A few years ago, in the good old days of Tony Blair, I was the Labour Party’s link man with sister parties across the world; particularly Turkey. I learned about the politics of Turkey by meeting with most of the senior players there on a regular basis. And while my main interest in Turkey today revolves around the Kurds, it seems to me that there are some important factors missing from much of the reportage around the Istanbul protests.
Turkey’s ‘establishment’ is the opposite from the UK’s. It’s based on Kemal Ataturk’s remarkable secularist constitution which the judiciary, military and so on guard jealously. The Labour Party’s ‘sister party’ the CHP, is part of that establishment. For years it held power, not gently, by being prepared to accept the establishment’s writ. When it didn’t, there’d be another coup. I found the CHP to be hopeless, uninterested in engaging in serious debate or of organising to win elections. Its opposition style was to support the establishment whenever it made attacks on the AKP government. As recently as 2007, serious attempts were made by the judiciary to prevent Adbullah Gul from taking up his elected role as President – the CHP backed it all up.
The AKP, on the other hand, a mild-Islamicist party in a wholly democratic and secular state, I found to be open-minded and progressive. Prime Mininster Erdogan was busy harmonising Turkey’s laws to fit EU legislation while growing the Turkish economy with great success. The AKP had (and has) enormous support within Turkey, from the rural areas to the business community. The CHP had the trades unions and other interests understandably bought into the secular nature of Turkey, but in some cases also bought heavily into the establishment. The latter’s important. The Turkish establishment, of which the AKP isn’t a part, is today ultimately regressive not progressive.
Turkey’s made enormous progress under a hugely popular ‘AK Party’. But as former UK Foreign Secretary Jack Straw writes (Times, paywall), some European states led by France have railed against Turkey’s entrance to the EU and that’s led to much disillusionment with the EU in Turkey. Turkey would be Europe’s second largest nation – they don’t want to sneak in by the back door. We’re lecturing them now on high stands of European democracy (like Germany’s treatment of gastarbeiters?), but we’ve been buggering them around for years over joining Europe.
From a UK perspective, there’s a difficulty at the moment of course. Some journalists have cack-handedly been banged up and the response by the Police to the protests has been way over-the-top (here’s our Police’s clashes with G8 protestors today, by the way). Young, articulate, English-speaking protestors don’t like the AKP. They’re worried about ‘Islamist’ legislation.
Hmmm. Well, one early piece of ‘Islamicist’ legislation was removing the ban on headscarves in universities – the military made a threatening statement about that one, supported by the CHP. There’s also been new alcohol licensing laws which remain more liberal that the UK’s. I don’t doubt the AKP plays to the gallery a bit, but there’s no risk whatever of Turkey turning the clock back on democracy or of becoming a non-secular state. The simple fact is when the alternative is regressive establishmentarianism, middle-class protestors have to do a bit better than howl inconsistent protest lines about the government in front of the world’s media.
The harsh reality is that the protests seem at least in part a function of the failure of the young, articulate folk who are protesting to help put a serious alternative platform for government together. Maybe that’s just too hard work and takes, you know, like, just too long. While, for example, the CHP has improved under a decent new leader whom I met recently (it took 20% of the vote in 2011, against the AKP’s 46%), it’s still unpopular and has no prospect of returning to government any time soon.
And the trouble for those who’d superimpose a British model of democracy on the Turks is that the Turks might just have had enough of us telling them how to organise themselves. Turkey is a democracy whose elections are as fair and free as ours. 99% of Turks are Muslim yet it’s a secular state. Hosing down and spraying CS gas on protestors isn’t very nice and the AKP government needs to calm down the cops. But Turkey’s progress over the last dozen years, under the present government, has been remarkable. We could do with showing Turks a bit more respect.