Stability in the post-Erdoğan era

Abdullah Bozkurt
Abdullah Bozkurt

Date posted: March 14, 2014

Turkey will likely enter a new transitional period when beleaguered Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who has now become a major drag on his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) amid massive corruption scandals, realizes he is done with governing.

Erdoğan, the most canny and savvy politician of recent times, simply cannot survive the current political, legal and social challenges he brought upon himself when he grew into an overconfident and overbearing authoritarian leader. The power he has amassed in the past decade corrupted him so much that he thought he had become untouchable, committing a series of mistakes. He let himself get involved in a massive corruption scheme with commissions paid for his role in managing state contracts, tenders, money laundering and influence-peddling schemes. The magic spell of impunity for Erdoğan was broken on Dec. 17, 2013, when the corruption operation by prosecutors was made public.

Now the question is, who will usher Turkey into a new era and lead the transformation in the country that is a crucial NATO ally, EU candidate and important regional power with significant assets at its disposal to make things better or worse for its partners. How will Turkey look in the post-Erdoğan era — whether there will be a gap in the transition that may be filled with unaccountable power brokers? Assessing what direction developments may take, I would say there is no doubt that whoever gets the mandate to run the country in free and fair elections will form the representative government in Turkey. There is no going back on that long-held tradition as the democratic functioning of state structures with all the shortcomings is still a sine qua non for Turks.

The recent crises with the Erdoğan government, which effectively suspended the rule of law, dealt a blow to the independent judiciary, cowed most media into silence and alienated a large swath of the society, taught Turks a valuable lesson by shedding light on what they want for their future. That includes preventing one person (or state branch) from consolidating too much power, shoring up weak accountability and transparency rules, strengthening parliamentary oversight functions, restoring respect to the rule of law, fundamental rights and liberties, establishing an independent and impartial judiciary, and doing away with a presidency that rubberstamps what comes to his/her desk.

On the political landscape, the map will change. For one, the ruling AKP under Erdoğan is finished. The only way for the AKP to survive is to get rid of corrupt leadership and bring a new one to make a fresh start. That seems unlikely as Erdoğan will fight to the death with the loyal delegates as foot soldiers at his side. That means a new party on the center right will branch out from the AKP to appeal to the masses that were clustered mainly in the mainstream and largely conservative. It will be an umbrella party with liberals, moderate conservatives and social democrats. In contrast to the AKP’s start-up years in early 2000, political Islamists, who have inflicted so much damage on Turkey’s national interests with ideologically leaning wrong choices, will have no place in the composition of the new party, at least not substantially. The party will be led by a new breed of politician rather than risk-averse dinosaurs that succumb to petty interests. Perhaps the leadership will be shaped by collective bargaining rather than mobilizing around one single man.

The main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) still needs some time to establish trust and credibility with voters. It has a huge gap with women voters, small and medium-sized business owners, the younger generation and the conservative bloc — attributed to wasted years campaigning on ideological divisions that did not bring a significant vote. It appears the CHP has decided to become a truly social democrat party, but it needs to play a progressive message consistently and over time, not just during election campaign periods. Still, there is a drag on the party from neo-nationalist, ultra-secularist and Kemalist factions that makes mainstream and conservative voters uneasy. It needs to trade off increasingly marginalized groups with new voters for a broader appeal. Given enough time, the CHP will eventually be able to overcome the trust gap and present itself as a credible alternative.

The Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) is the one that gained more from the recent upheavals in Turkish politics, despite the fact that it has no clear party programs or mass appeal. But since it is not a xenophobic or racist party, unlike its peers in Europe, the MHP will be able to tap into voters’ growing frustration with the ruling AKP, especially among conservatives. It will not be a strong challenger in Turkey, however, especially under the current leadership. The Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) will be confined to the Southeast, where predominantly Kurds live, and it will survive as long as the terrorist Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) holds voters ransom through pressure, intimidation and threats. When the PKK is neutralized and a secure environment is restored, the BDP will have to compete with new challengers. More diversified and pluralistic Kurdish politics will emerge in Turkey. The BDP will grab more votes in upcoming elections but will not be able to sustain that support for long unless it radically transforms itself.

Three non-political actors will play a significant role in the future of Turkey. One is the military. Given that Turkey is in a tough neighborhood where political and sectarian crises have been unfolding, the country will need a stronger military. That gives the military naturally an undue influence over politics, usually exercised through the National Security Council (MGK). Battered badly by the Ergenekon and Sledgehammer cases where the anti-government junta in the military was tried and convicted, the military has distanced itself from reckless and interfering generals. It deliberately kept a low profile to prevent its reputation from being further tarnished by the fallout from court cases. The current leadership in the Turkish military is not comfortable with the release of detainees in the Ergenekon terror network whose shady figures apparently made a deal with the embattled Erdoğan. It will neither support the failing government that was swamped by the corruption scandal nor allow the junta to gather its strength in the military.

For the moment, the military seems to have adopted a wait-and-see policy while trying to differentiate itself from Erdoğan, albeit quietly. It wants to see the results of the March 30 elections before making a bigger noise. It knows it will be recalled for duty to tackle the impending PKK threat in the Southeast, radicalization along the Syrian border, spillover from the Iraqi and Ukrainian crises, and troubling signs in the eastern Mediterranean. Hence, it will have a vital interest in supporting stability in the governance on the domestic front but not with Erdoğan’s AKP, which has become a destabilizing force by itself. I think the military will make its peace with the long-alienated conservatives in this country when it transforms the institution to be more inclusive and representative of society. Otherwise, the military’s position becomes untenable in the country.

The other actor is the Hizmet movement, inspired by Muslim scholar Fethullah Gülen, who has publicly explained in detail the vision of the future Turkey. In a BBC interview aired in late February, he once again spelled out the most important challenges for Turkey: establishing unity among diverse groups that include Alevis, Kurds and others; boosting educational opportunities for the young population; and tackling the long-running poverty problem in Turkey. He offered his own views on a variety of issues and reaffirmed his support for the settlement process with caveats, criticized the government on corruption, and expressed concern over polarization and the lack of consensus and dialogue in society. Later in an article he penned for the Financial Times earlier this week, Gülen urged Turkey to write an entirely new constitution as a way to save its democracy. In other words, he was referring to a new social contract to start addressing the country’s chronic problems.

Then why does the Gülen-inspired movement persistently avoid establishing a political party to channel its views to the government? First, the movement knows that if it establishes a political party, it will lose its broad appeal. Because it fundamentally defines itself as a faith-based civic movement with a huge emphasis on education, dialogue and social activities that require constant efforts to reach out to people from all walks of life. It knows it can only win the hearts and minds of people from a diverse ideological, racial and religious makeup of the social fabric in Turkey and abroad if it stays a non-political actor. This is a vital for the movement and not a luxury it can afford to lose. That is how it survived a decades-long history of political parties failing in Turkey, and that is why it picked up support in over 150 countries where it established schools, charity work and dialogue institutions.

But that does not mean the movement will stay idle in the face of the political transformation that is taking place in Turkey, the birthplace of the movement. As it did in the past, it will lend its support to political parties that represent ideals it has been defending for a very long time: the rule of law, democracy, fundamental rights, accountability, transparency, inclusiveness and ownership. This is not only for the benefit of the country but also for the movement itself, which can only flourish under stable, transparent and democratic governance. Therefore, it won’t be surprising to see people affiliated with the movement actively working in politics and in various parties. This is the richness the movement has gained and how it has established public trust. It simply will not squander those hard-earned assets by investing everything in a single basket. In the meantime, it is only natural for movement sympathizers to enter into public employment from the judiciary to the police, from the military to the foreign service based on merit and qualifications.

Turkey’s millions of Alevis who have been shunned by successive governments in Turkey for decades will be another actor in Turkey’s future. Although the group is very diverse, they overwhelmingly vote for the CHP. Just like members of Hizmet, conservative groups and Kurds, Alevis have also been profiled and denied government jobs for years, despite the fact they are citizens and taxpayers of this country. Gülen’s efforts to reach out to Alevis, as he has done with Kurds and non-Muslim minority groups for decades, have paid off in establishing mutual trust and reducing tension in Turkish society. This consensus will be an important asset in the post-Erdoğan restoration era during which citizens’ interests and views should be taken into consideration in an inclusive manner on reforms, draft bills and policy decisions.

As for foreign policy orientation, I don’t think Turkey will turn away from the trans-Atlantic direction that has benefited the country immensely for so long. This alliance has in fact been valuable for Turkey in developing ties with new partners in Africa, Southeast Asia and Latin America. That does not mean, however, that diversification, especially in trade and investment, will be discarded. Turkey’s appetite to open up to other markets will only grow stronger and in fact will be better facilitated when the political Islamist agenda is dropped from the mix of Ankara’s motives. As a result, Turkey will be more stable, more democratic and more predictable. There is no need for Turkey’s allies and partners to worry about the future of this nation.

Source: Todays Zaman , March 14, 2014

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