Turkey: Islamists pay a price for victory
Nothing can quite surprise on the Middle East”s political chessboard. This has been a week in which the foreign ministers of Egypt and Jordan visited Jerusalem jointly for the first time as envoys of the Arab League, and claimed they heard “many positive responses” from the Israeli leadership.
Also diplomats from the United States and Iran discussed an unlikely alliance to fight Sunni insurgents in Iraq – provoking, in turn, a furious fatwa by Saudi Arabia”s Wahhabi muftison their
followers in Iraq to go and destroy the holy shrines of Imam Hussein and Hazrat-e-Abbas. Qom”s venerable ayatollahs, Nasser Makarem Shirazi and Hossein Nouri Hamedani, promptly called on the United Nations to “condemn such a fatwa, which fans the flames of international terrorism”.
Midway through the week, Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki calmly proposed that he would be willing to “examine” an official request from Washington to raise the level of US-Iran exchanges. The Middle East”s politics indeed cascaded – even if one disbelieves Thursday”s Ha”aretz newspaper report that Israel is “not far from a photo-op with the Saudis”.
But it still seemed audacious to suggest that Iran, Saudi Arabia, Israel, Hamas, the United States and the European Union will make bedfellows. As results of the Turkish parliamentary election began appearing on Monday, the Middle East”s main protagonists and Western power brokers found common ground to congratulate the leader of the “Islamist” Justice and Development Party (AKP), Prime Minister Recip Tayyip Erdogan, on his magnificent victory.
The Turkish election cast a shadow on the geopolitics of the Middle East. One of the region”s experienced observers, Rami Khouri, wrote in Lebanon”s Daily Star, “The lessons revolve around three related issues: the participation of Islamist parties in democratic transformations in the Middle East; the relationship between secularist nationalism enforced by the armed forces and electoral reformism supported by much of the citizenry; and how Western democracies should most effectively deal with situations in which democracy and Islamist parties rear their heads simultaneously in the Middle East.
“The election,” Khouri continued with a Levantine flourish, “in one fell swoop telescoped centuries of Orientalist distortions about Middle Eastern governance and political values into a single, clear affirmation of contemporary Turkey”s most important lesson for us all: it is, in fact, easy to reconcile democracy, nationalism, secularism, republicanism, constitutionalism, stability, prosperity and Islam in a single process. That process is inclusive, honest democracy, in which all legitimate players take part and the winner is allowed to govern.”
But Khouri would know the equations are never quite that straightforward in his part of the world. The fact is that for the past two decades or so, mainstream Islamists have shown willingness to become part of a democratic way of life in countries as varied as Morocco, Lebanon, Jordan, Palestine and Egypt. But the Arab regimes haven”t felt the need to engage the Islamists. Nor is there any compulsion felt by those pro-Western regimes to make the transformation to credible democracies.
All that can be hoped for is that one day they may choose Turkey”s trajectory. Even for the Western powers backing those Arab regimes, Turkey remains a solitary exception. In the Middle East, they haven”t seriously engaged the Islamists. The fact of Arab Islamist sentiments being part of the resistance to Israeli aggression and occupation becomes the core issue. Indeed, in Turkey itself, if the Islamists gained power in 2002 and thereafter consolidated their popular appeal, that has been despite the West”s often unhelpful attitudes.
No wonder the Hamas statement on Erdogan”s victory has been a touching invocation – an ideological cry lost among the region”s pragmatic reactions. Hamas insisted that the “Islamic nation is now convinced that there is no future unless it treads the Islamic path”. The Hamas spokesman in Gaza, Sami Abu Zuhri, said, “The victory by the AKP signals people”s leaning toward Islamic teachings. It reflects the transformation under way in the region, hankering for a return to Islamic ideals.”
Erdogan would have been embarrassed. Saudi Arabia, in all its accumulated wisdom, wouldn”t even venture to characterize Erdogan”s victory in the idiom of religion. It dealt with the AKP in cautiously couched near-secular terms. The Saudi king and the crown prince simply congratulated Erdogan “on the occasion of the Justice and Development Party”s win”. Saudi commentators complimented Erdogan for his pragmatic, non-confrontational style of politics that knew perfectly well “there were lines not to be overstepped, and that he can win within the confines of the system”, to quote from Al-Hayat newspaper.
Conceivably, the Saudi establishment would wish that Arab Islamists emulate Erdogan and “play the game wisely and within the boundaries of the possible”. Erdogan is the archetypal “enlightened Islamic leader” for the pro-Western Arab regimes – with no propensity toward radicalism or violence and no particular inclination to provoke confrontations with the established order.
Erdogan doesn”t aspire to claim Ottoman Turkey”s mantle of religious leadership in the Middle East, though in his first term as prime minister he led Turkey back to the center stage of the Organization of Islamic Conference. Thus, in more ways than one, Erdogan can be “a friend of the Arabs and can become an ally of theirs”, Al-Hayat wrote. The London-based Saudi daily”s columnist added, “Arab governments should cooperate with it [AKP] … I know that countries like Egypt and Saudi Arabia are going in that direction.”
Old wine in new bottles
Turkey”s non-Arab neighbor Iran, on the other hand, has specific concerns. The Iranian president and foreign minister telephoned their Turkish counterparts and felicitated them, but strictly confined their remarks to Iran-Turkey relations. The Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman stressed that Turkey”s elections are its internal matter, and “Iran respects whatever decision taken by the Turkish nation”. It is difficult to be certain whether Iran even considered the AKP as an Islamist party anymore after its transformation as a “rainbow coalition” on the eve of the recent election. Certainly, Iran did not appear to view the Turkish election as a momentous contest of “Islam versus secularism”.
What bothers Tehran is the Erdogan government”s regional policy, which is of profound consequence to Iranian interests. Tehran”s preoccupation, therefore, is on the foreign-policy directions of the new government rather than on the “cultural” aspects. But Tehran needn”t expect any major surprises. Despite Erdogan”s apparent pro-West outlook, Turkey”s foreign policy may not after all reflect such tendencies. The relatively impressive performance of the ultra-conservative Nationalist Action Party (MHP) in the elections is to be understood also in terms of the tensions in Turkey”s relations with the US and with the EU.
The hard reality is that in 2002 when Erdogan took power, roughly half of Turkish people viewed the US favorably. But Pew Research Center poll this year saw that the United States” favorability had declined to just about 9%. Turks now view the US as the single biggest threat to their national security. Graham Allison ofHarvard”s Kennedy School of Government recently wrote, “The Bush administration has conducted the war in Iraq with no regard for Turkey”s interests. A US-backed, autonomous, and increasingly emboldened Kurdish Regional Government poses an existentialist threat to nationalists in Turkey. Failure to address the reality of a sanctuary in Iraqi Kurdistan for members of the PKK – a Turkish-Kurdish terrorist group – enrages even moderate Turks.”
But healing US-Turkey wounds will not be easy. It will depend on Washington”s preparedness to disengage from Kurdish militant groups, which in turn is linked to the US policy toward Iran as well as to the war in Iraq. Much will depend on whether the US continues to remain in a hostile mode toward Tehran and will need Kurdish terrorists to act as proxies in US-Israeli covert operations inside Iran.
If a need arises for the US to seek “enduring bases” in Iraqi Kurdistan, the US-Kurdish blood alliance is bound to thicken even further. Washington is keeping all options open in northern Iraq. A week ahead of the July 22 election in Turkey, Ankara made a specific allegation that weapons had been delivered in US Army vehicles to Kurdish elements based in northern Iraq, who were involved in cross-border terrorism inside Turkey. Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul said he sought an explanation from Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.
Meanwhile, what complicates the situation further is that the AKP”s mandate in Sunday”s polls is also significantly due to the electoral support it garnered in the southeastern Kurdish majority provinces. A reliable estimate is that at least 100 AKP members of Parliament (out of the party”s tally of 340 seats) in the 540-member legislature could be of Kurdish origin. Add to that the contingent of 20-25 Kurdish nationalist parliamentarians who were elected as “independents”, and they will constitute an important ally in Parliament whenever Erdogan presses ahead with any reform program.
In short, by sheer force of circumstances, the Erdogan government will now have an impetus to address the Kurdish problem in political terms. But this involves not only coming up with innovative ideas but also prevailing over the rival views and ideologies of the ultra-conservative MHP and the “Kemalist” Republican People”s Party (CHP).
And this path needs to be navigated all the time with an eye on Washington”s true intentions. The journey is going to be extremely tricky. The MHP leader and former deputy prime minister, Devlet Bahceli, is on record that his party will play a “constructive role” in the new Parliament and hopes to be the “home of compromise, tolerance and dialogue”, but will resist if the AKP resorts to unilateralist policies.
Bahceli does not accept Sunday”s election as the final verdict on how Turkish national policies must be crafted. He attributes the AKP”s success to a variety of passing factors. At any rate, the MHP”s future lies in nibbling away at the AKP”s extreme right flank, which may become rather vulnerable even as the party gravitates further toward the political center.
Behind all this stands the Turkish Army, which is yet to signal how it takes the AKP”s victory. Even though Turks ignored the army”s aversion toward AKP rule, they hold the army as an institution (and as the ultimate guardian of the nation”s security), in high esteem. Clearly, the army will not simply roll over and allow the Erdogan government a free hand on the Kurdish problem. The crunch comes if the government moves toward opening dialogue directly with the Iraqi Kurdish leadership of Massud Barzani and Jalal Talabani, even though such a move may seem sensible.
Compromise the only way
In a way, therefore, the possibility of a Turkish military intervention in Iraq may have actually increased in the post-election phase. On the whole, the potential for conflict is high in the coming period over foreign-policy issues. There is a wide rage of issues where the CHP”s “Kemalist” platform and the MHP”s ultra-nationalist platform overlap, and they will have the army”s tacit backing. It can so happen that the enthusiasm projected by the United States and the European Union over the AKP”s magnificent election victory proves short-lived.
The heart of the matter is that democratic reform in Turkey is tied to the country”s EU membership. Reform stalls if Turkey lacks the political will, which follows from the Turkish public”s growing “Euro-skepticism”. Only one-third of the Turkish public today roots for EU membership. Der Spiegel recently commented, “How forcefully Turkey now continues on its path towards Europe depends on Europe too. How long can Turkey be strung along when it is increasingly becoming clear that, at the end of the day, Europe doesn”t want it to join the EU? After all, Turkey”s real dilemma has far more to do with its path to Europe than it does with the debate over headscarves and miniskirts.”
Besides, Erdogan has a bitter pill to swallow if he is to revive Turkey”s EU accession talks. The present impasse arises out of Ankara”s refusal to open Turkey”s ports to Cyprus, which is an EU member. This is an issue that easily arouses nationalist sentiments within Turkey. The Turkish Army aspires to play a major role in the making of Ankara”s Cyprus policy.
All in all, having secured roughly 46% of votes and 60% of the seats in the new Parliament, the AKP faces the prospect of ruling through consensus. That is bound to keep the political scene in a state of animation. There could be a flashpoint any time, which may happen by accident or by design. In essence, the AKP and the Turkish military know they can barely tolerate each other. The military will continue to view the AKP”s Islamist credentials with great suspicion. The military can be expected to play an even more decisive role in the period ahead. After some hibernation, in all likelihood, the military will, as the Turkish liberal daily Milliyet put it, “make itself felt” in national politics, rather than “roll the tanks out”.
Erdogan seems to appreciate that the political atmosphere remains highly charged. In his victory speech in Ankara, therefore, he gave two messages: first, the AKP is a centrist party; and second, “we understand the message of the 54% of Turkish electorate who didn”t vote for us”. He implied that he realizes the need for consensus.
Erdogan”s pragmatism will be put to the test in the coming days, as the Parliament sets out to elect Turkey”s new president by the end of next month. He may have to settle for a compromise candidate. If he doesn”t, he may upset the apple cart. He must pretend he doesn”t hear the voices from the streets.
M K Bhadrakumar served as a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service for more than 29 years, with postings including ambassador to Uzbekistan (1995-98) and to Turkey (1998-2001).