Is the country turning eastward and more overtly Islamic out of spite because its long-standing attempt to join the European Union is being met with so much scorn and resistance while smaller countries like Bulgaria and Romania are welcomed with open arms? Does this feeling of injured dignity explain why the Turkish government is befriending such notorious regimes as Hamas or the international pariahs in Sudan? Or, as the government claims, is it merely expanding its sphere of influence to include its ‘natural’ Islamic neighbours long overlooked in the 87-year history of the Turkish Republic?
As interesting as the debate may be, it misses the point of what is going on Turkey. The Turkish story is primarily a domestic cultural and social story with international relations important only as it impacts domestic developments. What’s going on now is nothing less than what could be called the ‘Revenge of Anatolia.’
The struggle right now in Turkey is about who will run the country – an elite that has been in control since the Republic was founded in 1923 or the huge mass of the population that feels its needs and wishes have been overlooked for 87 years. This struggle goes far beyond the narrow confines of competing political parties, and goes to the heart of the social and political structure of this complex country.
The immediate issue is a critical referendum on major changes in the constitution. These changes include giving the ruling political party more control over the judiciary and further weakening the traditional key role the military has played in Turkish political life. The vote on September 12 will go a long way to determine the direction of Turkey in the near future. Turkey’s foreign policy moves up to referendum should been seen in the context of the prime minister securing his base of support for this vote. The government chose the date carefully, hoping the symbolism will not be lost on the electorate. It is the anniversary of the major military coup in 1980.
Why should anyone outside Turkey care? Very simple. Turkey is a large country occupying a critical piece of geography with long borders on the European Union as well as Iran, Iraq and Syria. Turkey has the second largest army in NATO and the fastest growing economy in the Mediterranean region. The direction of Turkey has major implications for the United States, Europe, Russia, and the entire Islamic world.
The current fight-to-the-finish with absolutely no quarter reflects the social and economic divisions that have simmered just beneath the surface for a long time. Kemal Ataturk, the founder of the Republic, instituted sweeping changes during the 1920s in all aspects of Turkish life aimed at wrenching the country out of the perceived torpor of the Ottoman Empire into the modern world. Turkey officially became a secular country, the dominant Islamic religion faced new constraints, age old social customs were overturned, new legal codes were introduced, education was improved, and Turkey’s march toward the West was reinforced.
These changes were implemented and defended by a military, administrative, judicial, and economic elite. Any popular resistance or criticism of the country’s direction were harshly suppressed and condemned as efforts to drag Turkey backwards. This view was supported by the military who saw itself as the true defender of Ataturk’s reforms and the secular nature of the country. The military felt free to intervene in Turkish politics every time it believed the country’s elected leaders were deviating too far from the General Staff’s definition of Turkey’s proper course.
This elite is, however, a small minority of the Turkish population and lives in the rapidly growing business and administrative centers like Istanbul, Ankara, Izmir and Bursa. They are the so-called ‘White Turks’ as opposed to the ‘Black Turks’ who have their roots deep in the tired soil of Anatolia – the vast Turkish hinterland that stretches from the Bosphorus Straits to the Iranian border. The White Turks generally are wealthy, sophisticated, at home in Paris, London or New York. They would easily fit into the European Union. The Turkish economic, social, and political system has worked very well for them.
While the children of the elite went to the best schools at home and abroad many children of the so-called Black Turks were lucky to find any school at all. The White Turks received superior health care while the Black Turks had to struggle to find a technician let alone a doctor. And on, and on, and on. Years ago when I asked a crusty old villager about government services, he spat and asked ‘What government? What services?’
For a full treatment of this dichotomy in Turkish society I recommend an excellent work by a German journalist, Rainer Hermann. He was one of the very first foreign journalists to examine this development in his excellent work Wohin Geht die Turkische Gesellschaft, (Where is Turkish Society Going.) Hermann works with the FrankfurterAllgemeine Zeitung, and, unfortunately his work so far is available only in German.
Beyond the uneven distribution of services, people in the small towns and villages were bombarded with the officially approved messages that their very life style, and even their religion were out of step with modern Turkey. Turkey was now a secular country and overt demonstrations of Islam – or any religion for that matter – were discouraged. In addition, the rapid spread of mass media over the last 50 years has made it clear just how much the mass of the population is missing. Somehow the reality of his wife dressed in baggy trousers going out to pick tomatoes didn’t fit the image he now saw on television of the bikini-clad starlet riding around in a Ferrari. In short, they could not miss the not-very-subtle message of “Get with the program, you dunce. Turkey is changing and you better change with it.”
This resentment at being second class citizens in their own country was deeply felt, but, in a pattern that goes back to the Ottoman Empire, was disguised under the custom of ‘kissing the hand you can not bite.’ The masses preferred to keep quite and bide their time, wait for their opportunities.
And the ruling elite provided plenty of opportunities. For most of the last 50 years Turkey has been run by a series of inept, squabbling coalition governments that failed miserably to address many of the country’s needs. Inflation of more than 50% became an international joke, the currency depreciated daily, large cities became almost unmanageable as millions of people left the country to find jobs in the exploding metropolises, and people’s savings were wiped out in a series of bank frauds.
While the country’s rulers were playing their shallow political games things were slowing changing in Anatolia. A very successful class of entrepreneur was building up in Anatolia. Shrewd, prudent, averse to debt, and socially conservative these entrepreneurs created solid, extremely successful businesses. I once asked one of these businessmen how they decided to make an investment. “Simple,” he replied. “My brothers and I sit down and count how much money we have. If we have more than $100 million free of any obligation then we might make an investment.”
A tough, charismatic leader like Tayyip Erdogan, the former mayor of Istanbul, was able to tap into this Anatolian resentment. With the financial aid of the wealthy new business class he was able to build a nation-wide movement that understood politics from the ground up. While the existing political parties made no attempt to extend their efforts down into the mass of the electorate Erdogan seized on that vacuum and exploited it perfectly by building a strong nationwide party organization that succeeded in delivering votes.
His opportunity came in 2002 after the latest coalition government had driven the country to bankruptcy, interest rates hit 1,000%, and the currency just about disappeared. After this fiasco it is no mystery how Erdogan’s new party, Justice and Development, swept into power in the 2002 elections with enough votes to govern without a coalition partner. The economic situation was so bad that people who would normally not come near anyone with avowed Islamic leanings put their religious fears aside and voted for total change.
And total change they got. The first few years were a honeymoon for Erdogan as real economic recovery and reform of the banking system created enormous good will. People were willing to overlook disturbing signs that the Justice and Development Party displayed many characteristics of the old parties: very tight control, reluctance to use anyone outside the party no matter how skilled or experienced he or she may be, rewarding party members with lucrative deals. Despite these signs Erdogan was able to ride this wave of economic recovery and capitalize on the complete incompetence of the opposition parties with a second election victory in 2007 with an incredible 47% of the vote.
Armed with this mandate he declared open war on what he saw as the main pillars of the traditional elite who had blocked his efforts to transform Turkish society: the military and judiciary.
In a program dubbed Ergenekon several high ranking army officers were among the dozens arrested with allegations of plotting to overthrow the government. Many of the defendants have been incarcerated for more than two years, but to date no trials have been held, and none of the allegations has been proved in a court of law. But the effect of these officers being hauled off to prison has had a major impact on Turkish society. Once seen as the guardians of the secular nature of the Republic, the army is now being portrayed by the ruling party as a bunch of bungling plotters.
Erdogan’s party has also taken aim at the judiciary that, like the army, is a fierce defender of the secular republic. In addition the supreme court came very close to banning the Justice and Development Party in 2007.
In many ways the referendum can be seen as a vote of confidence in Erdogan himself. Most of his foreign policy initiatives can be also be seen as an effort to make sure the vote goes his way. The risks for him are high. If the referendum passes he will be much freer to implement whatever agenda he pleases without fear of military or judicial intervention. If the referendum fails then momentum could shift very quickly away from Erdogan, and the opposition parties will be given a huge boost for the general elections due in 2011. Win or lose, this referendum will mark a defining moment in the development of Turkish democracy.