Tuesday, July 24, 2007

All quiet on the Turkish front

The general election was not a plebiscite on religion. For most Turks it was about the economy.
reposted from guardian

July 23, 2007 8:00 PM | Printable version

Nothing changes the mood as swiftly as a decisive general election. On Sunday morning, I sat in an Ankara coffee house in Ulus, the poorer district of town, listening to a group of people, from the central Anatolian provincial towns, telling me that this was the quietest election that there had ever been in Turkey and there didn't seem to be any big issues in it. What they said made the frenetic reporting in the world media about a crisis sound more than a little strange. In particular, I rubbed my eyes at Barry Rubin's over-the-top suggestion that this was Turkey's "most important political event since the Republic was founded".

Commentators like Professor Rubin in the US, (which has clearly decided "mild Islamism" in Turkey is good for its interests) assume that the elections were a plebiscite on religion. Perhaps they were for sophisticated folk. But to ordinary people on the ground in Turkey, I suspect that this was a "you've never had it so good" election and the prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, reaped a rightful reward for four and a half years of effective management of the economy.

As for seeing Ataturk's secular state crumble to dust, well, strange to report, even many of the AKP opponents were in near-euphoria today and can extract some comfort from the results. Some of the blockages in the democratic system have been given a good shaking.

Social democrats and the centre-left who have been chafing at the way in which Turkey's main opposition party, the Republican Peoples Party (CHP), has been run in the last five years, are also pleased. The CHP ignored political freedoms, supported keeping Article 301 which makes it possible to prosecute dissenters who "insult Turkishness", and had a narrow and cliquish leadership which ignored its own grass roots. Many of those who braced themselves to vote for the CHP despite all that because they felt they had no alternative, are now quietly jubilant.

But as yet there is no sign that the CHP leader, Deniz Baykal, who holds the party in an iron grip, will do what most of his own voters seem to want and throw in the towel. The ultra-right Nationalist Action Party, whom Baykal seemed to be steering towards an alliance with, got back into parliament but with less than 15% of the vote, a very disappointing performance.

Equally, the Kurds got in. By standing as independents, and so getting around the requirement (upheld in the European courts) that a party must win 10% of the national vote to get into parliament, 24 Kurds were elected to form a group of the fairly hardline pro-Kurdish Democratic Society Party in the assembly. Many people today seem to think that could be a healthy development.

The Turkish stock exchange, which already reached record heights this summer taking no notice of the crisis reports, soared to stratospheric levels today.

Time will tell whether this optimism is misplaced. Economically at least, Turkey looks set for continued strong growth and more prosperity. But is this the end of Ataturk's Turkey and Turkish secularism as Rubin's claims? Most Turks would say not. Things move more gradually than that. Turkey has already come a long way since Ataturk and his successors ruled.

Today's debate largely depends on what you think secularism means. The issue is not just headscarves. Anyone who lives in Turkey knows that religion is a vastly more powerful force than Christianity is in western countries. One reason for this is not faith but cash.Turkey already gives its main religion much more access to taxpayers' money than most western countries. The official Sunni Islamic clergy, whose faithful make up around 80% of the population, have an exclusive government budget of about £800 million in 2007, bigger than the Turkish Ministry of the Interior or about eight other ministries. Clergy funding has climbed ever higher in recent years. Sunni Muslim religious instruction was made compulsory (by the military actually) in Turkish schools more than a quarter of a century ago. The number of students in Islamic clergy training schools has nearly doubled in the last five years and seems to be just under two million.

This hardly adds up to persecution by most people's standards or what Rubin implies is a refusal to embrace the country's "traditional and religious heritage." The question we ought to be asking is how much more powerful will official religion become in Turkey and at what point, if any, should we start to grow alarmed.

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