The widening political faultline over Turkey's European destiny
For 40 years or more Turkish policymakers have pursued ambitions to become part of Europe. But Stephen Larrabee says that the mid-2011 general election may well determine whether Turkish voters favour a different path
Turkey is divided politically and regionally. Although Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) won a decisive victory in mid-September last year with its successful referendum on constitutional amendments and also got an important boost for the general elections in June, there is a widening schism between its more secular pro-European population and its more Islamist voters who are increasingly lukewarm and even hostile to EU membership.
The referendum's 26 amendments were passed by an overwhelming margin of 58% in favour, and strengthen the AKP’s influence over a Turkish judiciary that has long been a bastion of Kemalism and secularism, while also eroding the power of the military by making serving officers subject to trial in civilian courts. But the AKP’s proposed amendments were strongly rejected in the country’s western provinces along the Aegean and Mediterranean coast, and in the middle class districts of large cities like Istanbul and Ankara, where voters fear that socially conservative policies favoured by the AKP will mean further restrictions on their own Westernised lifestyles. By the same token, voters in lower middle-class city districts and in the central and eastern Anatolian provinces, supported the AKP‘s proposed changes in large numbers.
Among Turkey’s large Kurdish population, the reaction was mixed. Many Kurds heeded the call of the Kurdish nationalist Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) to boycott the referendum as a protest against the AKP’s Kurdish policies. In southeastern Hakkari province, for instance, only 7% of the voting population went to the polls. But in eastern Turkey and along the Euphrates Valley many Kurds ignored the BDP’s referendum boycott.
A new fault line therefore seems to be emerging in Turkish politics. In addition to the division between the Kurdish southeast and the rest of Turkey, there is a growing regional division between the strongly secular Aegean coastal regions and more socially conservative and religiously oriented Anatolia. The AKP also did well in areas where the local governments are controlled by the ultra-nationalist National Action Party (MHP), which strongly opposed the amendments. Thus the AKP was able to attract an important portion of the nationalist vote – a factor that could have significant implications for the 2011 national elections.
In many ways, therefore, last September’s referendum can be seen as a dress rehearsal for this year's national elections in June. The referendum results showed that the AKP remains a formidable political force, and more effective than the opposition in mobilising support and putting together a coalition of diverse forces in support of its goals.
But while the referendum is likely to give the AKP’s political fortunes a powerful boost, it is still no guarantee that the governing AKP will win the June elections. Turkish political history shows that referendums are quite different events from elections, and have their own distinctive political dynamics and voting patterns.
The AKP won a landslide victory in the July 2007 parliamentary elections, garnering 47% of the vote, compared to 21% for the secularist Republican People’s Party (CHP) which came in second. Popular discontent with aspects of AKP policies – especially concerns about corruption and what is perceived as its growing authoritarianism – have since then eroded some of its strength. The AKP suffered a sharp setback in the March 2009 municipal elections. Although it received 39% of the vote, well ahead of the runner-up, the CHP, which had 23% of the vote, the result marked a significant drop from the 47% it got in the July 2007 parliamentary elections.
The AKP’s future will depend to a very large extent on whether the party shows a renewed commitment to domestic reform and democratisation, or whether it instead pursues a narrower and more religiously oriented agenda. It will need to attract the Kurds and regain the support of the urban middle class by allaying their fears of more and more restrictions on their Westernised life style. If it fails to do that, Turkish politics become more sharply polarised .
But what if the AKP wins the 2011 elections? Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan would be likely to see that victory, along with the strong support that he’s already gained in the referendum, as a mandate to begin the ambitious process of re-writing Turkey's Constitution. The key issue is whether he will seek to develop a genuine consensus on reform – as he promised to do after winning the referendum – or instead use a general election victory to pursue the sort of narrower Islamic agenda he began to push after his overwhelming July 2007 victory. At that time, he sought to lift the ban on the wearing of headscarves in universities, a move than resulted in a constitutional crisis and the serious polarisation of Turkish politics.
How Erdogan manages revision of the Constitution may also portend another important change that will have significant implications for Turkey’s political future. In a speech that he made shortly before last year's mid-September referendum, Erdogan indicated that, he may seek to introduce a presidential system. That Erdogan harbors presidential ambitions is no secret, and many secularists suspect that he plans to run for president.
A Turkish transition to a presidential system would make sense in some ways as future presidents will be elected by popular vote after current President Abudallah Gul‘s term is over. But a shift to a presidential system would be likely to stoke fears among secularists that Turkey is moving toward greater authoritarianism, with Erdogan seeking to establish himself as a “new sultan.” Many worry that a presidential system would strengthen the ability of the AKP to pursue an overtly Islamic agenda, and so further weaken the secularist foundations of the Turkish Republic. Any attempt by Erdogan to move toward this type of presidential system is therefore likely to be controversial.
Turkey’s political development will be heavily influenced by how the next government – whatever its political composition and orientation – deals with the country’s Kurdish issue. The municipal elections and the referendum clearly revealed a dwindling of support for the AKP among the Kurdish population. Meanwhile, the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) stepped up its terrorist attacks on Turkish targets from its sanctuaries in the Kandil mountains in northern Iraq.
Opinion polls show that Turks are wearying of the PKK’s repeated attacks and killings, and want to see an end to the Kurdish conflict. There is growing consensus even within top levels of the Turkish military that the longstanding conflict with the PKK cannot be solved by military means alone. To succeed, military measures must be combined with economic and social policies that will address the grievances of the Kurdish population. It has also become increasingly evident that the PKK problem cannot be eliminated or successfully reduced without the co-operation of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in northern Iraq.
In the aftermath of last autumn’s referendum, the Erdogan government has intensified its efforts at various levels to resolve the Kurdish issue. At the end of September, Interior Minister Besir Aatlay paid a visit to Erbil for high-level talks with the KRG president Massoud Barzani that was designed to solicit stronger KRG support for Turkey in its struggle against the PKK. Turkey has for its part actively engaged in helping the Iraqis to form a new government. Ankara’s diplomatic contacts with Tehran, Damascus and Washington have been intensified. These stepped-up contacts reflect recognition that the PKK issue has a broader regional dimension and can’t be resolved without the co-operation of all the key regional actors.
The Erdogan government’s efforts to seek a resolution of the Kurdish issue have primarily been motivated by domestic considerations, but they could also have a salutary impact on Turkey’s EU membership bid. Ever since Turkey opened its accession negotiations with the EU in October 2005, public opinion has appeared increasingly opposed to Turkish membership, notably in France, Germany and Austria.
Popular misgivings within the EU to Turkish membership have coincided with – and reinforced – Turkey’s own growing disenchantment with the EU. Public support in Turkey for EU membership is still fairly solid, but has declined visibly over the last several years. Back in 2004, 73% of Turkish opinion polled supported Turkish membership, but that had dropped to 38% by 2010. The sharp drop shows just how strongly the Turkish public mood towards the EU has soured of late, even among Turks who traditionally have been Western-oriented.
Turkey’s EU accession negotiations have stagnated. The danger is not that either Turkey or the EU will break off negotiations, but rather that the relationship will slowly collapse by default as Turkey and the EU run out of things to negotiate. The two sides have so far opened 13 chapters, but closed only one, science. Of the remaining chapters, the EU has suspended eight because of Turkey’s failure to open its ports and airports to Cypriot vessels, as required under the Ankara protocol. France has vetoed talks on five others which it claims pre-judge full membership.
Integrating into the EU a country as large as Turkey will not be easy, and requires important adjustments on both sides. But Turkish membership would strengthen the EU over the long run and help put to rest the claim that the West – especially Europe – is innately hostile to Muslims. This could have a salutary effect on the West’s relations with the Muslim world. A moderate, democratic Turkey could act as an important bridge to the Middle East. Conversely, rejection of Turkey’s candidacy could provoke an anti-Western backlash, strengthening those forces in Turkey that want to weaken Turkey’s ties to the West. Such a development is in the interest of neither the EU nor the United States.
Turkey will, of course, have to meet all the criteria for membership. There are no shortcuts or “quick fixes” to membership. This process is likely to take at least a decade, perhaps longer. But by that time a very different Turkey – one economically more prosperous, politically more democratic and internationally more influential – will be at the EU’s door. It is on the qualifications of that Turkey, not the Turkey of today that the EU will have to make its decision.
It is possible that in the end Turkey, like Norway, will decide not to join the EU for reasons of its own. There is increasing discussion in Turkey these days of the “Norwegian model.” But it is a decision that should result from a deliberate choice by Turkey itself, not something forced on Ankara because the EU keeps on moving the goal posts.