In the centuries-old epic of Gilghamesh, which tells the legend of the Sumerian King of Uruk in Mesopotamia, the Wise Men of the Temple describe a truly “perfect game” as one in which everything constantly changes without one party weighing, on the scale, heavier than all the others. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is preparing for a critical political leap forward in the coming months, as his government has to tackle multiple issues of grave importance at the same time, both in the international arena and at home.
The country is facing crucial foreign policy challenges related to the successive political and economic developments in neighboring states and in Europe. Here, we observe the simultaneous rise of two political movements: the Left and the ultra-nationalists. Both are in protest and in reaction to the austerity measures that financial difficulties in several European markets have imposed on common people. On the Arab Street, on the other hand, we observe that the spring blossoms (of democracy) are quickly turning sour, being replaced by the painful awakening of the early optimists to the complex undercurrents of Arab societies, and the ethnic, religious and cultural internal strifes in these countries.
On the home front, the ruling party is walking the thin line between risking the full decomposition of the very political fabric of the Republic and elevating the country to a whole new level of political consciousness. The ethnic question, on the one hand, and the government’s overt roll-back of institutional pillars of the secular state, on the other, are planting the seeds of a deep crisis of national identity in Turkish society in the decades to come. The game appears to be only just starting for AKP, and it is only during the game’s progression that we will know if this is an orderly march forward or a random walk into an obscure future.
AKP has long viewed the European Union as a means to keep its political sphere of activities clear of non-cooperative, non-friendly actors, such as the military, and to expand its social reach for its political agenda. The EU, on the other hand, has rather enjoyed this position, actually playing into the hands of the government and helping it solidify its political and economic power base in the country. All this has taken place in the name of the greater purpose of democratization of the country. The result is that more journalists, academics, civilian and military bureaucrats and politicians than ever before in the history of the Republic are in currently in jail, either sentenced or detained. These people all have two things in common. The first is that all of them oppose or are claimed to oppose the policies of the current government; the second is that all of them are barred from practicing their professions freely and are thus being denied the means of their livelihood. The magnitude of the current government’s repressive practices is only comparable to those in the times of the military regimes that followed coups, and the current numbers well surpass the performance of the military regimes in the extraordinary periods of Turkey’s recent history.
In addition, the ruling party relentlessly continues to follow an agenda of legislative steps to curtail democratic rights and the aspirations of the people in a systematic way. One recent example was the bill that has just been passed (at midnight) to abolish the right of airline personnel to collective bargaining, and to strike in the public sector. The new legislation denies a certain segment of the labor force their natural rights that stem from domestic practices, as well as from international legal undertakings that Turkey is a party to in multilateral organizations, such as the International Labor Organization (ILO) and the like.
During May, the AKP government introduced the issue of abortion onto the political agenda. The AKP gave no signals before doing this of dissatisfaction with the current legal framework on this question, at least openly. Nor had it ever made any political statements for an alternative system on this issue during any of its election campaigns or on any other platforms. Nevertheless, starting with the prime minister himself, and followed by members of his cabinet, the government pulled public opinion sharply into the confines of a deeply emotional discussion on “the right to life vs. the right to choose.” We can understand from the statements coming from Erdogan’s party that this issue was not even a topic of discussion within the party ranks before it was made public. However, the government is now moving decisively to bring the issue to parliament for finalization before it goes into recess for the summer. The technicalities of the issue aside, the aim of the government is to expand its area of interference into the lives of individuals further, this time getting even closer to the deeply private areas of its citizens’ lives.
The question of ethnic separatism or autonomy (depending on how one looks at it) continues to be the fundamental determining question in the near-term political agenda of the country, today even more so than ever before. The issue is challenging the very foundations of the unitary state, as they have been laid out since the beginning of the Republic. It also continues to threaten the very livelihood of Turkish society as a modern and unified people with contemporary values of brotherhood, solidarity, and respect for individual liberties and the rule of law. The government appears to be deepening its efforts to secure as wide a support base as possible, with all the possible national, regional and international efforts put first and foremost a stop to the military arm of the conflict. The hope, here, is that once the violence is taken under control, there will be a greater prospect to institute a lasting solution to the ethnic question through other political, social and economic means. This approach, though one step short of being naive, is certainly a positive and optimistic way of addressing the problem. However, it does not address the status, the role and the future of the “armed struggle” in the conflict. In fact, it apparently leaves this aspect to the arbitration and reconciliation efforts of the friends and allies in the region.
The uncertainty here is critical. Unless the element of armed violence within the country is addressed properly with parties inside the country and the representatives of the people at the local level, a “home made” solution to the problem does not appear to be a likely outcome. As such, considering where the support for this approach is coming from at the local and regional levels, it is clear that the approval of the international community is being actively sought with regard to the terms of any prospective solution. The government expects that an internationally-endorsed scheme of resolution and support is probably a pre-condition for the viability of any solutions in this area.
The government is well aware of the political implications of both the “home-made” and “international” models in dealing with the ethnic question in the country. They are also aware of the implications of not addressing the issue in a comprehensive and multi-dimensional way, as opposed to dealing with it only as a question of internal security. Therefore, the government is striving to present the issue as a national question, a by-partisan issue to be resolved on a broad platform of societal consensus. The government views this approach as a burden-sharing mechanism, shared by all parties in parliament, as well as by all other political entities outside the parliament. How realistic is the expectation for this “uneasy coalition?” The quick answer would not be positive. Then again, considering the far-reaching stakes involved, it would not be surprising to see a series of political developments – not originally envisaged before either in or outside the country – triggering political structures of collaborative action among various political actors, who had earlier refrained from engaging in these processes.
The foreign policy challenges that lie ahead of the country should not be viewed as being independent of these domestic developments and challenges. The rising popularity of the Left on the electoral plane opens up new opportunities for Turkey in dealing with its domestic political, social and economic issues. Both Europe and the U.S. are rapidly moving away from contractionary economic and financial policies in favor of ones that should promote economic growth, with a certain level of fiscal discipline. The preference for economic growth over fiscal contraction would inevitably mean expansionary monetary policies, relaxing AKP’s hand to deal with issues of current account deficit and growth. On the other hand, the rise of the Left is also coupled with a rise in the political extremism of the Right in all developed markets, bringing Turkey’s newly emerging conservatism into direct conflict with the most militant segments of these countries. Sectarian militancy in neighboring countries is also threatening the sustainability of the moderate elements in Turkey’s new conservatism, creating the real possibility of modern, non-secular political tendencies quickly giving way to religious-based radicalism in Turkish politics.
Yes, the Wise Men of the Temple describe a truly “perfect game” as one in which everything constantly changes without one party weighing, on the scale, heavier than “all the others.” They also admit that often someone with the false notion of weighing heavier than the others would come, thinking he/she would “win” but destory everything instead. Today, enjoying the substantial support of the electorate, AKP has stepped into the political scene with important responsibilities. The government has a political mandate with unprecedented popular backing and policy challenges on its political agenda that were previously unattended and untested. AKP’s candor in managing the constantly changing and evolving conditions of the political game in Turkey will determine whether or not the country will be elevated to a new of level of international recognition.