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Turkey’s Erdogan decade

Not long ago, Turkey was a security state where the establishment controlled policy through a shadow government. A clandestine network of military officers and their civilian proxies exercised utmost ‘legitimacy’ in suppressing and eliminating dissidents of any sort ie Islamists, Christian missionaries, Communists, journalists and other independent thinkers. The highly praetorian military ruled the country with civilian faces on the front, when a martial law could have provoked international and domestic backlash.

In 2002, economic growth was merely two percent and an OECD-funded study ‘Economic Survey of Turkey’ had predicted a growth rate of three percent of 2003. Inflation skyrocketed to 40 percent and the Turkish lira reminisced Afghani currency notes of the Taliban days. Just a decade later, Turkey’s growth rate is one of the highest in Europe although it lacks massive mineral reserves such as oil or gold. Today’s haven for international investment, Turkey has paid off much of the $31 billion IMF loan sought during the 2002 financial crisis. Notwithstanding generous emergency humanitarian assistance in Asia and Africa, the Turkish International Cooperation and Development Agency (Tika) funds projects in 37 countries, including Pakistan.

Last year, the Turkish government re-assessed its ambitious growth targets as the Eurozone curse spread like an epidemic. Some members of the European bloc are today struggling against bankruptcy, while the rest have taken to tightening their belts. Barring Germany, political upheavals are a sure forecast for 2013. The much celebrated European solidarity is in tatters amid mounting pressure for greater austerity measures.

 Turkey has become an exceptional success despite the Eurozone crisis in the western neighbourhood and Arab uprisings on the eastern and southern fronts. The courts are supreme and parliament rules on issues that it never ventured to deliberate upon tacitly. Ankara follows a two-pronged strategy to address the Kurdish alienation. On the one hand, the Kurdish language gets unprecedented state attention while on the other foreign-aided PKK terrorists face a losing battle. Forgiving but not forgetting the excesses of the ‘deep state’, the elected leadership has incorporated fundamental reforms in the outdated and cosmetic system tailored to suit the erstwhile elite – the White Turks.

 Today’s prosperous and democratic Turkey exists due to the tireless efforts of the civil society. While Professor Dr Necmettin Erbakan challenged the deep state through political means, social conservative educationist Fethullah Gülen adopted a non-confrontationist approach. Dr Erbakan’s assault on the deep state proved counter-productive and further strengthened the hold of military on the Turkish republic. He lost power and his deputies ended up in jail. But the story did not end there.

 A tall, athletic-looking man of 47 took the same course but with a smarter strategy. Exactly on August 14, 2001, this charismatic man, commonly known as Erdogan, announced a new political party Adalet ve Kalkinma Partisi (AKP or Justice and Development Party). Technocrats, civil society workers and politicians pledged loyalty to Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s leadership. The AKP won a landslide victory on November 3, 2002 but after two more elections, the last being in 2011, the number of votes cast for Erdogan leadership has more than doubled. Although The Economist brands AKP as ‘mildly Islamic’, its electoral success has more to do with the fact that it has managed to redress some of the grassroots problems as well as its resounding success on the economic front.

Erdogan is neither a former military general nor a graduate of Harvard Business School. Hailing from the noisy, lower middle class Istanbul neighbourhood of Kasimpasa, this son of a seaman went to a state-run Imam-Hatip school to become a prayer leader. Even today he has not abandoned the streets of Kasimpasa, which inspired him to become the mayor of Istanbul, a metropolis he helped pull out of bread and water shortages and sanitation issues and equipped with effective eco-friendly bus and rail transportation.

The Hizmet Movement, a catalytic civil society network, still remains apolitical and welfare-oriented whose schools across 110 countries flutter Turkish flags, welcoming gifted children regardless of class differences. Turkish Airlines (THY), the country’s national flag carrier, has been awarded Europe’s Best Airline award for the second consecutive time. Though its economic indicators outshine many in 26-member European bloc, Brussels has been reluctant to open its doors for this eight million-strong predominantly Muslim state. Erdogan says Turkey fulfils EU criteria but many of his compatriot businessmen believe that EU does not meet Ankara’s criteria.

Turks critical of the EU’s selective approach are no more excited about the idea. The allure of the Turkish leader reaches across continents. The fragmented opposition parties, most of which sided with the deep state since 1923, mock Erdogan for being more popular in the Arab world or African Muslim countries than his own. The AKP is proud of its extroverted foreign policy and claims it to be a success on diplomatic, political and economic fronts.

One of three key challenges confronting Erdogan is on the foreign policy front. Turkish businessmen and the general public await an early, less-bloody and genuine transition of power to the people in Syria, a country that offers land route to the bigger Middle East and the Gulf states. The Maliki regime in Iraq and Ahmadinejad’s government in Iran have been increasingly less favourable towards Ankara owing to the latter’s sectarian leanings towards the Ba’athist regime in Syria. The second major challenge confronting the AKP is rewriting a modern, broad-based constitution to replace a 1982 military-era document that has triggered controversies for over two decades. Ironically, the AKP has developed authoritarian tendencies with Erdogan being at the helm of the controversies.

Yet Kemal Kiliçdaroglu of CHP and Devlet Bahçeli of MHP, two opposition parties with a history of courting the military since 1923 and 1969 respectively, have failed to muster political support. While Erdogan’s party is in its third phase of transition and reform, its rivals still remain consumed with infighting and elitism. Kiliçdaroglu and Bahçeli are in fact the two most helpful opposition leaders for the former Istanbul mayor. The AKP leaders’ patience with dissenting voices has been less than democratic. More recently, the best known independent and fearless media house in Turkey, Taraf, had to part ways with their finest editors. Erdogan and his deputies alike may be larger than life icons in Turkey but they never shy away from picking fights with honest veteran journalists like Ahmet Altan.

Third and equally daunting is the task of addressing the concerns of the Kurdish region in the southeast where militants on average claim a dozen lives weekly. While the recently amended Turkish constitution offers some remedies to satisfy Kurdish concerns, their newly empowered cousins in the neighbouring regions of Syria can further aggravate the PKK’s militancy.

An amicable solution to these short-term challenges can extend the Erdogan decades, where he would not be merely seen as a politician but a fatherly figure. From civil-military relations to the economy to conflict transformation, his Turkey can serve as a model for many developing nations, most importantly for Pakistan.

The writer is an investigative journalist. Email: nahmad360@gmail.com

Naveed Ahmad, "Turkey’s Erdogan decade," The News. 2012-12-28.