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Turkey at the crossroads

In the referendum on 16 April, Turkey will vote on whether to change its parliamentary political system to a presidential one. A look at two books that explain how the nation got to where it is today

The referendum is about transforming Turkey’s parliamentary political system into a presidential one. A ‘yes’ vote would abolish the post of prime minister, with the president assuming the powers of that office. Photo: AP
The referendum is about transforming Turkey’s parliamentary political system into a presidential one. A ‘yes’ vote would abolish the post of prime minister, with the president assuming the powers of that office. Photo: AP

On 16 April, the people of Turkey will vote in a referendum on a package of constitutional amendments passed by the Turkish parliament earlier this year. In essence, the referendum is about transforming Turkey’s parliamentary political system into a presidential one. A ‘yes’ vote would abolish the post of prime minister, with the president assuming the powers of that office. Further, it would give the presidency authority over all executive institutions, including the military, and the power to make key judicial appointments without parliamentary review.

The man set to amass these unprecedented powers is the current President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the most important political leader the country has seen since its founder, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. The presidential referendum comes at a crucial time for Turkey. The country is witnessing an erosion of democratic institutions, an assault on the free press, and a resumption in the Kurdish conflict that had for decades enflamed the country’s south-east. Following a coup attempt in July 2016, the country has also been under emergency rule, which only highlights the oppressive political environment in which the vote will take place.

Under the Shadow Rage and Revolution in Modern Turkey.

For those looking for a nuanced and informed take on Turkey’s recent politics, two recent books, The New Turkey and its Discontents by Simon A. Waldman and Emre Caliskan (Hurst), and Under the Shadow: Rage and Revolution in Modern Turkey by Kaya Genc (I.B. Taurus), will be of particular interest.

The headlines coming out of Turkey today are certainly at odds with the popular image of the country as a secular, democratic safe haven in the Middle East. When Erdogan’s Islamist Justice and Development Party (AKP) first came to power in 2002 (it is still the party of government and Erdogan himself served as the country’s prime minister from 2003-2014 before term limits made him take on the presidency and push for a presidential system of government), its template of success was lauded as an example for other Muslim-majority countries to follow. The AKP pursued free-market economics and a pragmatic religious conservatism that appealed to the country’s Muslim majority while functioning within the secular-democratic framework. The party’s initial vigorous pursuit of European Union accession, its efforts to curtail the role of the military (responsible for three successful coups roughly every decade since 1960 and a ‘post-modern’ coup via a military memorandum in 1997) in politics, and the expansion of cultural rights for the Kurds won it liberal supporters as well. But critics, especially staunchly secular Turks, argued that the AKP was only paying lip-service to democracy and secularism. Frequently citing an infamous statement Erdogan made early in his career that democracy was like a train from which you disembark when you reach your destination, they feared an eventual destruction of Ataturk’s secular republic.

The New Turkey and its Discontents

The authoritarianism that has gripped Turkey today seems to provide vindication for those early critics. Turkey is now increasingly seen as yet another example of Islamic politics being incompatible with democracy. This is, however, lazy analysis and ignores the nature and tenor of politics in Turkey which shaped both the rise of the AKP and its actions during its very long tenure in power.

The New Turkey and its Discontents is an excellent primer on how Turkey got to where it is today. Working forward from the coup of 1980, the book analyses the changes in Turkey’s politics, including the role of the military, the rise of the AKP, the ebbs and flows of the Kurdish peace process, Turkey’s foreign policy and its increasing majoritarian. The book is particularly valuable for raising the importance—one not nearly stressed enough in English writing on Turkey—of the military coup of 12 September 1980 and challenging the notion of the military as a guardian of this secular modernity. The run-up to the 1980 coup was marked by urban violence between right-wing nationalists and left-wing militias, which almost threatened to break into civil war. The post-coup government headed by General Kenan Evren (who was the son of an imam, a Kemalist and die-hard anti-communist) realized that it needed to refashion the ideological foundations for state identity and settled on the ideology of ‘Turkish-Islamic synthesis’. It was a smart move because one of the key contradictions of Turkish national identity in Ataturk’s republic meant that while religion was seen as a backward notion, one had to be born a Muslim in order to be a ‘Turk’. As the authors note, this promotion of religious values and conservative nationalism paved the way for the acceptance of Islam in the political sphere, and thus set the stage for the foundation of a party like the AKP. The chapters on the rise of the AKP and Erdogan provide a great summary on how the party has won and retained power by building a successful patchwork of alliances and achieving economic successes such as trebling the GDP, reducing inflation, and increasing the overall social security net. At the same time, these chapters also highlight how that rise is now threatened by a rift in those alliances (most importantly, with the secretive, Islamic Gulen movement) and the actions of a leader who has put himself first and is threating the internal workings of a party that has historically produced a strong cadre of leaders.

Under the Shadow: Rage and Revolution in Modern Turkey brings to life some of these changes and tensions in Turkey by personalizing them through the portraits of young Turks from across the political spectrum who have come of age in Erdogan’s Turkey. Genc conducted these interviews in 2014 and 2015, a time of great polarization in Turkey amongst pro and anti-Erdogan supporters and the book uses the anti-government Gezi Park protests as its central event. The profiles unfold slowly and Genc is clever in showing the influences and contradictions that make up each young Turk. It’s not just the Gezi protests that are viewed through the multiple perspectives, but even other politically charged and emotive issues such as the head-scarf ban. Perhaps most interestingly, Genc draws parallels amongst protagonists and the Young Turk and Young Ottoman movements of more than a century ago. These movements were active in what we now know to be the last decades of the Ottoman Empire and were involved in intense discussions about the notions of modernization, westernization, liberalism, secularism, Islamism and their importance to the Empire’s survival. As Genc points out, young activists came in all shades during the end of the Empire and a similar variety is reflected in his interviewees. Genc’s book doesn’t provide any grand theories, but lingering snapshots of the many contradictory tensions and strains of intellectualism that also define Turkey today.

Vedica Kant is the author of ‘If I Die Here,Who Will Remember Me? India and the First World War’.

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