror campaign (which Turkey remembered when Sept. 11, 2001 happened.)
So, again, I’m not sure what would happen if Iraq’s Kurds attain some form of independence. That would almost certainly drive the Turks to war in Iraqi Kurdistan, and what then would the Americans do? This may turn out to be a bigger question than who rules the day after Saddam…