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‘The Pakistanization of Turkey’





By Imtiaz Gul

Friday Times, October 23, 2015


On November 1, millions of Turk voters will take part in a snap election to decide who will govern them, after the general polls on June 7 failed to produce a government.

The election is taking place in a politically challenging environment, with most opposition parties gunning for what they call the fascist Justice Party while President Erdogan and prime minister Ahmet Davuto?lu struggle to cope with over two million refugees pushed into Turkey by the Syrian civil war. Having propelled Turkey into a decade of development and international importance, the ruling party now finds itself surrounded by a complex politically fragile and economically troubled neighborhood – the Euro-zone currency crisis, a debt-ridden Greece, the Syrian civil war spurred by ISIS and the anti-Asad rebels , the influx of Syrian refugees, and politically shaky Ukraine, Armenia and Georgia.

Recep Tayyip Erdo?an, the President of Turkey, wants to be Bashkan – a Turkish synonym for a head of state with absolute power. He is pushing for a presidential system, probably inspired by the Russian President Vladimir Putin, who too manipulated his way from two prime ministerial stints into the all-powerful presidency. This craving for power aimed at subordinating  the executive, judiciary and the military not only brackets him with the likes of Putin, but also with Pakistani leaders like the Sharif brothers, who too believe that only absolute power can help them implement their economic vision.

The AKP offers a strong argument in support of their case for a presidential system, especially if viewed against the country’s chequered history until the AKP came into power in 2002. This argument recently resonated at a dinner meeting organized for Turkish and foreign intellectuals and policy analysts in Istanbul. The chief guest, Ali Babacan, a young dynamic AKP member who has been a strong member of the cabinet until recently as a minister for economic and finance affairs, spelled out this vision.

“The political and economic picture of Turkey in 2015 is certainly different from the one in 2002. And the difference came about with a functional parliament, strong government and political stability,” he said. That is why, he argued, we are proposing a strong president who is not hamstrung by compulsion of a small majority or those that spring from a coalition government. Reform is possible only when the government is able to make decisions.

Turkey has one mosque for every 350 citizens, and one hospital for every 60,000 citizens

History tells us that coalitions result in weak governments which can imperil decision-making, and therefore there is a need for a strong presidency independent of the strings that are attached to such coalitions, Babacan said. He said the AKP is driven by an “inclusiveness, investment and implementation” paradigm, and only a strong government can ensure this. A strong presidency will be able to deal with the major challenges facing Turkey, including the capacity-building of youth, judicial reforms and separation of powers.

This debate is at the heart of Turkey’s polarized political landscape, marked by a united ideological AKP pitched against a fragmented secular opposition – which for years has sulked and rusted in resignation, probably because of its past baggage.

In the June election, the AKP suffered big losses, losing its majority and failing to cobble together a coalition. This was a rude setback for Erdogan who is now lobbying hard for an absolute majority in the re-run set for November 1.

Critics interpret it as a reaction by the majority of the young Turks, who love the way they live and are wedded to the idea of secular governance. Even the November 1 elections, however, hardly promise any big turnaround for the splintered opposition which is hoping for a miracle. Some of the largely rural-based Sunni constituency – consisting of about one third of the population – have turned their back on AKP, and the Kurdish HDP captured enough vote to enter the parliament. It refused to align itself with the AKP.

Local journalists and academia accuse the AKP of deploying fascist tactics to silence critical voices. Most are afraid to be named. Meetings with some of the outspoken journalists working for opposition newspapers such as Cumhuriyet show quite a disconcerting picture of the AKP’s high-handed approach towards the media that is critical of them. “The censorship of the 1980s under the military regime was better in the sense that we clearly knew the red lines,” said Murat Yetkin of another opposition paper Daily News. “But now we have to self-censor, not being sure what might offend the president or when they sue you for defamation.”

Turkey under AKP is no longer the secular and democratic country it was, critics say. They do acknowledge that Erdogan delivered on the promises of political stability and economic development, raising the country’s per capita income to above 14,000 dollars, encouraging foreign direct investment to over 13 billion dollars in 2014, and creating six million new jobs since 2009. But for most part, this achievement has come at the cost of Turkey’s secular foundations, accompanied by an unprecedented authoritarianism colored in the Sunni strain of Islam.

Most Turk intellectuals think AKP has emasculated the bureaucracy, judiciary and the media. It has also attempted to tinker with Turkey’s fundamental identity through administrative changes and a greater religious-centric policy. Today, Turkey has over 85,000 active mosques, one for every 350 citizens —compared with one hospital for every 60,000 citizens — the highest number per capita in the world. It has 90,000 imams – more imams than doctors or teachers. It has thousands of madrasa-like Imam-Hatip schools and about four thousand more official state-run Qur’an courses (not counting the unofficial Qur’an schools which may expand the total number to tenfold) according to an article on the Middle East Forum website. This article says spending by the government’s Directorate of Religious Affairs grew  five-fold, from 553 trillion Turkish lira in 2002 (approximately $325 million) to 2.7 quadrillion lira during the first four-and-a-half years of the AKP government. It has a larger budget than eight other ministries combined. Erdogan and his party have increasingly projected a predominantly religious – at times even Sunni – argument, even when discussing issues such as the alleged Iranian role in Yemen and Syria.

“How would you characterize a president who takes the cover of Islam when condoling deaths of mine workers?” asked a Professor at Marmara University. Erdogan said the 311 miners killed in the worst coal mine accident in the country’s history in May 2014 were martyrs, he said, to cover up administrative lapses.

Ironically, many liberal Turk intellectuals have begun drawing parallels with what Pakistan has gone through in the last three decades. Using Pakistan’s troubles since the early 1980s as metaphor for internal instability, the Turk intelligentsia fears their country could face similar socio-political upheaval if their government continued to handle issues such as Syria with religious or sectarian tools.  It’s a “Pakistanization of Turkey” they say – a protracted civil war in Syria could invariably result in the scourge of sectarianism, crime, terrorism  and religious militancy – all the ills that they think plague Pakistan because of its involvement with and proximity to Afghanistan, which continues to reel from  two foreign interventions. At the heart of this was the deployment of religion as a foreign policy tool (by the US and Gen Ziaul Haq), and unqualified support for non-state actors, which both Turkey and the US continue to do in Syria.

“How can a  country that has seen increased religiosity since 2002 stay unaffected by the consequences of using religion as a political ideology?” wonders Ms Ceyda Karan of dailyCumhuriyet, an outspoken critic of the government.

This contexts makes the November 1 election a critical test. Will the majority of the anti-AKP voters turn out to defeat what they fear is the monster of state-led religiosity? Will the AKP escape punishment for the widespread graft allegations surrounding Erdogan and his minions in the government and the media?  After several decades, Turkey is once again at the cusp of a critical decision on its political future.

The writer heads the independent Centre for Research and Security Studies, Islamabad and is the author of Pakistan: Pivot of Hizbu Tahrir’s Global Caliphate.

Imtiaz Gul is the executive director of the independent Centre for Research and Security Studies

Email: imtiaz@crss.pk