Saturday, 17 August 2013

What the Columnists Say

Published in Roundup of Columnists

The Taksim/Gezi Park protests, and their violent dispersal by the police in May-June, continue to cast a deep shadow over the political life in Turkey, and the political commentaries reflect this fact. Notably, the protests and their handling by the AKP government has provided new ammunition in the ongoing power struggle between the ruling AKP and the movement of the Islamic preacher Fethullah Gülen, deepening their mutual distrust. Mehmet Baransu in the daily Taraf reports that many in the leadership of the AKP think that the Gülen movement was behind the Gezi protests. Meanwhile, it is noted that the conservative business community in Anatolia, which has been instrumental in bringing the AKP to power, is concerned that the confrontational policies of the government – at home and abroad -- are going to harm the stability and economic development of Turkey. Commenting the verdicts in the Ergenekon trial, Murat Belge, a leading liberal intellectual, expresses doubts that the trial has touched anything but the “tip of the iceberg”, while Fuat Keyman, another liberal commentator, speculates that Prime Minister Erdoğan must in fact be deeply troubled by the verdicts that contribute to the perception abroad that democracy in Turkey is in retreat.


Mehmet Baransu in Taraf reports from meetings that he has held with leading representatives of the ruling AKP in Ankara. The most striking comments that I heard concerned the Gezi protests. Even if this has not been expressed in public, the government and the party leadership thinks that President Abdullah Gül and the “cemaat” (the movement of Fethullah Gülen) was behind the protests that suddenly erupted at the Gezi Park in Istanbul in May. This allegation is frequently made by young party activists in social media, but the fact that such allegations are now made by names close to the leadership is sure to generate a wider public discussion. The leading AK Party representatives think that President Abdullah Gül is the political personality whose strength has increased most after the protests. And all of my interlocutors agreed that Prime Minister Erdoğan’s presidential dreams ended with the Gezi incidents. But the most striking revelation in our conversations pertained to the tension between the AK Party and the “cemaat”. The AK Party has reportedly conducted opinions surveys in order to determine the strength of the “cemaat” in terms of votes. Numan Kurtulmuş, (the vice chairman of the AK Party) who commissioned the survey, had reportedly objected to the findings of the pollster firm that put the support of the Gülen movement to eight percent, with a potential to rise to sixteen percent. Kurtulmuş had disagreed, and said that the party predicts that the “cemaat” has a potential of three percent. I often heard in Ankara that the reason why the AK Party no longer feels that the support of the “cemaat” is of crucial importance to secure is this estimate of its vote potential.


Murat Belge in Taraf writes that what has ultimately been on trial in Silivri (the site of the Ergenekon trial) was the mentality that has legitimized coups. Those who were tried were people who, to varying degrees, had fulfilled the roles that had been assigned to them in order to perpetrate the coup as the dominant instrument of politics in this country. At this point, what we need to ask ourselves is whether we have been sufficiently successful in trying this mentality? Secondly, have we been able to let alone put on trial, “decipher” all those who assumed roles and committed crimes in order to maintain this mentality? The answer to both questions is no. Take for instance İlker Başbuğ, the first and only Chief of the General Staff in the history of Turkey to have been put on trial and sentenced to life imprisonment: How many Chiefs of the General Staff who does not think like İlker Başbuğ, who does not share the same value as he does can you name in that lineage? Unlike the chorus who criticize the sentences in Silivri, I don’t think that those who have been sentenced are “really innocents”. Of course, I cannot say anything about each and every specific case, and neither can I say that individual cases don’t matter. Yet, I cannot but view this as something more than a “judicial case”, with in fact a limited number of accused; I judge it from the perspective of a societal reckoning with one of the most important aspects of this country’s historical legacy. And thus, to use the well-known cliché, I come to the conclusion that we have not done anything else than bother ourselves with a few of the visible phenomenon of the iceberg.


Yalçın Akdoğan in Star (who is also an AKP deputy and chief advisor of Prime Minister Erdoğan) defends the Ergenekon verdicts; he writes that judicial reckoning (with the coup mentality) does not mean that the judiciary has been politicized. The Ergenekon trial is the name of the foremost judicial reckoning ever to have taken place in the history of the Turkish Republic. It is not only a mentality that is being held accountable with the Ergenekon trial; at the same time, this mentality is being purged by the judiciary. In this respect, the Ergenekon verdicts are crucially important for the future of Turkish democracy.


Fuat Keyman in Milliyet asks if Prime Minister Erdoğan shares the judgment of his advisor Akdoğan that the Ergenekon verdicts will further Turkey’s democratization. I don’t think so at all. To the contrary, I think that the prime minister is troubled, indeed deeply so, by the Ergenekon verdicts. The verdicts in the Ergenekon trial will have a very negative impact on the situation of the prime minister. In a context when the firing of more than one hundred journalists and the limitations on the freedom of expression has  led  the international community to lose confidence in Prime Minister Erdoğan, the Ergenekon verdicts, and especially case like the sentencing of İlker Başbuğ, is bound to deepen the rift between Erdoğan and the international community. The perception that democracy in Turkey is in retreat will become entrenched, especially abroad.  The Prime Minister knows this. Let alone assuming that he views the verdicts in terms of “reckoning” and “purge”, it is much more meaningful to think that he is in fact deeply troubled by them. The real question is what the Prime Minister is going to do in response: he will either make a u-turn back to democratization or choose confrontation in order to mobilize his voter base. Perhaps he will not be able to make a u-turn back to democracy – even though that is his preference – because people around him succeed in imposing the second choice.


İhsan Dağı in Zaman notes that one of the most important dynamics behind the rise of the AK Party was the Anatolian capital. The “Anatolian tigers” promoted a vision that united conservative values, free market policies, openness to the world and pluralism; they were instrumental in the evolution of the confrontational and ideological identity of the Islamic National Outlook movement into a centrist party. They supported the AK Party in its drive to secure EU membership and its foreign policy of “zero problems with neighbors”; now, the movement to whose evolution they contributed so much has reverted to being confrontational and hostile to the world. Turkey is becoming isolated, and the Anatolian tigers are worried. They are afraid that both stability and their competitiveness will be endangered when Turkey becomes isolated, picking fights with the world, seeing everything that happens abroad as a conspiracy against itself. They are aware of the risks for the whole of society that comes with an ideological, adventurous foreign policy. They are aware of it, because they have much to lose.

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The Turkey Analyst is a publication of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Joint Center, designed to bring authoritative analysis and news on the rapidly developing domestic and foreign policy issues in Turkey. It includes topical analysis, as well as a summary of the Turkish media debate.


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