Wednesday, 3 August 2011

Back To The Barracks

There has been much breathless reporting about the sudden resignations of some of Turkey’s top military officers on the eve of the annual meeting where senior promotions are made. The reports would have us believe that these resignations signal the military’s deep discontent with the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP).

The fact that much of the officer corps does not like AKP is not exactly hot news. What really annoys the officers is that there is very little they can do about it. Their once dominant role in Turkish politics has been steadily eroded over the last few years. The military used to regard itself as the only true defender of Ataturk’s Turkey. As such they could decide what was good or bad for the country. Politicians and the democratic process in general were viewed with deep suspicion, and both were dispensable if the need arose.

This was before the advent of AKP and its dominant leader, Tayyip Erdogan. Bolstered by his unprecedented popularity and stunning success at the polls, Erdogan has turned the tables on the military. He is now the one who dictates policy and determines what is good or bad for the country. The military has forced into a subordinated role similar to the military role in most real democracies.

Erdogan maintains this is all done in the name of democracy. True, but there is an undeniable element of revenge. It was the military, after all, that suppressed the forerunners of AKP and supported the jailing of Erdogan himself on charges of inciting tensions in the country. AKP justice officials have returned the favor by jailing several high-ranking military officers on charges (as yet unproven) of plotting to overthrow the civilian government.

In a broader context what has happened to the military merely reflects the larger changes in Turkish society since AKP came to power in 2002. The traditional aggressively secular economic/social/bureaucratic elite that had basically run the country for the last 70 years has been pushed aside by a new elite based in small towns around Anatolia instead of the power centers of Istanbul, Izmir and Ankara. This new elite is socially conservative and angry at the second-class treatment they had to endure for the first 80 years of the Republic. I remember clearly a meeting with one of these Anatolian elite in 2004 when he said the traditional power structure had “abused Ataturk’s legacy for their own ends. It is our turn to rule now.”

A good friend of ours is a charter member of the old elite. He and his wife have busy professional lives and their children go to the one of the best universities in America. He recognizes the changes and says they are not all bad.

“There is a reason that Erdogan gets 50% of the vote. His people work extremely hard. There is no question that the living standards of the lower-middle classes have improved dramatically. For the first time they feel that someone is actually working for them.”

“Just look at Istanbul. The city is much cleaner and public services have improved dramatically. I voted for the opposition party because I think we need a strong opposition, not because I thought they would do a better job running the country. They wouldn’t. Let’s face it. AKP represents the real face of Turkey. We’re not France or Switzerland. We’re Turkey. The so-called Islamic trend is way overdone. The worst thing you can say about many AKP supporters is that they are very conservative country bumpkins. That hardly makes them Islamic fundamentalists.”

“They may have as many corrupt officials as any other Turkish political party, but,” he adds with a wry smile, “at least their corruption appears to be productive.”

Whether Erdogan is becoming a typical autocrat supremely confident in his own opinions and deaf to all criticism is another matter altogether. But for the moment there is no denying that he is the most dominant force in Turkish politics for several decades.

One threat to AKP’s dominance is the economy. They came to power on the back of Turkey’s worst economic crisis, and gained increasing popularity as the country climbed out of that hole and grew rapidly. Erdogan continues to insist that the economy is fine and that Turkey will avoid the problems affecting many other countries. He does not acknowledge, in public at least, the gaping current account deficit, or increasing inflation. Turkey’s continued economic growth depends largely on continued external funding, and there are signs that could become more difficult. Interest rates on two year government bonds are about  8.5 – 9%  and inflation is at least 7%. How long are these very slim real rates of return going to entice investors? One leading economist believes rates will have to increase soon, and this could put some people like real estate developers in a tight spot. Turkey’s growth has been fueled by rapid credit expansion driven by demand for homes and cars. What happens to those borrowers when their interest payments shoot up? Who will they blame? For the moment Erdogan does not want to hear these doubts, but sooner or later inconvenient, very hard economic truths will begin to intrude on his version of reality.

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