BLOG: Polarized elections show why we need peace studies

BLOG: Polarized elections show why we need peace studies

Zeki Ergas
The municipal elections are over. The Justice and Development Party (AKP) has won. It is quite a big victory, with more than 45.5 percent of the vote, but probably not a landslide. It is relevant that the result is much higher than the previous municipal elections four years ago, when the AKP won close to 39 per cent of the vote. Normally, municipal elections are far less important than parliamentary elections, which are scheduled for 2015. Before that, in August this year, presidential elections will be held. But, these were not normal municipal elections. They were widely seen as a confidence vote for Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s leadership. The prime minister claims he has received a referendum from the Turkish people. That may not be entirely true since more than half of the Turkish electorate has voted against him.  So now what?   

Ever since the Gezi Park demonstrations, and the police’s brutal suppression of it, Turkish politics have been shaken to the core by a number of corruption scandals, the bitter personal rivalry between Erdoğan and Fethullah Gülen, the Turkish scholar who leads the Cemaat (Community), or  Hizmet (Service) organization, which has inspired the creation of an international network of schools, and other academic institutions whose purpose is to prepare secondary school pupils for the entry examinations to university. The ideology, or philosophy, behind the Gülen system, a liberal and business-friendly one, appears to be the wish to show the world that Islam and democracy, Islam and modernization, and even, Islam and Western liberal civilization, are compatible. To be sure, it is a worthwhile goal. But, there is a major problem: the organization appears to have penetrated the Turkish state institutions of the judiciary and police, becoming a state within a state, and competing thus with the legitimate and elected government of Turkey. It also appears that, at some point, probably after the Gezi Park events, if not earlier, Gülen, deciding Erdoğan, an authoritarian and seemingly corrupt leader, had to go, to be replaced, possibly, by Abdullah Gül, the current president.
There are many important problems in contemporary Turkey: the economic inequality that keeps growing, the relative weakness of civil society, minority rights, and a limited freedom of expression. But, I believe, however, that Turkey’s biggest problem presently is the extreme polarization of its people, which is divided between those who support Erdoğan and the AKP, and those who don’t. There are obviously many elements in that polarization: secularism versus religion, the rise of a new Anatolian business and political elite, the weakening of the old Kemalist bureaucratic elite, authoritarianism versus democracy, and so on. Unfortunately, the animosity and hostility, and even hatred between these two very large groups has reached an unbearable peak.   

It must be noted, however, that this polarization is not an exclusively Turkish phenomenon. It also exists in the United States, for example, to a significant extent. Actually, the current American president, Barack Obama, became famous when, in 2004, at the Democratic Party’s National Convention in Chicago, a simple junior senator of the state of Illinois then, made a speech that struck the American patriotic imagination. There are no Red (that is, Republican) or Blue (or Democratic) states, he said, but only the United States of America. Somebody should make a similar speech in Turkey, and say: The AKP or People’s Republican Party (CHP), Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) or Peace and Democracy (BDP) voters are all Turkish citizens who love their country, and should resolve their differences peacefully. That said, the reality of the Red and the Blue states remains in America, and the last presidential election in 2012 was decided in a dozen or so “battleground” states. But, despite that hard, even harsh, reality, there is a constant struggle in the United States to try to unite the American people.

Let us try to do the same for Turkey. And this is where Hacettepe University’s Master’s Program of Peace and Conflict Studies, comes in. The Program seeks solutions to the problems described in the previous paragraph. These solutions require relevant knowledge whose various aspects are taught by scholars and experts in many related fields. To name but a few, courses are taught in: Research Methodologies, Nonviolence and Civil Society, the Political Economy of Conflicts, Peace and Literature, Leadership for Peace, Applied Conflict Analysis, Ethics in peace and Conflict Studies, Democracy and Global Governance, Spirituality and Peace, and so on. Students learn from them bargaining techniques, the conditions for successful negotiations, the give and take, making concessions, compromising, and finding common ground. The program is international, and the students, who come from all over the world, live together for two full semesters. That creates a close relationship that is very conducive to a state of mind that is very consonant with the idea of the peaceful resolution of conflicts. Finally, under the supervision of the relevant professors, the students have a year to write their Master’s thesis. This is certainly a very valuable and timely program that should be supported fully by the government, the business community and civil society.   

* Dr. Zeki Ergas, a novelist, political economist, and a former teacher at UC, Berkeley and Georgetown University, is the Secretary General of Suisse Romande’s (French-speaking Switzerland) P.E.N. Center. He is also a leading member of P.E.N. International’s Writers for Peace Committee.