The Talk of Turkey

Stephen O’Shea on the outcome of the election

One sunny afternoon last month I sat drinking a glass of tea in the office of a functionary in Mus, a market town in eastern Anatolia known for producing sugar beets, tobacco and violence. In the 1980s and 1990s, the Turkish Army put down an insurgency in the area, killing tens of thousands of people, most of whom believed eastern Anatolia should be labelled western Kurdistan. During the First World War hundreds of thousands of locals from the region were sent on death marches northwards to Mount Ararat and beyond, their dreams of a greater Armenia dashed by the new Turkish nationalism. Leaders intent on murderous mischief – Alexander, Xenophon, Xerxes and their successors – had always seemed to pass this way, perhaps contributing to the reputation of Mus among Turks as a backwater best left undisturbed. A famous Ottoman song has sorrowful soldiers trudging up the ‘steep road’ to Mus, and never coming back. On my return to Istanbul, I heard it sung on two separate occasions by big-city acquaintances who, after expressing great amusement at the thought of anyone spending a weekend in Mus, felt compelled to give me their rendition.

The functionary nodded in resignation as he heard that I, too, had come to pick over the region’s violent past. Seventy miles from Mus lay my destination, the plain of Malazgirt, or Manzikert, where in 1071 the Seljuk chieftain Alp Arslan had cut to pieces a Byzantine army sent out to secure the Empire’s borders. After the battle, Anatolia (or Asia Minor), which had been Greek and Christian, became Turkish and Muslim. More tea was poured and arrangements made, and I glanced above my host’s head at the photograph of Kemal Atatürk fixed to a bulletin board. Likenesses of Atatürk are everywhere in Turkey, on banknotes and dashboards, in restaurants, bars, stores, hammams, hotels and offices, but this portrait was startlingly rakish.

Our talk came to an end when a group of middle-aged men in shiny suits burst in, all of them sporting carefully trimmed, crescent-shaped moustaches and the glossy, tanned complexions seen on political smoothies everywhere. After a round of perfunctory handshakes they left as quickly as they had come, and as we, too, headed for the door, the functionary traced an imaginary moustache above his upper lip, his forefinger and thumb exaggerating the points of the crescent on either side of his mouth. He nodded significantly towards the politicians and said, in a low voice: ‘Alp Arslan.’

Outside on the main street of Mus his meaning became clearer. What had been a dusty and deserted road was now lined by white Toyota minivans. Pictures of the politicians we had just met grinned from posters and banners plastered everywhere. They were members of the MHP (Nationalist Action Party), an ultranationalist grouping that likes to evoke the pre-Ottoman, pre-cosmopolitan days when Turks rode the range alone. Their leader in the 1970s, an Army putschist turned deputy prime minister, was generally thought to be complicit with the Grey Wolves, a right-wing death squad. His name was – what else? – Alparslan Türkes. Many of the MHP’s present-day opponents remember all this, but a brush with respectability in the past few years, during which nationalists formed part of Bülent Ecevit’s coalition Government, briefly gave extremists hope that in this year’s election their Europhobic corporatism might strike a chord among the voters.

Despite their impressive motorcade, the MHP looked like losers in Mus. For one thing, many of the townspeople are Kurds, a word an ultranationalist can hardly bring himself to say – the preferred evasion is ‘mountain Turk’. For another, many Kurds feel no affinity for the Atatürk tradition, either in its nationalist or its secularist form. On the other side of the road a second Mitsubishi-Toyota motorcade idled its engines, this one festooned with pictures of men with impeccably sculpted topiary on their chins and cheeks, a sign of their allegiance to the Happiness Party, the more religious of the two Islamic parties in Turkey. The Party reveres the legacy of Necmettin Erbakan, the pious Prime Minister whose state visits to Libya and Iran and talk of jihad against Jerusalem led to his being eased out of power by the Army in 1997 – the Turks, who are connoisseurs in such matters, refer to this as the ‘Postmodern coup’. The bearded Happiness supporters, in prayer caps and loose-fitting robes, stood in brooding silence as we set out from the moustachioed nationalist camp. Like the rest of Turkey, I paused in the middle, between the two extremes.

There were 18 parties contesting the election on 3 November; all 550 seats in the Parliament were up for grabs. Under the Turkish Constitution only parties polling more than 10 per cent nationwide can take seats in Parliament; as a result, 16 of the 18 parties, who together attracted 45 per cent of the vote, are unrepresented. In the months leading up to the election, the secular parties had made no imaginative response to the severe economic crisis afflicting the country, the worst since the Second World War. ‘If our country wants to progress,’ an Istanbul academic said to me, ‘the politicians should all be trussed up in sacks and thrown in the Bosphorus.’

In the spring of 2001 Turkey went into an Argentinian death spiral, thanks to a combination of mismanagement, vulture capitalism and a system of political corruption characterised both by archaic pasha hand-outs and complex corporate embezzlement. Politicians merely intensified the crisis with their irresponsible banking policies and blatant cronyism. Tansu Ciller, former Prime Minister and cover girl for Turkey’s modernity, is said by some to be the politician who has amassed most wealth from the bubble of the 1990s. But most other mainstream politicos behaved in much the same way.

In February 2001, on the day before the Turkish lira started its slide (it lost more than half its value in a matter of weeks), the main concern of the political class was whether the President, Ahmet Necdet Sezer, had really thrown a copy of the Constitution in the Prime Minister’s face during a Cabinet meeting. As the economy nosedived – GDP fell by 10 per cent, two million jobs were lost and thousands of businesses closed – Bülent Ecevit, a social democrat who had made his reputation by standing up to the Greek Colonels over Cyprus in the 1970s, indulged in useless political squabbling. To find a way out of the mess, a World Bank mandarin, Kemal Dervis, was eventually entreated by Ecevit to leave Washington to become über-finance minister. He promptly secured a $16 billion bail-out from the IMF (Turkey is, unenviably, that organisation’s biggest debtor country) under the customary draconian conditions. For much of the first half of this year, Dervis struggled to bring the annual inflation rate down to 35 per cent and to restore investor confidence so that the repayment schedule could be met, but just days before a crucial meeting with EU ministers in the spring, Ecevit fell suddenly and mysteriously ill. The early summer passed in a wan replay of the last days of Tito or Franco, as Ecevit’s 79-year-old wife, Rahsan, kept journalists and Cabinet ministers away from their house in Ankara, not even allowing notes to be passed to her husband. The future of Turkey in the EU, the devastation of its economy, the country’s pivotal role in the Middle East – all that would have to wait until he got better.

The Prime Minister’s successful imitation of the sick man of Europe led to defections from the governing coalition and from his own Party (which polled less than 2 per cent in the November election). One of the first to quit was Ismaïl Cem, the Foreign Minister, a respected intellectual whose warm relations with George Papandreou, his Greek counterpart, led to the remarkable rapprochement between the two Aegean neighbours. Cem was quickly followed by Kemal Dervis, the guarantor of Turkey’s international credit line.

In the confusion following their departure, Ecevit’s erstwhile coalition allies rammed a resolution calling for elections through Parliament, notwithstanding the objections of many incumbents who realised that the electorate was in the mood to punish them. Lawsuits, constitutional challenges and other delaying tactics were launched, offering the spectacle of a system entirely caught up in gamesmanship – a group of politicians whose names had not been placed high enough on their parties’ electoral lists were still trying in October to scuttle the elections. Most disheartening was the failure of the ‘modern’, uncorrupted politicians to establish the new political bloc ardently desired by secular Turks. The two great hopes of this new breed, Cem and Dervis, would not join forces, for reasons that may never become clear. Cem headed out into the wilderness with a small new fringe party; Dervis joined the CHP (Republican People’s Party), a social democrat grouping descended from the party of Atatürk, one of the last remnants of Turkey’s secular probity.

I briefly encountered – or heckled – Dervis while he was touring the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul in mid-October. A tarantula of boom mikes and cameras advanced down the main avenue of the bazaar, and when it drew abreast I called out: ‘Mr Dervis! Do you think any of the merchants here could teach the IMF a lesson?’ There came a laugh, a lightning handshake and then the good-humoured reply: ‘Yes, of course they could! They could teach the IMF a lot!’ At that, Dervis disappeared into a goldsmith’s shop, followed by the media scrum. After he was gone I visited the goldsmith, an ancient Armenian who had hung photos of politicians on the walls. What had he said to Dervis? ‘I told him that the country was a mess. That we couldn’t stand it any more, that there would be a revolution.’

The threat was hyperbole, but only just. Although Dervis’s CHP did well enough to get into Parliament, thanks largely to his reassuring presence, it picked up only 20 per cent of the vote. The only other party to clear the 10 per cent hurdle was the runaway winner: the populist Justice and Development (AK) Party, which got 35 per cent and a clear majority of seats (363 out of 550). The cleverly named AK – ak in Turkish means ‘white’, as in ‘blameless’ and ‘pure’ – played on the chaos of the recent past to argue that Turkey needed a new type of government. AK is the successor of Necmettin Erbakan’s outlawed Welfare Party and, like it, a Muslim grouping. The Happiness Party, glimpsed in Mus, is the other offspring of Welfare, but its more extreme religious politics are less popular, at least for the moment.

As the first party of Muslim democrats to take power in the West (and perhaps the East), AK abounds in novelties. In a republic that has had policies imposed from above since its creation by Atatürk in 1923, AK appears to be something different: a grass-roots, ward-boss political machine, which provides social and welfare services through mosques and community centres. Turkish workers have an average monthly wage of only about $200, and they need all the help they can get. The leader of AK, 48-year-old Recep Tayyip Erdoggan, isn’t the holder of a fancy European or American diploma, as many Turkish leaders are; he isn’t even an MP. He cannot become prime minister, at least for now, because he was banned from holding public office by a Constitutional Court that jailed him for a few months in 1999 on a charge of inciting religious hatred. The cause of this ludicrous conviction was his public recitation of a verse by the Kemalist-era poet Ziya Gokalp that contained Islamist boilerplate about minarets being bayonets and the like. Erdoggan’s background is unusual for a Turkish politician: born in the tough Kasimpasa quarter of Istanbul, he rose to prominence in Islamist political circles and served a successful four-year term (1994-98) as mayor of his native city – Europe’s most populous and, arguably, its most unmanageable. With his Istanbul power base and his populist instincts, Erdoggan is a force to be reckoned with.

The matter of his future is the talk of Turkey. What’s being debated is not just his official position – will he be PM, éminence grise or toothless outcast? – but also the role he might play in reshaping the place of religion in Turkish society. Turkey’s official policy of secularism, unlike that of other nations with overwhelming Muslim majorities, is fundamentalist, or at least French, in its severity. An observant Muslim woman in a headscarf is not allowed to be a civil servant or to attend university unless she uncovers her head; a woman MP was recently expelled from Parliament for trying to enter the chamber wearing a scarf. (Then again, Turkish women got the vote almost two decades before their French counterparts.) The general mistrust of what is seen as the retrograde influence of Islamic custom, an attitude dating back to the Kemalist social revolution and the abolition of the caliphate, isn’t shared by Erdoggan. Although he and his acolytes behaved like boy scouts of the Enlightenment during the election campaign (no trace of Islamic green on AK’s blue and yellow banners), Erdoggan has consistently shown an ability to play to the Friday prayer crowds. During his mayoralty, alcohol disappeared from municipal functions and covered women began appearing in city offices. When he sees his daughters off at the airport for their return to American universities, the girls proudly wear the headscarf, as if to suggest that pious women can be free only abroad. Perhaps more significantly, he once agreed that democracy is like a tram: he’s willing to ride it to get where he wants to go, but then he’ll get off.

Should Turks be worried? Ege Cansen, an economist who writes the influential ‘Rules of the Game’ column for Hürriyet, Turkey’s biggest daily newspaper, told me that people shouldn’t worry too much. ‘In Islam there is a notion called takiye, where you can deny your religion if you really need to. People accuse Islamist parties of takiye in politics, but when you play a role for a long time, what is your true nature? If you play at being a policeman for thirty years, knowing that inside you’re an artist, don’t you end up being a policeman all the same?’ In Cansen’s view, religious Turks defend democracy for purely pragmatic reasons, but may become democratic in the process. The reasons for pragmatism are obvious: it is only through the democratic process that religious Muslims can take power in Ankara, and it is only by preserving the democratic process that they will be allowed to remain in power.

The missing factor in all this is the Turkish Army. The second largest in Nato, with its own sources of revenue, most notably the OYAK conglomerate that manages its pension funds, as well as a generous budget allocation from the Government, the Armed Forces have been a ‘modern’ institution since the 18th century, when the sultans brought in Europeans in an attempt to improve the Army’s performance. Westernised long before civil society, the Army nonetheless retains a Janissary instinct, which has led it to interfere in the processes of government and, at times, to dictate policy. There were Army interventions, either muscular or well-mannered, in 1960, 1971, 1980 and 1997, the last ushering out Erdoggan’s political progenitor. Will the Army stand aside this time, despite the fact that the AK is a potential blasphemer at its altar of secularism?

Still more problematic is the reaction of what wary Turks call the derin devlet, the ‘deep state’. This shadowy group of covert police and Army operatives – under orders from God knows who – was thought merely a paranoid fantasy until, six years to the day before this election, a road accident in Susurluk, near the Sea of Marmara, brought some of its operations into the open. There were four people in the Mercedes sedan that rammed a truck from behind at Susurluk on 3 November 1996: a senior police commander and counterterrorism supremo, a pro-Ankara Kurdish politician, a right-wing terrorist turned drug and arms smuggler, and a beauty queen. This unlikely quartet, three of whom died on the spot, was in possession of a cache of arms, considerable amounts of money and a Turkish diplomatic passport for the terrorist. In the press furor that followed – and the thorough but ineffective official investigation – it came out that not only had there been state involvement in the thousands of political killings carried out during Turkey’s anarchic 1970s by the Grey Wolves and other extremist groups, but also that the Kurdish mafia, which was instrumental in funding Abdullah Öcalan’s Kurdish insurgency in the 1980s and 1990s, had been co-operating with secret state operatives in exchange for a free hand in its drug, arms and gambling enterprises. It was also alleged that those responsible for the influx into Turkey of Eastern European prostitutes, known popularly as ‘natashas’, may have contributed to the coffers and leverage of the deep state. At nine o’clock every evening for months after the accident, millions of Turks banged on pots and pans and flickered the lights in their apartments to demand transparency from their rulers. There was no official response to these demonstrations, but the hapless truck driver was sent to jail.

Attempts to ban the party, on the specious grounds that its leader is a jail-bird, appear to have petered out in the wake of its victory. The traditional political parties may be in disarray, but many of their institutional appendages continue to function. Whether Erdoggan will one day face the wrath of the Army or the ‘deep state’ depends in large measure on his actions. The immediate problems facing the Government – the economy, Cyprus, EU candidacy, Anglo-American belligerency in the region, a future Kurdistan in Iraq – may by their very magnitude reduce the opportunity for domestic funny business. Erdoggan has already faced questions on how an urchin-turned-tribune like himself has managed to amass such a tidy fortune over the past few years. And many people are wondering whether the AK will drink from the public trough as enthusiastically as its predecessors. Long after the motorcades had pulled out of Mus, I asked a kindly-looking old Kurd with an AK banner (a picture of a lightbulb) hanging from the dashboard what he thought about all this. He smiled at my innocence, and said of Erdoggan’s patronage prospects: ‘Every prophet must pray for his own people.’