Turkey at the crossroads

After the Obama visit Esen Uslu examines the various pressures on the AKP government

On April 7 Barack Obama visited the magnificent twin masterpieces of Istanbul’s past: the Santa Sophia Cathedral Museum and the Mosque of Sultan Ahmet, situated at opposite ends of the same square. Amid the empty talk about how the new US administration respects Islam as much as Christianity and admires Turkey, Obama has presented a long shopping list of demands to the Turkish government.

The AKP (Justice and Development Party) government, fresh from its victory in last month’s local elections, is really enjoying the attention being paid to it by the US. For that reason it did not seem too bothered about the shopping list which will give it plenty to think about over the coming months. In fact, decisions taken today on domestic and foreign affairs will actually set the agenda for Turkey for the coming years.

While the AKP was the overall winner of the local elections, it recorded a decline in the number of votes it received and lost a number of important mayoralties in the cities along Turkey’s south-west seaboard. Furthermore, it failed to get any mayor elected in any of the main Kurdish cities.

During the snap general election of 2007, the AKP received 46% of the vote. It boasted at the time that, “Every second person supports us!” Faced with the very real threat of a military coup, desperate voters had opted for the AKP in an election which had become a contest between bourgeois democracy plus membership of the European Union, on the one hand, and military rule with a civilian face plus isolation, on the other.

In the local elections the AKP vote was reduced to 39%. That figure is pretty much the same as what it got in 2004 and, considering everything, was not a bad result. However, it was a slap in the face for a leadership that had raised expectations with hopes of attaining the magic 50%.

The mayoralty results show the true extent of AKP losses. Although the party managed to hold Ankara and Istanbul, and won the mayor’s office in 45 principal cities, it failed to make any gains from the Kurdish DTP (Democratic Society Party). Worse still, it lost a number of mayoralties to the latter.

The DTP won around 30% of the vote in 14 eastern and south-eastern provinces, where it is now the second party behind the AKP, which won 40%. However, in Turkey as a whole its vote is only a little over 4% - well short of the 10% threshold needed for parliamentary representation. Nevertheless it cleared the board in the prized major cities - for example, it won Diyarbakir with 66% of the vote. In the Kurdish provinces it was the clear winner, and here all the other parties apart from the AKP have virtually disappeared.

All this must be viewed in the context of events before the elections. The AKP had used every governmental and state means at its disposal for the campaign. Prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan made an appearance in 45 provinces at so-called ‘inauguration ceremonies’ supposedly to mark the commissioning of municipal infrastructure facilities.

In addition the government suddenly decided to distribute poverty relief aid in the Kurdish provinces, as well as in the shanty towns around several cities. It introduced a scheme of cash payments for Kurdish women, distributed household items and handed out food parcels. Such bribery was unprecedented even in terms of Turkey’s dirty electioneering history.

Democratic Kurdish demands

Just before the local elections, the government took a new initiative to force PKK (Kurdish Workers Party) guerrillas to surrender their arms. It granted recognition to the Iraqi Kurdish Autonomous Region that had been consistently refused previously, and opened negotiations with Iraqi Kurdish leaders. With the assistance of the US it tried to strike a bargain with them in order to force the PKK’s hand.

Initial results seemed to indicate that the AKP government had managed to rekindle hopes of a ‘peaceful solution’ to the Turkey’s century-old ‘Kurdish problem’. The Iraqi Kurdish leaders have implied that a deal is in the making and the AKP even got a positive response from Abdullah Öcalan, the jailed PKK leader. The military actions of the guerrillas as well as the Turkish armed forces seemed to be reduced.

Following the visit of Iraqi president Jalal Talabani to Istanbul during the World Water Forum in mid-March, the president of the republic, Abdullah Gül, visited Baghdad, where he uttered the long-banned word, ‘Kurdistan’. The government opened a new front in the battle over cultural and language rights for Kurds by starting up a new Kurdish TV channel as part of the state broadcasting network.

With the US entering the phase of withdrawal from Iraq and looking to settle all the main issues there without being seen to give in to Iranian and Turkish demands, a pax Americana solution to the Kurdish question is much desired. It would entail the normalisation of relations between Iraqi Kurds and Turkey, as well as eliminating the PKK as a force engaged in armed struggle, thanks to the granting of limited cultural rights for Kurds. Against this background the government hoped to win support from religious sects and other forces with influence in the Kurdish provinces, as well as from moderate Kurdish nationalists.

However, the DTP victory in the local elections was a clear indication that the government’s ploy has not yet worked. Nevertheless, the neutralisation of the PKK is still a major item on Obama’s shopping list, as his speech naming the PKK as a terrorist organisation similar to al Qa’eda made very clear.

Economic crisis

The financial and economic crisis hit Turkey harder than it did many advanced capitalist countries. Initially, partially as a result of IMF funds the effects of the crisis did not seem very high. However, the export-oriented sectors such as textiles, ready-made clothing, the automobile manufacture and construction suffered greatly. Exports were reduced by 60% and lay-offs reached 54,000 workers in the Marmara region alone.

At first the government response was to claim that the crisis would pass Turkey by, but this was quickly exposed as wishful thinking. The government was forced to adopt a mini-intervention package. Combined with the government’s election bribery and reduced tax revenues, this caused public finances to go down the drain.

The government had clearly stated its intention not to strike a new standby agreement with the IMF after the last one lapsed in 2008. Despite the insistence of businessmen’s associations the government declined to open negotiations. However, in the end the AKP was forced to eat its words and opened 11th-hour talks with the IMF, which may well result in another standby deal.

This represents yet another slap in the face for the AKP government, but it is the only option available to maintain a semblance of order in the face of mounting opposition. Despite the fact that the left parties received less then one percent of the vote in the local elections, and the trade unions are utterly ineffective, the increasing anger within the working class is approaching the point where it will be difficult to control. Talk of making Kurdish Newroz and May Day public holidays has now stopped. All demonstrations have been banned in Taksim Square, including for May Day, although it was made available for a procession commemorating Police Day. It seems that May 1 in Istanbul will be critical.

Other items on the list

l The government has joined with the US and EU in seeking normalisation of Turkey’s relations with Armenia. Before his inauguration Obama had supported the demand of the Armenian diaspora for a bill declaring the mass slaughter of 1915 a genocide. But now he is in office Obama is faced with the need to make pragmatic decisions, and in his speech to the Turkish parliament he talked only about normalising relations between Turkey and Armenia through mutual understanding.

l The US administration has undertaken a new major initiative to bring Iran back into the ‘world community’ and the Turkish government has offered to act as mediator in the process. However, its hopes were quickly dashed when the Iranians publicly declared that they would not accept any go-between.

l The US administration has failed to win European Nato countries to commit extra troops to Afghanistan, so it is hoping Turkey can fill the breach. Although Turkish ‘peacekeeping’ forces are serving in Kabul, the military has declining the invitation to supply fighting troops. However, according to the dictum of a famous American, “Turkey’s only exportable item is its army” and the AKP government is about to enter negotiations with the military top brass with a view to  meeting Obama’s wishes.

That is certain to further increase tensions between the army and the AKP - already heightened as a result of the ongoing Ergenokon trial of a clutch of retired and serving officers accused of plotting a coup. Despite the tacit support of the top brass for the trying of would-be junta members and their henchmen, the AKP is very conscious that it must not overplay its hand.

A number of other foreign policy issues must be settled before meaningful progress can be made on Turkey’s membership of the EU - not least a resolution to the Cyprus question and other differences with Greece, but these are dependent on maintaining a positive relationship between the government and the army. Despite the apparent support of the Obama administration for Turkey’s application to join the European Union, support for Turkey is decreasing in the crisis-stricken EU itself, while at the same time the AKP’s appetite for further risky reforms is diminishing.

Many liberals and media pundits are advising the government to reinvigorate the process of reforms aiming at EU membership, rather than surrender to the introvert nationalism of the military and civilian bureaucracy. However, given the election results and the government’s reduced room for manoeuvre, any new move in that direction seems unlikely.