Role reversals consolidate Turkey’s democracy

THE bombs that exploded in Turkey in November have not only shaken the oldest secular Muslim country, they have also raised grave questions about Turkey’s future and its membership in the European Union. Moreover, current politics reveal a new paradox: an Islamic party seeking close ties with the European Union and supporting Turkish troop deployments in Iraq as opposed to the traditionally pro-American military and the secularist, Kemalist political party increasingly lukewarm on both issues.

By Mohammed Ayoob (Yale Centre for the Study of Globalisation)

Published: Mon 26 Jan 2004, 12:43 PM

Last updated: Thu 2 Apr 2015, 1:20 AM

To understand the Turkish paradox, and the context in which extremist elements have mounted the attacks, one has to look at recent dramatic shifts in Turkish politics brought about by the rise of an Islam-based but highly pragmatic Justice and Development Party (AKP) and the gradual decline of the military’s influence. The AKP’s record in office makes clear that it is firmly committed to rooting out religious extremism, bringing Turkey into the EU fold, and developing close relations with the United States.

The AKP demonstrated its commitment to the latter objective when in March 2003 it tried to get the Turkish Parliament to allow US troop deployment through Turkey into northern Iraq. That attempt failed, partly because of the government’s inexperience and partly because of strong popular sentiment against such deployment. However, the AKP more than made up for this fiasco when it pushed through a resolution in parliament in October sanctioning Turkish troop deployment in Iraq to help keep order in the volatile Sunni triangle. This initiative was aborted when Washington had second thoughts in light of opposition from the Iraqi Governing Council.

It is interesting to note, in the context of the AKP’s pro-West stance, that the secular Turkish military establishment may have been responsible at one time for aiding and abetting the shadowy organisation whose offshoots bombed Istanbul in November. The story is rather murky. Yet there seems to be a consensus amongst Turkish analysts that the ‘jihadi’ elements that committed the heinous acts were connected to or descended from the Turkish Hezbollah (not linked to its Lebanese namesake). This group had been armed and trained by the Turkish ‘deep state’ - the code word in Turkey for the security establishment - to fight the Kurdish insurgency during the 1980s and the ‘90s.

The Hezbollah originated in southeastern Turkey, the poorest part of the country, in the 1980s and spread its tentacles to the major urban centres farther west where it fought running battles with leftist political factions. Southeastern Turkey is also the area where the Kurdish population is concentrated and where the Marxist Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK) was waging its secessionist insurgency against the Turkish state during the same period. The strongly Islamist Hezbollah, presumably drawn largely from ethnic Turks, was ideologically and politically opposed to the PKK’s Marxist and separatist agenda.

During the 1980s and 1990s, Hezbollah adherents, armed and trained by the military, and acting as vigilantes and death squads, were responsible for killing as many as 500 PKK cadres and members of the Kurdish intelligentsia. However, with the winding down of the Kurdish insurgency and the capture of its leader Abdullah Ocalan in 1999, the PKK threat has all but evaporated in the predominantly Kurdish areas in south-eastern Turkey.

This has meant that armed cadres were left without a job to do and were subsequently targeted by security agencies. Consequently, they have reverted to their original extremist agenda and have turned against the establishment that had fostered them earlier. In this sense, the Turkish Hezbollah bear an uncanny resemblance to the CIA-created and supported Mujahideen in Afghanistan who were left without a cause after the Soviet withdrawal in 1989. The former have come to haunt the Turkish secular establishment just as the latter came to haunt the American establishment.

Turkey’s paradox does not end there. Many thought that once in power, the AKP would indulge in identity politics to please its staunchly religious support base. The result would be if not outright opposition to entry into the EU, at least a very lukewarm attitude towards it. If anything, the AKP’s posture has turned out to be exactly the opposite. The AKP has enthusiastically advocated Turkey’s entry into the EU. Party leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan visited major EU capitals immediately after the party’s victory in the November 2002 elections in order to drum up support for Turkey’s membership. On the other hand, it is the secular military that has become increasingly lukewarm towards EU membership.

It is not difficult to understand what lies beneath this paradox. The prospect of membership in the EU, which insists on civilian control of the military, ensures that the Turkish military will be forced to fade from the political scene. Furthermore, implementing EU human rights criteria, a pre-condition for membership, would ensure that the security apparatus - the ‘deep state’ - would be unable to coerce political elements it does not like. It is thus not surprising that the military - traditionally the most secular element in Turkish society and considered to be pro-EU - has become lukewarm towards EU membership, and increasingly ‘nationalist’ (read anti-European) in its tone.

A final paradox that needs explanation is the AKP’s attempt to appease the United States in the context of the war against Iraq, which was and continues to be widely unpopular in Turkey. Not only did the staunchly secular, Kemalist Republican People’s Party (CHP) vote against US troop deployment in March, the military leadership, usually vocal on matters of national security, maintained a studied silence. Similarly, in October it was the AKP government that pushed through the deployment of Turkish troops into Iraq, with the CHP lukewarm about it, and the military maintaining, very uncharacteristically, that this decision be better left to the political leadership.

The AKP government risked alienating its Islamic base by deploying troops against fellow Sunni Muslims based on a rational cost-benefit analysis. It calculated that having the US on its side would lead to several gains. First, economic benefits would accrue, including IMF loans. Second, as a quid pro quo, the US would be willing to use its influence on EU members to accelerate the process of Turkish admission. Third, and above all, it would deter the Turkish military, which values its links with the Pentagon and depends on the US for weaponry and training, from creating a constitutional crisis as it had done in 1997 when it forced the Welfare Party - AKP’s predecessor - from power.

These apparent paradoxes should not be viewed as signs of Turkey’s political immaturity. They are evidence of the AKP’s intelligent reading and deft handling of the political situation in the country. Thus they contribute not only to securing the party’s position in the polity but also consolidating democracy in Turkey.

Mohammed Ayoob is University Distinguished Professor of International Relations, James Madison College, Michigan State University. This article is reprinted by permission of YaleGlobal Online.

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