Turkey: Instability Ahead

Turkey: Instability AheadTurkey: Instability Ahead

Turkey held parliamentary elections on June 7, 2015. Against the expectations, the governing Justice and Development Party (AKP) lost its absolute majority. This was seen as a major defeat both for the party and Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

The Financial Times called the results “seismic” and cited a commentator/critic of Erdogan who said, “There’s no risk-free path for him at the moment; anything he chooses will be a gamble.” The headline of this article says Erdogan has a “post-poll choice: step back or forge ahead.”

Observers, inside and outside Turkey, were analyzing the elections with similar dramatic verbiage. To understand why, we have to go back to the beginning of Turkey’s history as an independent state in 1923. The Turkish War of Independence (1919-23) ended with the Treaty of Lausanne. At that point, the interim parliament called for elections.

This second parliament proclaimed the republic, accepted the treaty, and abolished the caliphate. The Republican People’s Party (CHP) soon became the country’s only party. It was led by its founder, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, until his death in 1938, Immanuel Wallerstein wrote for Agence Global.

Ataturk’s policies were modeled in many ways on what he considered those of France. He sought to “modernize” his country. Central to his plans was the French view of the relations between the state and religions, called laicite. The Turkish translation of this word is an invented cognate, laiklik.

The idea was expressed in Ataturk’s opposition to any kind of intermediary allegiances between the state and the individual, whether such intermediaries were religious, ethnic, or regional. There were four large possible intermediaries, and Ataturk took action against all four. The first was Islam, hence the banning of Islamic vestments.

The second was the Kurds, hence the denial of the use of their language and indeed of their very existence, calling them “mountain Turks.” The third was the Armenians, and the fourth was the Greek Orthodox population and church, hence the forced transfers to Greece in exchange for Turk residents in there.

 Modern Turkey

For Ataturk and the CHP, the creation of a modern Turkey implied a careful limitation of the boundaries of the state. This meant rejecting the ideology of pan-Turkism, which sought to unite all Turkic-speaking peoples. It rejected what was called Turanism, which sought to unite all peoples that were “linguistically” descended from common roots, like Finns, Hungarians, Mongols, Koreans, and Japanese, among others.

Quite on the contrary, Ataturk sought to “purify” Turkish by rejecting all linguistic imports from Arabic, Persian, Greek, and Latin in Turkish, as used within the boundaries of Anatolia, which provided the basic boundaries of modern Turkey. He also ended the use of the Arabic alphabet, replacing it with the Latin alphabet.

The second issue of continuing importance for Turkey was its geopolitical orientation. In the early days of the republic, Turkey entertained links with the Soviet Union. They shared a sense of being “revolutionary” and consequently not being accepted by the western world. But for Ataturk, this alliance receded as he pursued his aspiration to create a modern state following the French model. When the World War II began, the Turkish state was torn between possible allegiances, and opted for neutrality, which was seen by the Allied powers as a pro-German stance.

In part to repair relations with western Europe (and North America), Ataturk’s successor Ismet Inonu ended one-party rule in 1944 and called for elections. The CHP easily won the first election, but after that, it became a minority party.

It proclaimed itself social-democratic and joined the Socialist international. It continued to be strongly nationalist but found its electoral strength in urban areas from middle-class professional and managerial elites. Its supporters pushed both for pro-western policies (like joining NATO) and for greater civil liberties.

 Rise of Opponents

The CHP found itself beset by opponents. There were now the successive versions of a conservative party, which placed less emphasis on pro-western policies, having strong roots in rural areas. There was the army and the judiciary, that wanted to maintain a very strong state and were extremely vigilant in the defense of laicité, leading to several military takeovers. And there were the Kurds who began to organize politically and eventually started a military insurrection under the Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK).

This group, led by Abdullah Ocalan evolved in time into a revised socialist orientation, willing to integrate politically as an autonomous region within Turkey. Ocalan was captured with CIA assistance and condemned to death, which was commuted into lifetime imprisonment on a remote island.

The Muslim-based parties that emerged in this period were successively outlawed and their leaders either imprisoned or barred from politics. So, when Erdogan’s “moderate Islamic” party, the AKP, first came to power in 2002, it was still faced with strong opposition from many left “secularists” and also faced the possibility of an army takeover.

Erdogan carefully and successfully navigated all the shoals, and grew steadily stronger. At this point, Erdogan sought a parliament that would vote for a new constitution creating a very strong presidential system.

Erdogan did one remarkable and surprising thing in his late term at office. He started negotiations with Ocalan to see if there could be some formula of devolution of power that would resolve the issue. He got great credit for this among the Kurds.

 Kurdish Turnaround

In these last elections, the latest legal Kurdish party, the People’s Democratic Party (HDP in its Turkish initials), pursued a new policy entirely.

It created a progressive rainbow coalition. On its slate of candidates were persons from all major ethnic groups, and perhaps most importantly, a large number of women. This party received over 13% of the vote nationally, enabling a Kurdish party for the very first time to exceed the high threshold of 10% needed to have seats in parliament.

Erdogan has no chance now of enacting his constitution. His immediate problem is whether to try to govern as a minority party or to ally with one of the three parties with the votes to give him a majority: the left HDP, the secularist CHP, or the far rightwing party.

It is a very difficult choice for him, for his party, and for Turkey. The outcome will have a fundamental impact not only on the future of Turkey but on the geopolitics of the Middle East.