A triumph for Turkey - and its allies

Posted in Other | 04-Aug-08 | Author: M K Bhadrakumar| Source: Asia Times

Israeli tanks on the Golan Heights. Israel and Syria will begin on Tuesday a fourth round of indirect peace talks under Turkish mediation.

The Israelis are expected to know something extra about their tough neighborhood that we do not know. In all probability, the two Israeli officials - Shalom Turjeman and Yoram Turbowitz - knew when they set out for Ankara on Tuesday that Turkey's government was far from dysfunctional or was going to be in any danger of extinction within the next 24 hours.

The two advisors to (outgoing ) Prime Minister Ehud Olmert were on a sensitive mission to hold the fourth round of peace talks with Syria under Turkish mediation. The format of the talks is such that Turkish officials shuttle between the Israeli and Syrian diplomats, who do not come face to face. The Turks seem to have done a masterly job. On Monday, Syria's ambassador to the United States, Imad Mustafa, speaking on a public platform in Washington, said, "We [Syria and Israel] desire to recognize each other and end the state of war."

"Here, then, is a grand thing on offer. Let us sit together, let us make peace, let us end once and for all the state of war," Imad added, referring to the peace talks brokered by Turkey. Clearly, Turkey's political stability is no longer just a national issue of 80 million Turks. It is a vital issue today for the international community. And Turkey's role in the Israel-Syria peace talks is only the tip of the iceberg. In the highly volatile Middle East situation, Turkey also facilitated contacts between US National Security Advisor Stephen Hadley and Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki. (The two adversaries visited Ankara recently.) Furthermore, Turkey has waded into the Iraq project.

Besides, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) is poised to spread to the northern shores of the Black Sea. The new cold war has arrived in Turkey. Moscow is determined not to repeat its historic mistake of driving Turkey into the NATO camp, as it did in the 1950s.

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev is scheduling a visit to Turkey. A Moscow analyst noted, "Atomstroyexport [Russia's nuclear power equipment and service equipment monopoly] is ready to provide Turkey with a project for the construction of a nuclear power plant [NPP] that will be less expensive and more reliable than its American counterparts. Such NPPs will help Turkey to consolidate its position in the regional energy market, especially considering Iran's nuclear energy problems. Moscow has long been hinting to Ankara that it is best to give priority to economic expediency, especially in the energy industry." In other words, Turkey is once again moving into the vortex of big power politics after a respite of a decade and a half.

Thus, all factors taken into consideration, we may never quite know the extent to which any role Washington would have played in ensuring that the government led by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan was not unseated by Turkey's constitutional court in the trial regarding the alleged Islamist agenda of the ruling Justice Development Party (AKP). The US is far too experienced in the logarithm of power play in Ankara.

What we know for sure is that Turkey's judicial system is not impervious to political currents. Indeed, if the court, in its verdict announced on Wednesday, had decided to close down the AKP and to clamp down on Erdogan's political activity, Turkey would have plunged into a first rate political crisis. Equally, what is clear is that Washington is visibly relieved that the AKP government continues to rule in Ankara and Erdogan remains in harness.

US State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said, "Turkey is living a tense situation, and we very much hope that the decision by the court will contribute to restore political stability ... The court has rendered an opinion, and we're going to continue to work with this government. We work quite well with them."

The geopolitical reality, as Cengis Candar, one of Turkey's senior political commentators summed up recently, is that "Turkey and Erdogan becoming a functional and effective actor in the issues topping the international agenda [currently] is of special importance in Turkish internal politics".

Nonetheless, the Turkish court verdict on Wednesday came as a surprise. It found the AKP guilty but avoided closing it down or banishing Erdogan from active politics, as most observers had expected. Instead, it merely penalized the party by levying a fine on it by depriving it of an amount of some US$20 million by way of state funding.

The AKP can take this loss, thanks to its easy access to other sources. The crucial issue was whether Erdogan needed to step down. In the idiom of soccer, we might say the charismatic Turkish leader was shown a yellow card, whereas many wanted and most expected that he was certain to get a red card, which indeed was within the referee's capacity (and reputation) to show.

The yellow card implies that Erdogan has to be extra careful now until the next parliamentary election due in July 2011, as he simply cannot afford another brush with the constitutional court. At least seven of the sitting judges will not retire for the next five years, which means that the court's political or ideological makeup will largely remain the same all through Erdogan's remaining term.

The head of the constitutional court, Hasim Kilic, was explicit that Erdogan is expected to draw some stern conclusions. "This verdict is a serious warning. I hope the party [AKP] draws the necessary lessons from this," he told the media. The hard fact is that 10 out of 11 judges in the constitutional court found the AKP to be a "center of anti-secular activity", though only six of them voted to close down the party, whereas seven needed to for a verdict banning the party to come into effect. No doubt, Erdogan escaped by a whisker.

The looming question now is what lesson he would have learned out of the nerve-wracking suspense. In an uncharacteristic remark, Erdogan admitted recently in a media interview that he made "mistakes". Indeed, he made mistakes. It is obvious that the AKP's heady electoral victory in last year's July parliamentary elections, securing 47% of the votes, did strange things to Erdogan.

Instead of being the prime minister of all Turks, as he promised in the full flush of victory, more and more he allowed himself to be surrounded by a small coterie of advisors; his native Black Sea swagger assumed sharper tilts as he became authoritarian and often turned confrontational toward criticism from the media and the civil society; and, least of all, fatally for a Turkish politician, he seemed to have convinced himself at some point in the past year that his mandate to rule came from his party's two-thirds majority in parliament, which, of course, would be a myopic interpretation of the ABCs of Turkey's democratic system.

Finally, with hopeless timing and an almost incomprehensible rush, he needlessly chose the issue of the right of religiously observant Turkish women to wear headscarves as an epic case of political will - and that too, in a dubious temporary political alliance with the ultra-nationalists who had little political capital to lose. What ensued was an incredible performance, as barely six months into his term after the elections, he began rapidly squandering away the goodwill of some of the vocal and influential "non-Islamist" sections of society who were otherwise gradually getting used to him and, more important, were quite willing to give him a break.

The point is, this is not a simple Kemalist-Muslim conflict, to quote well-known Turkish observer Mehmet Ali Birand, and there is no denying that one part of the Turkish public has important and understandable concerns about the situation. Surely, there is an economic overlap as well, as the established, aged captains of Turkish business and industry in Istanbul feel threatened by the march of the virile Anatolian tigers from inner cities such as Kayseri or Malatya, which are the hunting grounds of the AKP.

When Erdogan antagonized powerful trade and industry bodies such as the Turkish Union of Commodities and Exchanges (TOBB) and the Turkish Businessmen's and Industrialists Association by detaining the president of the Ankara Chamber of Commerce, Sinan Aygun, on charges of conspiring to overthrow the government, the nadir was reached and it was obvious he was taking on far too many powerful people.

TOBB head Rifat Hisarciklioglu acidly remarked, "When we go to bed, we don't want to worry what kind of Turkey we will face in the morning. A highly esteemed member of our community was subjected to treatment reminiscent of the coup era, which deeply offends us. We don't approve of this."

Paradoxically, Erdogan's main disadvantage is that he doesn't feel threatened by a credible political opposition. The established political parties of the left and right in Turkey are mired in disrepute and are languishing due to their miserable past record in government. People hardly repose confidence in them. In the circumstances, Erdogan's political moderation and sobriety will need to come from within, out of self-restraint rather than borne out of political culture.

That is to say, there is always the potential danger that as a quintessential Turk, he may feel tempted to perceive the constitutional court verdict of Wednesday as a triumph over his political adversaries and critics - Kemalists, bureaucracy, military, judiciary, academia, middle class, corporate media, etc. The fact remains there is a political stalemate in Turkey in so far as both Erdogan and his adversaries would know that even if the country goes through another mid-term election, it may only throw up yet another victory for his "Islamist" political platform.

However, on balance, Erdogan is a shrewd politician. He cannot but be chastened by the existential challenge the AKP faced in recent weeks. It is no small matter if he is pushed back into ground zero and has to start all over again, like in 2001 when he formed the AKP after being in the political wilderness for years. Nor can he be under any illusion that the July 30 verdict in any way signifies surrender by the Turkish establishment. He would realize that as prime minister he needs to redefine his working relationships.

His great asset is that he still remains an immensely popular national figure among average Turks, by far outstripping anyone from the political opposition. Also, the Turkish economy has done well under his stewardship and the country is becoming fatter by the day, according to the latest evaluation by the International Monetary Fund. Turkish foreign policy is cruising at an optimal level with its prestige as a regional power running high as it mediates peace in its neighborhood and commands influence. Turkey has returned to the Middle East region after an absence of almost nine decades.

All the same, the most prudent course for Erdogan will be to revert to his agenda during his first term as prime minister and press the pedal on reforms within the broad framework of Turkey's European Union membership drive. He should repose confidence that all said, the AKP's popularity within the country and abroad will work as a break mechanism on the Kemalist establishment from overthrowing his government. It is clear that Turkey is through with the era of military coups. In one sense, an important milestone in the country's democratic transformation has been reached this week.

Erdogan's strategy, therefore, ought to be to revert to his engagement with the European project and the phase of modernity and political liberalism that it offers, which was the broad orientation of his first term as prime minister. It may seem a tantalizing proposition, but even for Islamism in Turkey and for the AKP, arguably, Turkey's European project has been and still remains the best bet.

Turkey's integration into the EU, apart from bringing about increased economic prosperity and modernization, also would open up Turkey to European socio-economic processes. EU standards can give comfort levels to the secularists apropos the specter of creeping "Islamization". At the same time, access to trans-European politics will bring the AKP to rub against Europe's Christian democratic culture, which has been remarkably successful historically in internalizing the tenets of secularism and reconciling them with religiosity.

Ambassador M K Bhadrakumar was a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service. His assignments included the Soviet Union, South Korea, Sri Lanka, Germany, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Kuwait and Turkey.

(Copyright 2008 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)

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