December 11, 2012 § 3 Comments
Since the AKP came to power in 2002, it has been increasingly fashionable to declare that Kemalism – Turkey’s dominant political ideology since the founding of the republic in 1923 – is on life support. Successive governments have paid lip service to Kemalism, particularly since the military has always viewed itself as the ultimate guardian of Kemalist principles and crossing Kemalist red lines has been the best way to precipitate a military coup, but the AKP is viewed as hollowing out Kemalism through its electoral dominance. Most people immediately associate Kemalism with secularism and Westernization, and whether it be the AKP’s battle to make wearing a headscarf acceptable in universities or the controversial decision to allow middle schoolers to attend imam hatip religious schools, the government certainly does not appear to feel that Kemalism should constrain its policies.
It is not just the AKP, however, that has embraced this trend. The opposition CHP, which was essentially created to translate the precepts of Kemalism into tangible policies, has also seemed to go through a post-Kemalist phase. In July, CHP leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu defended charges that his party has moved away from Kemalism by declaring that Kemalism is a dynamic ideology and that he rejects a “traditional” interpretation of Kemalism. Kılıçdaroğlu’s elevation to CHP leader was widely viewed as heralding a new direction for the party, which has been out of power for decades, and part of this new direction was a greater focus on social liberalism and less of a focus on traditional Kemalist principles.
Kemalism, however, was always about much more than secularism, and the CHP’s current line of attack against the government demonstrates that Kemalist principles still carry some weight. Kemalism has six arrows, and the two that bear on recent events are republicanism and populism. Republicanism meant popular sovereignty, freedom, and legal equality, and stood in stark opposition to the Ottoman sultanate and caliphate. While Atatürk’s idea of republicanism was based on the French model, the pre-democratic reality of Turkish republicanism was a paternalistic dictatorship containing aspects of liberal rule. Republicanism in the Kemalist sense meant sovereignty of the people as the basis of the state rather than sovereignty of the sultan, and the idea that the state existed to further the advancement of its citizens rather than the glory of a royal dynasty. Connected to this was the idea of populism, which was the notion that the Turkish people should be mobilized in the name of social progress and modernity, but also encapsulated a sense of solidarity among disparate societal or professional groups. Unity was essential in Atatürk’s mind to building a modern state, and he believed that only through popular unity and solidarity had Turkey achieved its independence. Populism was operationalized in a way that would ensure unity among different groups and eliminate class conflict by enacting socioeconomic and educational reforms meant to achieve equality and social mobility. This tied into republicanism, since equality and unity required the rejection of the Ottoman sultanate as it privileged a ruling class above the people. It was also a response to Marxism and the concept of revolutionary class struggle, and was meant to forestall any such possibility in Turkey. Throughout the 1930s, populism was used to push off dealing with potentially disruptive social issues by repeating that there were no class or social fissures in Turkey, and among the six principles of Kemalism this was the one that gained the most widespread acceptance prior to WWII.
During the parliamentary debate yesterday over the next budget, the Kılıçdaroğlu accused Prime Minister Erdoğan of running roughshod over republican principles by trying to circumvent the Grand National Assembly’s role in budget planning. Kılıçdaroğlu claimed that Erdoğan and the AKP are trying to elevate themselves above the republic, which Erdoğan vehemently denied and said that making comparisons between Turkey’s economic performance under the AKP and Turkey’s economic performance in decades prior is intended only to demonstrate how the AKP has improved Turkey. This seems like a strange argument to be having, as there shouldn’t be a question as to whether the current government is part and parcel of the republic or not, yet it can be understood in the context of Kemalism and whether or not the AKP is adhering to its tenets. Republicanism was meant to forestall exactly the charge that Kılıçdaroğlu is hurling at the government, of placing its own glory above the good of the people and the state, and the fact that it appears to have hit a nerve with Erdoğan demonstrates just how ingrained Kemalism really is. The CHP is attempting to tar the AKP with only looking out for its own interests, and Erdoğan’s response has been that the AKP’s success is actually Turkey’s success and the republic’s success, which feeds directly into the Kemalist republican ideal. Similarly, the debate involves populism as well, since the idea of popular solidarity and unity is violated by the AKP’s claiming economic success as uniquely its own.
In a world in which Kemalism was defunct, none of this would really matter; in fact, it would be perfectly natural for a party to crow about its economic success and use it as a tool with which to hammer its opponents. The fact that Erdoğan felt the need yesterday to reiterate his commitment to the republic and that Kılıçdaroğlu was nakedly appealing to two of the six tenets of Kemalism in order to score political points demonstrates that for all of the talk about post-Kemalist Turkey, shaking off decades of Kemalist ideological hegemony is easier said than done. As much as the AKP may want to water down the secularist component of Kemalism, the rest of it is still very much intact.
November 2, 2012 § Leave a Comment
Today’s post is not a straight Friday gallimaufry, but does deal with disparate topics that all have a connecting theme. There are a couple of political relationships under serious stress that were in the news this week, and you should be keeping an eye on them in the months ahead because how the tensions are resolved will majorly impact politics in both Turkey and Israel.
The first pair is Prime Minister Erdoğan and President Gül. I’ve been predicting a clash between these two for awhile, and this week brought new tensions over their conflicting approaches to the Kemalist Republic Day rallies. After the governor of Ankara, presumably on Erdoğan’s orders, had banned a separate CHP-led rally outside the old Grand National Assembly building that was to coincide with the official government military parade, Gül told the governor to ignore the ban and remove police barriers from the site. This information prompted Erdoğan to strongly criticize Gül indirectly by denouncing “double-headed rule” and saying that if people want a strong presidential system, he is happy to oblige. Gül then fired back, stating that the president should make sure that government officials and police are allowing people to celebrate Republic Day in whatever manner they see fit and that there is no double-headed rule in Turkey. This fight is about more than just who ordered what with regard to Republic Day, and rather is the latest proxy battle over who is going to be Turkey’s next president. Once the new constitution creating an empowered president is in place, Erdoğan fully intends to be the first directly elected president in a presidential system and wants to push Gül out early. Naturally, Gül has no intention of leaving without a fight, and so this is the latest salvo in the fight that will determine both men’s political futures. As I’ve written before, expect to see lots more of this type of stuff going forward, and should the skirmishes get nastier, this has the potential to grind Turkey’s politics to a halt and rip the AKP apart.
The second pair in the news this week is Likud minister Moshe Kahlon and his long-time political home. Kahlon, who is Minister of Communications and Minister of Social Welfare and the most prominent Sephardi member of Likud, announced a few weeks that he would be stepping down from his post and not running in the Knesset elections in January. Kahlon is wildly popular for reducing fees on all sorts of things from cell phones to bank transactions to electricity bills, not to mention he is the face of Likud’s Sephardi base, and so his announcement was bad news for Likud. Now it turns out that Kahlon might not be leaving politics after all, but is flirting with the idea of creating a new party, which is even worse news for the new Likud Beiteinu list. In many ways this makes sense, since Kahlon’s socioeconomic views clash with much of the official Likud party line, and his views on security issues and the Palestinians don’t exactly make him a Laborite. Bibi Netanyahu, realizing the threat that Kahlon poses, is now racing to keep him in Likud while a poll commissioned by Labor that shows it winning the most Knesset seats should Kahlon join the party means that Shelley Yachimovich is after him too. I don’t see Kahlon going to Labor, and my hunch is that he is not going to form his own party but is rather using the polls showing him damaging Likud Beiteinu should he run alone as leverage to return to Likud in a more powerful position. In any event, the Kahlon-Likud dance also has the possibility to alter the trajectory of Israeli politics depending on the outcome, so keep a close eye on how it is resolved.
Finally, there is the domestic dispute between San Francisco Chronicle columnist Bruce Jenkins and his brain, which apparently decided to leave Jenkins’ body and take with it any cognitive capacity for logic and reasoning that Jenkins had. That is the obvious conclusion to be drawn after reading this brilliant paean to ignorance in which Jenkins claims that the world champion San Francisco Giants won the World Series because the members of the Giants front office “look at the face, the demeanor, the background, the ability to play one’s best under suffocating pressure” rather than even take a glance at players’ statistics – otherwise known as the way one actually measures whether a player is good or not – and that “if you throw a binder full of numbers on their desk, they don’t quite get the point.” I know I have made this plea before, but Michael Schur (aka Ken Tremendous) and crew really need to come out of retirement and start up Fire Joe Morgan again. Where does one even begin with this mind-blowing example of imbecilic dreck that would have been more believable had it appeared in the Onion? Yes Bruce Jenkins, I am sure that the team that drafted and developed such classic physical specimens as Buster Posey and Tim Lincecum relies only on scouting reports and never looks at stats. The way to win two World Series in three seasons is to completely ignore a huge resource of evidence and to just rely on your gut. Yup, that must be how it was done, since there is no way that Brian Sabean even knows how to do long division, let alone figure out what VORP stands for. There are two possibilities here. The first is that Jenkins is seriously delusional to the point that he is becoming a danger to the people around him. The second is that he is perpetrating an elaborate Joaquin Phoenix piece of performance art. Irrespective of which of these two options is the correct answer, Bruce Jenkins’ family might want to get him to a mental health professional as soon as possible.
October 29, 2012 § 5 Comments
Today is Republic Day (Cumhuriyet Bayramı) in Turkey, which marks the anniversary of the founding of the Turkish Republic in 1923. While most Americans would probably assume that Republic Day is like July 4 here and that it is a controversy-free public holiday where people gather with friends and family to celebrate, Republic Day is not quite that simple. Because Turkey’s institutions were created concurrently with Kemalism, a set of challenges arose that continue to this day, and the various controversies playing out on this year’s Republic Day illustrate how unsettled Turkey still is when it comes to the basic issue of what the purpose of the state should be and what role ideology should play.
When Mustafa Kemal Atatürk founded Turkey out of the remnants of the Ottoman Empire, he did so with clearly thought out ideas about how his new state should be organized and what goals it should seek to attain. Furthermore, unlike in other states where an ideology may be adopted after the institutions of the state are already in place, Atatürk built Turkey’s political and social institutions at the same time that he was installing Kemalism as the state’s official ideology. This enabled him to create structures and rules that were explicitly designed to strengthen and enable Kemalism, meaning that any challenge to the state would unmistakably be a challenge to Kemalism as well. Kemalism was so entrenched and well articulated that its tenets were explicitly written out and incorporated into the ruling CHP’s flag during Atatürk’s tenure so that there was no ambiguity about which theories and actions comported with Kemalism and which did not.
Since ideology was so wrapped up and intertwined with the state itself, it meant that Turkey was unable to convert first order battles over ideology into a lower grade conflict even after the initial transition to democracy after WWII. Any ideological wobble away from Kemalism precipitated a crisis, particularly given the fact that the most important and powerful state institution, the military, saw itself as the ultimate guardian of Kemalism irrespective of which party was in power. Thus, ideological conflict ensured that once ideological fights erupted into the open post-transition, the system was unable to successfully manage them. Lingering ideological issues hampered Turkey’s political development for decades, leading to a cycle of military interventions and shaky returns to civilian government.
Turkey today under Erdoğan and the AKP seems to have broken the pattern of military coups, which is certainly something to be celebrated during this year’s Republic Day. The fights over Kemalism, however, and whether the state should still be pushing a specific ideology that is linked to both secularism and statism (among other things) are very much ongoing. On a positive note, this is the first Republic Day during Abdullah Gül’s time as president that the leaders of the Turkish military are attending the official reception at the presidential palace. The reason that they had not attended in the past was because Gül’s wife Hayrünissa – along with the wives of other top government officials – wears a head scarf, and Kemalism frowned upon head scarves to the point of banning them from government buildings and universities. That top officers are going to the presidential reception this year might partially be a function of the Ergenekon and Sledgehammer investigations intimidating the military into changing their behavior out of fear, which is not a good development, but I think that the stronger impulse at work here is an emerging realization that ideological battles need to be put aside and deemphasized in order to make Turkey the strongest and most successful state that it can be.
On the other side of the ledger on this Republic Day is the unfortunate tendency of the AKP government to view ideological challenges as existential threats that require clamping down on freedom of expression. The government banned any Republic Day gatherings at the old Grand National Assembly building, which is closely associated with Kemalism and the founders of the Republic, under the theory that they would devolve into anti-government rallies. As a result, politicians and journalists, including CHP leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, have been sprayed with water hoses and pepper spray today while hundreds, if not thousands, of Turks have been prevented from entering Ankara. This too is a result of the lingering legacy of Kemalism, but unlike the standoff in previous years between Gül and the military, this episode is not being resolved peacefully or amicably, and instead is a reminder of the AKP’s darkening record on freedom of speech. While Republic Day rallies may very well be aimed at criticizing the current government, true democracies are able not only to absorb such criticism but to enable it. As Turks celebrate this Republic Day, they should at the same time hope that future Republic Days remind everyone what an amazing country Turkey is rather than get hung up on still-unresolved issues surrounding Turkey’s ideological legacy.
July 12, 2012 § 2 Comments
Issandr El-Amrani has a terrific post over at The Arabist on the various labels that people assign to Arab political parties, and he makes the case that there is too much inappropriate conflation between different types. For instance, he says that all non-Islamists in the recent Libyan election were dubbed as liberals, when in fact that group included many parties and that were neither economically liberal or socially liberal. Similarly, secularists and liberals are often used interchangeably, when in fact secularists might be moderate Islamists or decidedly non-liberal conservative felool. He also argues that the term Islamist is overly broad (an argument that most knowledgeable observers have made and would agree with) but dives down even deeper than the Salafi/non-Salafi divide, asserting that in Egypt one can speak of Ikhwani Islamists, Salafi Islamists, and Wasati Islamists. He has a lot more in there, and you should go read the whole thing for yourselves.
It got me thinking about Turkish politics and the labels that outsiders tend to use with regard to Turkish parties. You almost universally see the AKP referred to as Islamist, but this is wrong in many respects. To begin with, the AKP itself rejects the Islamist branding, and looking at virtually every other Islamist party in the world, it is easy to see why. The AKP does not advocate for disbanding the secular state or legislating according to the principles of sharia, and it has not made any overt moves to do so. The AKP governs not as an Islamist party, but as a secular party whose members are personally devout. The fears that many expressed upon the AKP coming to power in 2002 have not come to pass, and even if the party has led the way toward a more visibly pious or conservative Turkish society, nobody can credibly argue that it has done this through legislative government action. Compared to Arab Islamist parties, the AKP is not even in the same ballpark, and should reasonably be characterized as a socially conservative party rather than a religious one. Prime Minister Erdoğan won himself no Islamist fans in Egypt when he traveled there last fall and lectured a Muslim Brotherhood audience about the vital need for a secular state, which is a strange move for the head of a supposed Islamist party to make.
Similarly, the terms secular and liberal have not traditionally coincided in Turkish politics. The current incarnation of the CHP under Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu has tried to remake itself as a socially liberal party, but historically the CHP’s fealty was to Kemalism above all else. Atatürk and Inönü were not liberals in the sense we use the term today although they were (to turn a phrase) religiously secular and carried out socially liberal reforms that conformed with their secular vision, and the CHP and other secular parties abetted much illiberal behavior on the part of politicians and the army. Turkey’s military coups were carried out by staunch secularists, but the coups were the very apotheosis of illiberal behavior. The 1982 constitution enshrined military-imposed secularism basically at gunpoint (yes, I know that there was technically a referendum, but that was not exactly what we would call a free and fair election free from coercion), which may have enshrined principles that we associate with liberal governance but was certainly not a liberal document. The nationalist party, the MHP, is also a secular nationalist party that is not a liberal one, and thus the secular-liberal fusion that we are used to in the West does not apply to Turkey quite so neatly.
None of these ideas are new, but they bear repeating. It is considered common knowledge in most of the world, and even within some quarters in Turkey, that the AKP is Islamist, which is what drives much of the talk about applying the “Turkish model” to Arab states where Islamist parties are strong. It is also assumed that any secular parties in government will automatically be less authoritarian and more committed to liberal democracy than the AKP appears to be at times. Both of these assumptions are fallacies, and those of us who work on Turkey might want to take El-Amrani’s words to heart and be a lot more careful about the terms we use and what those terms imply when we discuss Turkish politics.
March 21, 2012 § Leave a Comment
When the AKP came to power a decade ago, many believed that it heralded the end of Kemalism now that an Islamist party was running Turkey. Kemalism has always been associated by the outside world with secularism (or perhaps more accurately, laicism) and the prevailing viewpoint was that the AKP would do away with the old Kemalist philosophy. This overlooked the inconvenient fact that dating back to Atatürk and Inönü and throughout the remainder of the 20th century, the CHP and the military only allowed new actors into the political system if they agreed to maintain Kemalism and protect its core tenets, and when this agreement was violated the military was all too willing to step and reset the system back to what it viewed as its natural equilibrium. When Atatürk determined in 1930 that an opposition party was needed in order to channel discontent and provide the CHP with some competition, his only requirement was that it agree to uphold Kemalism. Similarly, when the DP won Turkey’s first free and fair elections in 1950, the party was mocked in some quarters for being a carbon copy of the CHP due to its embrace of Kemalism. All of Turkish political history dictated that the AKP would not be allowed to compete and take over the reins of government in 2002 absent a commitment to at least tacitly maintain Kemalism, and the subsequent decade has revealed this to be the case.
While the AKP has tried to soften enforced secularism at the margins, it has actually embraced other aspects of Kemalism with surprising vigor, particularly nationalism. As one of the six arrows of Kemalism, nationalism was meant to stress Turkish – rather than Ottoman – identity and focused on civic rather than ethnic citizenship as a means of foreclosing nationalist hope for groups such as the Kurds. Every citizen of Turkey was to be considered a Turk irrespective of ethnic background or heritage, and recognizing the Kurdish national movement would violate the Turkification project. Erdoğan and the AKP have taken up the mantle of Turkish nationalism, perhaps as a way to preempt or blunt any criticism that the AKP seeks some type of pan-Islamic arrangement, and this has manifested itself most visibly over the issue of Kurdish autonomy. On Monday I highlighted what I believe to be foolish behavior on the Turkish government’s part with regard to Nevruz celebrations and expressed that it would just lead to an ever larger outpouring of Kurdish demands for autonomy. Naturally, yesterday and today there have been more clashes and injuries and the official Nevruz celebration has been cancelled in Diyarkabır, which has Turkey’s largest Kurdish population. Just as predictably, a PKK bomb exploded outside the AKP office in Diyarbakır, explosives were found in a number of other locations, and four special forces soldiers were killed in clashes with the PKK. Inevitably, the uptick in terrorist violence along with the heavy-handed response of the government to Nevruz festivities and civilian demonstrations will lead to even greater disenchantment among Turkey’s Kurds and a hardening of Turkey’s position on Kurdish autonomy. In many ways, Nevruz is beginning to resemble marching season in Northern Ireland, during which Ulster loyalists inevitably clash with police and violence, chaos, and civilian deaths ensue.
While it appears as if this could all be easily avoided by a more open and honest discussion about the place of Turkey’s Kurds within the state and whether Kurdish autonomy – rather than outright independence – is a feasible compromise, such a discussion is unlikely to occur. Ideological legacies are notoriously difficult to overcome, and Kemalism has thoroughly shaped Turkish politics, society, and discourse for 90 years. If the AKP, a party populated by religiously devout officials that is open about its desire to see some of the secular restrictions loosened on things such as head scarves in government buildings, has only tiptoed at the very edges of challenging secularism, it certainly is not going to tear down the Kemalist wall surrounding nationalism. Ideology is not something that can be easily discarded, and in the case of the Kurds it means that an important rethinking of the Kurdish question is not going to happen. Instead, the government and the PKK will continue their battle, Kurdish political parties will fight with the government over Nevruz observance and whether Kurdish can be spoken in public settings, and an important policy issue that is hampering Turkish political development and society will remain taboo and unresolved.