Friday, October 11, 2013

Brave New Turkey

by Robert Ellis

Two visions for the future of Turkey collide: that of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who wants to create a religious state, and that of President Abdullah Gül, who believes in a pluralist regime, in which every belief and culture can find a place.

Since last June's Gezi Park demonstrations, which spread to most of Turkey, there has been no limit to the Turkish AKP (Justice and Development Party) government's paranoid attempts to suppress potential opposition. According to the Turkish press, the latest move is a new regulation, introduced jointly by the justice and interior ministries, that will allow the police to detain anyone they suspect will stage a protest from 12 to 24 hours without a court decision.

The outcry from the opposition, who spoke of "a police state" and "a return to the Inquisition," has caused Prime Minister Erdoğan to deny the reports and claim they were a fabrication.

But the mind boggles. What else does the AKP government have in mind? The creation of thought police, who would be authorized to round up and detain artists, journalists, academics and other government critics for crimes that they might commit? Or the introduction of religious police, as in Saudi Arabia, Iran or Gaza, to ensure that the population abides by the moral codes approved of by the government?

Last week, in another step towards creating an "advanced democracy," Turkey's Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, unveiled a long awaited democratization package -- however, journalists present were not allowed to ask questions. The main aim was to allow fuller freedoms for Turkey's restive Kurds, although the proposed reforms -- including a reduction of the electoral threshold, the right to education in Kurdish at private schools and financial support for small political parties -- fell far short of their ultimate demand for regional autonomy.

Another important reform, which will satisfy Erdoğan's electoral base, is the removal of the headscarf ban for employees in public offices -- apart from judges, prosecutors, police officers and members of the armed forces. In the light of the latest move by the justice and interior ministries, the proposal to allow meetings and demonstrations in open areas until sunset and in closed spaces until midnight seems illusory.

Keeping in mind the recent 10-month prison sentence handed out to the pianist Fazil Say for blasphemy, it is also notable that the punishment for hate crimes will be increased from one to three years. It is believed that the proposal may be revised to allow for changes in the Penal Code and Anti-Terror Law, leading to the release of Kurds imprisoned for their membership of the Kurdistan Communities Union (KCK), the alleged urban wing of the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK).

The AKP government's main preoccupation is the outcome of the local elections in March, as they will determine Prime Minister Erdoğan's level of support since last June's demonstrations. However, as this mainly comes from the urban grassroots in Istanbul and Ankara as well as rural Anatolia -- and not the urban middle class, who were behind the demonstrations -- he can still count on their support. It is for this reason the Kurdish vote, either for the AKP or the Kurdish BDP [Peace and Democracy Party], is important and in particular to secure the BDP's support for the government.

Now that Erdoğan's plans for an executive style of presidency have proven to be a non-starter, the question is what the prime minister's next move will be: his third term of office runs out in 2015.

President Abdullah Gül's term of office, however, runs out next August; and at the conclusion of his speech at the opening of parliament last week, he indicated that he might run for a second term of office.

The president's speech, in fact, marked the difference in approach between Gül and his old colleague and co-founder of the AKP, Erdoğan. Gül viewed the peaceful demonstrations of the young people at Gezi Park as "a new manifestation of our democratic maturity" and warned against Turkey's increasing polarization. He further emphasized that the separation of powers, a free press, and an effective opposition are also among the indispensable elements of democracy.

Not only in the Turkish parliament but also in international fora, Gül sounds more like a statesman than a politician. At the U.N. General Assembly, Gül warned of the threat posed by extremist groups to the prospects of a peaceful solution in Syria, and at the Istanbul Forum he repeated that the combination of geopolitical interests and ethno-sectarian identity politics could carry the Islamic world back to the dark ages similar to those in Europe.

Once again, Gül stated his belief that there is no dichotomy between Islam and democracy; in his view, a pluralist regime, in which every belief and culture can find a place, is attractive for all. There is no doubt that Gül can talk the talk, but if it comes to a contest with Erdoğan, the question is whose vision for Turkey will prevail.

Robert Ellis, a Senior Fellow at the New York-based Gatestone Institute, is a regular commentator on Turkish affairs in the Danish and international press.

Copyright - Original materials copyright (c) by the authors.

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