Asharq Al-Awsat spoke to one of Turkey’s deputy prime ministers, Emrullah İşler of the AKP, about the challenges faced by the Turkish government as the country geared up for crucial local elections that have come to be seen as a referendum on the rule of both the AKP and its leader, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.
Asharq Al-Awsat: Turkey is passing through difficult times. What is the precise nature of these problems and dangers?
Emrullah İşler: We should compare the situations in Turkey pre- and post-2002 to better understand the events taking place in Turkey these days. It is well known that after the coup of 1960 Turkey experienced several coups, [about] every ten years. This prevented the country from realizing the stability that its people deserved. Because of this series of coups the country failed to make any meaningful economic or political progress. Moreover, the short-lived coalition governments could not achieve the desired stability, forcing the country to continuously hold early elections.
We can best assess the problems currently facing the country based on two levels. The first is the uneasiness caused by the Justice and Development Party (AKP) government. It has rattled the ruling elite who had held . . . power since the Turkish Republic’s inception. This ruling elite practiced ‘political sectarianism’ in its government appointments, only affording important state positions to persons [with the same] ideology. They believe that they were responsible for founding the state and thus the state was their own personal property. The elimination of the other groups within the state became an obsession so as to ensure their survival. The second is the pain that accompanied the transition period from the old Turkey to the new. It was natural that there would be painful parts of that transition. Turkey faced these problems for nearly a century, and now it has begun to move toward full independence and building a strong state, both at home and on the international scene.
Q: Have allegations of corruption harmed the AKP? You claim that some people work to smear the image of the party. Who are they?
The successful initiatives undertaken by the governments of the AKP have disrupted the forces that run roughshod over the region. Those forces have carried out many attacks with the aim of impeding the development of the new Turkey, which began with the ‘Marches for the Republic.’ Next was the memorandum of April 27 sent by the military to the Presidency of the Republic under the pretext of protecting the secular nature of the state. Next came the court case which was raised in order to shut down the AKP. Then came the events of Gezi Park overlooking Taksim Square in downtown Istanbul, and later the arrests between December 17 and 25 which targeted three sons of ministers and other prominent figures under the pretext of fighting corruption. This showed beyond any doubt that there exists a treasonous entity pulling all the strings behind the scenes.
The campaign of arrests that began in Turkey on December 17 of last year aimed to drag the country into a state of chaos. It was undertaken with the pretext of investigating corruption cases of prominent figures, which on the face of it could take place in any country. But in this case, the confidentiality of the investigation was ignored and information was leaked so as to turn it into a media spectacle designed to incite the public against the AKP government. The media launched a smear campaign against the government to undermine its prestige among the citizenry. They produced documents which neither the defendants nor the judges had seen or heard. The legal investigation is no longer their concern, they only want to redraw the map of Turkey’s politics using the judiciary and the media, instead of winning elections. Shaking the Turkish people’s faith in the rule of law, dealing a significant blow to the Turkish economy, and tarnishing the country’s image abroad have been the main thrusts of the December 17 series of events. They use illegal means to implement their goals. There is no doubt that what happened did not only harm the government and the AKP, but also the whole of Turkey. However, the Turkish people can see clearly through these games, evidenced by the participation of more than two million Turkish citizens in the AKP festival in Istanbul. This shows the citizenry’s sympathy with the government.
In fact, looking at the developments in Turkey as a purely Turkish affair is a misguided approach. September 11, 2001 coincided with deliberate [attempts to] associate the concept of terrorism with Islam. They were mentioned together continuously as part of a deliberate plan to create a negative perception toward the entire Muslim world.
These undermining forces also said that Islam and democracy cannot work [together] in an integrated system. But then the AKP was established in 2002, which defined itself as a conservative, democratic party. It launched reform initiatives that were tantamount to revolutions in Turkey. It was able to solve many of the problems that had accumulated over a century, and carry the country into the ranks of the respectable countries of the world.
The powers-that-be are disturbed by all of the developments taking place in our country. They do not hesitate to exploit any opportunity to launch smear campaigns, targeting the image of the ruling AKP. The aim of all this is to undermine the successful Turkish experiment. And these campaigns are unethical, and they fail to take into account that the prime minister and the Turkish people do not give into internal or external pressures.
Q: Do you believe that Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and the AKP were seriously harmed by the events of Gezi Park and December 17?
First, I think it is useful to analyze the values and standards upon which the Turkish voter bases his vote. The Turkish electorate, except for a specific segment of the electorate, vote in support of the party or leader they believe seeks to provide services to the country. And in past last elections we have seen the victory [of] left-wing parties and sometimes right-wing parties.
The 34.28 percent of Turkish voters who supported the AKP in the elections of November 3, 2002, through their support, sent a message to the AKP that it would continuously receive support as long it continued to achieve the campaign promises it made.
Despite the fact that this result brought the AKP to power, it did not allow it, nor Erdoğan, to make decisions alone. Erdoğan correctly understood the message sent by the voters, and he was able to increase the number of votes cast in favor of the AKP in subsequent elections by implementing election promises one after the other. This led to an increase in public support for the AKP in three general elections, two sets of local elections, and one referendum, totaling six elections.
The events of Gezi Park were not societal reactions to a government failure, but rather they began as a small protest over the relocation of several trees in accordance with the municipality’s working plan, which regulates all the green spaces in the city of Istanbul.
External forces latched on and took advantage of the situation. They started coordinating with their allies within Turkey to exacerbate the situation and spark a rebellion against the state. Thus the legitimate democratic demands of Gezi Park quickly degenerated into violence with incendiary chants coming from some of the protesters. The ethos of the protests was one of hatred and incitement. At this stage, analyzing the details suggests that the events of Gezi Park were not fueled by environmentalism and conservationism, but rather by a third party that pulled the levers.
One can see this in the nature of the demands which were presented to Deputy Prime Minister Bülent Arınç during a meeting with Taksim Square protesters’ representative body, which called itself Gezi Park Platform.
The representative body did not put forward any demands regarding the trees or the environment. In summary, their demands asked for the closure of the third airport in Istanbul, and the third bridge that would connect the European and Asian banks of Istanbul, and the cancellation of the Istanbul Waterway Initiative which the Turkish government has dubbed the Great Initiative.
This initiative would create a strait connecting the Black Sea with the Sea of Marmara which would ease the maritime traffic in the Bosporus and greatly reduce the traffic on the two bridges that straddle the Bosporus. Moreover, they demanded that the overland pass project, comprised of giant, two-story tunnels which pass under the Bosporus, be abandoned. All of the above show how Turkish determination to complete these vital projects disturbs and worries foreign powers.
We are very much aware that all of these events were designed to target Prime Minister Erdoğan, and the New Turkey which he leads, and which has done away with those who seek to run the country according to their own interests.
Turkey has long suffered under the influence of an “invisible hand” which has worked to block any production of weapons, sophisticated technology, software, satellites, airplanes or cars. The industry of the new Turkey has produced local satellites, which have been significant in the fight against terrorism and hostile forces. Those satellites were launched into space where they work in the service of the country. Turkey also produced many weapons, tanks, and rockets [which] participated in defense industry exhibitions around the world, to the chagrin of some foreign powers. These powers realized that they would not be able to seize power in Turkey through legitimate means, and thus have resorted to smear campaigns to tarnish the image of the AKP.
Q: What percentage of the vote does the AKP expect to win in the local elections scheduled for March 30? Do you expect to see a decline in those numbers?
In fact, during the past 12 years Turkey has worked hard to compensate for previous time wasted in its history. The AKP plans to complete twice as many projects as had been completed since the founding of the Republic. These successful initiatives have won approval of the people, and they have continued to support the AKP in all elections following the 2002 elections.
There is no doubt that Turkey is going through a crucial phase, with the Prime Minister saying that this stage represents, “A phase of stability and struggle for independence.” This definition contains two important meanings: first, it alludes to the schemes hatched against Turkey at a time when for the first time in its history, it holds the reins of self-determination. Thus, he calls for a struggle against all those who want to undermine this historic opportunity.
Second, it contains a call to realize a stable and independent Turkey, because the Turkish people understand that the stability means economic and political stability. They know that the word “independence” means unconditional, complete independence. Based on this understanding, we believe that the AKP is now locked in a general election campaign, not a local election campaign.
The polls show a significant increase in the popularity of the AKP before the local elections, which may determine the future of our country. I personally attribute the reason for that to the fact that our people believe anything is possible, and they will have the deciding say through the ballot box.
Q: How do you view the developments in the Arab world over the past three years? How do you foresee Turkish–Arab relations developing in the near future?
There is no doubt that Turkey is closely monitoring the developments in the Arab world. The developments affect our country, directly and indirectly, due to the historical, economic, cultural and demographic ties that bind us with the peoples of the Middle East and North Africa. So we find ourselves obliged to contribute to solving regional issues.
Turkish–Arab relations are not transient. Relations with the Arab world have always been paramount on the agenda of the state and the Turkish people throughout their history. The culture and mentality of the two peoples are complementary due to the longstanding historical relations between them. These relations have gained considerable momentum during the governments of the AKP. Bilateral relations have witnessed remarkable growth in all fields, especially economically. And despite the emergence of a chill in Turkish–Arab relations post-Arab Spring, I am convinced that it will prove to be only a passing summer cloud.
Turkey has expended considerable effort during the past three years of the crisis that have ravaged the region. We aim to heal the wounds caused by the crisis. Turkey has taken a principled and clear stance from the first day of the crisis. This can be summed up as a demand to address the legitimate grievances and democratic aspirations of the people. We have rejected the principle of military intervention and the undermining of democratic regimes. We have renewed our call at every turn that democratic legitimacy be restored.
Turkey, which has opened all its doors to the Syrian people, has sought to highlight the human suffering that has befallen Syria. Turkey has tried very hard to end the suffering by making the suffering of the Syrian people known at all international platforms. Bilateral relations for our country are not based on the principle of blind, narrow self-interest. The official Turkish stance has surprised those states that have closed their eyes and ears to the tragedy of the Syrian people. This stance is appreciated and admired by those states also. The Turkish people have consistently taken commendable stances throughout [Turkey’s] history, and embracing Syrian refugees is another case of this. It fills our hearts and our minds to help these immigrants.
The mindset between the Turks and their Arab neighbors that has emerged in recent years is encouraging. The cooperation, coordination, joint action, and exchange of ideas between the Turks and the Arabs, and especially their youths, is evidence of how each side recognizes the vital importance of this relationship. Not to mention that the number of young Turks learning Arabic has witnessed a significant increase, just as the numbers of young Arabs who want to see and get to know Turkey better has increased. This represents a bright hope for a promising future.