Thursday, March 4, 2010

Time for Turkish political renewal

(Published in the March edition of BN Magazine)

As the UK prepares for what promises to be the most genuinely competitive election campaign for 18 years, Turkey is again mired in political squabbling over the role of the army and the media in Turkish public life, posing serious questions about its political future.

It has been 13 years since the so-called ‘post-modern coup’ where a military memorandum pushed the Welfare Party, of which both Prime Minster Erdoğan and President Gül were members, out of power before it was banned by the constitutional court on the grounds of promoting Islamic fundamentalism. As we know, Turkish political history has been pockmarked by coups and military interventions into political life, so the current tensions have caused some twitchiness, even though, thankfully, the balance of probability seems to remain against such a drastic turn of events.

However, as I write, the pro-AKP press are leading with the on-going revelations of military malfeasance in the ‘Sledgehammer’ case, where former top brass are alleged to have plotted attacks on an airliner and on mosques to create the grounds for an intervention. This is the second major blow to the military’s image after the Ergenekon investigation into its clandestine activities in the 1990s. At the same time, the republican media establishment is busily highlighting the latest in a series of press freedom worries that are in part due to the mix of Erdoğan’s populist style and his falling poll ratings.

For too long the only significant challenge to the AKP government has come from groups outside the democratic process: the courts (who almost dissolved the party in 2008), the media and the military. At last years local elections, while the AKP lost ground, there was no overwhelming recipient of the anti-government vote. Instead, it was disbursed amongst a number of different parties. The main opposition CHP, the party of Ataturk, has been encumbered by a leader in Deniz Biykal who has performed poorly in almost every public election he has stood in, while winning every internal factional battle to remain in charge.

We are in a time when new political movements, that can flower far faster in Turkey than would be the case in Britain, can help shake up the political process in a way not seen since the years of political flux in the 1990s. The Turkey’s Movement for Change (TDH) Mustafa Sarigül, a speaker at an FPC event in March, may be a movement that can transform the Turkish political environment by ploughing a modernising path between the CHP and AKP, or it could sparkle and then quickly fade as others have in the past.

It is critical for Turkey’s future that there is strong electoral completion and a real choice for voters at next year’s elections, so that power can be retained or change hands peaceably and without recourse to anti-democratic methods. In Britain, we may be about to see the end of one-party political dominance at a national level and the start of a period of smaller majorities, or even minority governments or coalitions. Turkey may be heading for the same political future.

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