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Toward the Second Turkish Republic

HDN | 9/17/2010 12:00:00 AM | MUSTAFA AKYOL

Despite the challenges, Turkey is heading toward the abolition of the semi-democracy that the military and its allies in the judiciary have imposed since 1960

Last Sunday, 58 percent of the Turkish electorate said “yes” to constitutional amendments that would make Turkey a more democratic country – a view held by not just these Turks, but also EU observers. And, by that vote, they opened a new chapter in Turkish political history, which might, perhaps, lead the county into what some have called “the Second Republic.”

That term was coined in the 1990s by a group of liberal intellectuals who saw “the First Republic” (a.k.a. “Atatürk’s Republic”) problematic. This political system, these intellectuals argued, aimed at “modernizing” Turkey, but did this with very authoritarian methods. Besides, certain segments of society, such as conservative Muslims, Kurds and non-Muslims, were excluded by the state, and even defined as threats. The county needs a new political system, they argued, with a social contract based on liberty and equality.

[HH] Who needs change?

And people just laughed at those liberals. Such a colossal transformation looked like a silly dream then. In the early 90s, only Turgut Özal, the most liberal-minded leader the country has seen in the 20th century, was pushing for change. When he died in 1993, the Second Republicanists, as they had become known, lost their political hopes. Some of them founded a party called the New Democracy Movement in 1994, which got only 0.5 percent of the votes in the next year’s elections. Liberal ideas, some concluded, would never triumph in this country.

But that disappointment was based on a miscalculation: the naïve hope that liberalism as such, as an idealist intellectual vision, would find millions of followers. That is hardly the case in most countries, for most people care about their own problems rather than abstract political principles. The real question, therefore, was whether there were enough people in Turkey who would need liberal ideas for their own good.

The answer came in the new century: It was religious conservatives, who made at least one-third of society, that needed change, and thus supported the liberal agenda. This is what lies beneath the interesting story of the AKP, the incumbent Justice and Development Party. This “Islamic” party proved to be more dedicated to the EU cause than its secular rivals, because its Muslim base had suffered a lot under the status quo.

This is also the explanation for the famous alliance between the Muslim-minded AKP and the secular liberals. Most Kemalists, the self-declared “guardians” of the First Republic, believe that this alliance exists simply because the AKP bribes these intellectuals. The less conspiratorial truth is that the latter, who used to be a marginal movement, have found with the AKP, for the first time since Özal, a powerful party capable of realizing at least some of the reforms that they had been dreaming of. For most of them, the AKP is not a full glass, but a half-full one, which is better than the totally empty one that other political players present.

But is there any chance that a secular version of the AKP, in other words a reformist party without AKP’s religious bent, might arise? Well, that is what some people hope from Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu’s CHP, but I am not holding my breath. Because the base of this party simply lacks the incentive for any real change. Not only because their minds are frozen in their “golden age” (the 1920s and 30s, the era of Atatürk), but also that they have nothing to gain from a more democratic, egalitarian country.

That’s why Kılıçdaroğlu’s attempt to create a new vision for the CHP remains cosmetic. In other words, it comes from not a democratic push from his base, but, as he openly said, “to take all arguments of the AKP from its hands.”

[HH] Kurdish matters

The Kurds, on the other hand, are a more complex story. The more liberal or conservative minded among them are happy with AKP’s reforms and the “Kurdish opening” – they just want more of it. But nationalist Kurds, most of whom support the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, a terrorist group, are different. For they are interested not only in Turkey’s democratization, but more so in their own “nation-building” project, along with the political ambitions of the PKK.

So, these nationalist Kurds can turn out to be an obstacle to democratization – as they prove to be with their continued reliance on political violence, and the boycott they imposed on the Kurdish electorate in the Sept. 12 referendum last weekend. It was obvious that all Kurds who went to the ballots would vote “yes,” so the boycott only helped the “no” camp.

Despite such challenges, though, Turkey is heading toward the abolition of the semi-democracy that the military and its allies in the judiciary have imposed since 1960. A real democracy takes time to grow, of course, but the “civilian constitution” the AKP now promises for 2011 will be an important step. It might, one could say, even kick off the drive to the “Second Republic” that Turkey really needs.

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