As Turkey’s political drama continues, it is important to bear two things in mind when trying to analyze the situation. The first is that Turkey is a major country with a vital role to play in what is now the most dangerously unstable region in the world. A stable Turkey, even one that does not fit our ideal model of democracy, is an urgent necessity for building new structures of stability in the Middle East and the eastern Mediterranean region.
Thus, it is important to guard against any temptation of Schadenfreude. The jubilant tone adopted in reporting the Turkish imbroglio by the Tehran daily Kayhan, published under the supervision of the “Supreme Guide” is in bad taste and out of place.
The second point to bear in mind is that reducing the whole drama to an occasion for further attacks on President Recep Tayyip Erdogan could mean missing the deeper causes of the current crisis.
There is no doubt that Erdogan bears a good portion of the responsibility for the current state of affairs. Short-fused and impulsive, Erdogan has antagonized many people who need not have become his political enemies. At the same time, his quaint quest for the revival of the Ottoman caliphate in a new disguise is certainly troublesome if only because trying to build a future with a recipe from the past is always bad politics.
It is no mystery that Erdogan has been preparing a massive purge of real or imagined opponents in the military, the judiciary and the civil service at least since 2013. He is also open to justified criticism because of his crackdown on the media and at least implicit support for under-hand practices in favor of his cronies. His Justice and Development Party (AKP) boasts about being “The White Party”, but Erdogan is certainly no Snow-White.
Erdogan also bears much of the responsibility for the fractures that have appeared in almost all sections of Turkish polity. His tongue-lashing of his opponents and his verbal violence in general are unexpected from a democratic politician. Last week, for example, he transformed a funeral ceremony for victims of the abortive coup into a political demonstration. That was in bad taste. Equally in bad taste was his description of his opponents as “a virus spreading cancer.” Incidentally, cancer isn’t caused by a virus!
Nor should we get starry-eyed about Erdogan’s popular base. He certainly enjoys significant support in all sections of Turkish society, enough to have helped him win four general elections. However, the number of votes he has won never hovered much about half the electorate. Even then, not all those who have voted AKP for the past decade or so share all of Erdogan’s agenda or accept his style.
And, yet, we must never forget that Erdogan is the leader of a government that owes its legitimacy to reasonably fair and pluralistic elections. Such a government must be removed through another set of elections, not with tanks rolling over the Bosporus bridges. A military coup may be justified only if the regime in place annuls all possibility of free and fair elections. For example, that was the case in 1974 when the Portuguese army moved in to topple the Salazarist dictatorship. In contrast, the Colonels’ coup in Greece in 1967 was nothing but an act of treason.
Erdogan is a player, albeit a very important one, among many in a deeply fractured polity. Identifying those fractures and cementing them should be at the center of the Turkish political agenda. Outside observers divide Turkey into two major camps: secularists and Islamists. But there are numerous subdivisions in each camp.
By the end of the last century Turkish Islamists succeeded in creating a broad coalition when 17 different groups agreed to merge and create the AKP. The Turkish branch of the Muslim Brotherhood and the Hizmet (Service) movement led by Fethullah Gulen played crucial roles in leading AKP to a string of electoral victories.
Partly thanks to the personal feud between Erdogan and Gulen, that coalition is now largely unraveled. Even within the AKP apparatus, several factions as well as personalities like Abdullah Gul, Ali Babacan, Cemil Cicek and Ahmet Davutoglu fear that too sharp a twist towards Islamicization could block Turkey’s European future. It is not at all certain that Erdogan would be able to command a majority even in the Islamist camp to install the kind of autocratic regime his rivals claim he is preparing.
The secularist camp is also divided. The People’s Republican Party (CHP) still clings to its mixture of Kemalism and Socialism. But new urban middle class constituencies have also appeared for a liberal reading of Kemalism. Nationalist, pan-Turkist and moderate conservatives are also identifying with a broadly secular agenda without accepting the paternalist version introduced by Ataturk.
Though a religious minority, the Alevis have always sided with secular parties for fear that a government system dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood may further restrict their freedoms, something that has already happened under Erdogan.
Kurds, accounting for up to 15 per cent of the population, are also divided. There are separatists who dream of a Kurdish state seeking a future in the European Union. Then there are pan-Kurdists who dream of bringing all Kurdish-speaking peoples of the region under one flag in a single independent state. Then again, there are Kurds who want a Communist Kurdish state.
The other major ethnic community, the Arabs, is also deeply divided between those who see their future in a modern and democratic Turkey and those who dream of secession. The arrival of some three million Syrian refugees, many of whom may remain in Turkey for good, is likely to add a further layer of uncertainty.
The leaders of the failed coup tried to peddle a recipe from the past, using terminology that sounded very 1960-ish. In that sense, they provided a mirror image of Erdogan who is also looking to an imagined past rather than a possible future.
Neither of the two parties of the past can handle Turkey’s current crisis and future challenges. Both, however, must be part of the solution. Turkey’s friends, partners and allies must help rather than offer brass farthing lectures.
The question Tukey, the Middle East, Russia and Europe face is simple: how will they help a deeply fractured society hold together?