By Ameen Izzadeen
At a time when the Arab Spring is shaking the political order in the Middle East, the election victory of the AK Party (Justice and Development Party) in Turkey — a country which had ruled much of the troubled region for centuries till upto the end of First World War — offers a solution to the political conundrum.
Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has led his party to its third consecutive general election victory which many analysts see as an endorsement of his economic policies and his efforts to take the country to the world’s centrestage as a big power, reminiscent of the role the Ottoman Empire played in centuries gone by. Days before the election, the London-based Economist magazine hailed Turkey’s economic performance and advised the Turks to vote for the AK Party. That a capitalist mouthpiece went to the extent of telling the Turks how to vote is, on the one hand, an expression of support for Turkey’s free-market policies, and on the other a desire to promote Erdogan’s Turkey as a role model for the Arab world so that the West’s Middle Eastern interests can be safeguarded.
The West is not unaware that the people in the Middle East are against it. This is largely because of the blind support the United States and its allies extend to Israel even when the Zionist state is wrong. Canada, for example, at the G8 summit last month opposed the mentioning of the 1967 borders in the final statement, though US President Barack Obama wanted it. The US, in February, used its veto power in the UN Security Council to quash an Arab resolution condemning Israel’s settlement-building activities, though its action contradicted the Obama administration’s own policy of opposing any new settlement building activity in the occupied Palestinian territories. Western leaders apparently believe an Arab leader elected through democratic means won’t or won’t be able to bow to the US, as the region’s monarchs, dictators and despots do now.
The West’s open support for Israel is likely to draw hostile reaction on the streets across the politically rejuvenated Arab world or it may even lead to an oil boycott like in the 1970s. The one way to avoid such a situation is to promote Erdogan’s Turkish model. Since Erdogan led his Islamic-rooted party to its first electoral victory in 2002, Turkey has made great strides in economic development. Under Erdogan’s leadership, Turkey, withstood the shocks of the global economic crisis in 2008 and continued to progress as Europe’s fastest growing economy. It also charted a course that balanced the state doctrine of secularism with Islam.
The balance extends to the realm of Turkey’s foreign policy as well while it projects Erdogan as a hero in the Arab-Islamic world. Erdogan’s Turkey while remaining a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) and a US ally and maintaining diplomatic and military relations with Israel, has not hesitated to condemn Tel Aviv’s atrocities in the occupied Palestinian territory. It refused to join George W. Bush’s coalition to attack Iraq and did not grant permission for US troops to use Turkey as a launching pad to invade Iraq in 2003. Again, while being a US ally, Turkey together with Brazil last year came to the rescue of Iran to protect it from tough UN sanctions. When NATO joined the war in Libya, Turkey refused to undertake any combat role. On the current crisis in Syria, Erdogan plays a key role in efforts to bring about a peaceful end to the pro-democracy riots there. While being a good friend of Bashar al-Assad, Erdogan opened Turkey’s borders to Syrians fleeing the ruthless crackdown. When pro-democracy protests shook Egypt, Turkey stood by the protesters. After President Hosni Mubarak stepped down, Turkish President Abdullah Gul became the first world leader to visit Egypt. Gul met Egypt’s new military leadership and leaders of political parties, including the Muslim Brotherhood, and impressed upon them the merits of the Turkish model which is a mixture of secular democracy, free-market, modernity, Islamic identity, western military alliance, diplomacy with Israel and advocacy of the Palestinian cause. The West apparently believes that the Turkish model is the best option for the emerging democracies in the Arab world since the other two options are dictatorship and Islamic extremism.
Though Erdogan’s model is hailed as an example to follow, his domestic problems are far from over. The Kurdish autonomy issue, the threat from the military and the secular elites, the European Union membership and corruption are some of the issues the popular leader, who as a poor boy sold bread and lemonade at traffic lights and played soccer on the backstreet, has to deal with.
Turkish nationalism has prevented the formulation of a viable solution to the problem of the Kurds, who constitute one fifth of the population. Erdogan’s party wants to introduce a constitution to replace the present ‘military-made’ constitution. But his party fell short of the required numbers in parliament to initiate on its own the process of introducing a new constitution that will address the Kurdish issue and check the role of the military in governance. To do that, Erdogan now needs the opposition’s support.
A big hurdle will be the ‘Deep State’, a clandestine clique dedicated to the secular ideology of Mustafa Kamal Ataturk. The group still controls the country’s military, judiciary and public service. But Erdogan has succeeded to some extent in shaming them. He took the bull by the horns and arrested scores of serving and retired military officers on charges of trying to topple the elected government. The case is known as Ergenekon, a mythical place in Turkish fables.
But the sword of Damocles is far from being removed. Erdogan has one thing in common with Adnan Menderes, a former Turkish prime minister. Both won three consecutive elections. The Turks believe the comparison should end here because Menderes, who tried to cut the military budget, was overthrown in a military coup and hanged. But with the Arab Spring drawing millions of people to the streets, any attempt by the military to undermine democracy in Turkey is sure to give rise to a Turkish spring.
(This article also appears in the Daily Mirror, Sri Lanka)