Turkish Republic at a crossroads on its 90th birthday

Turkish Republic at a crossroads on its 90th birthday

Turkey is celebrating its 90th birthday today, Oct. 29, as its region passes through yet more turmoil.

The gap between East and West is widening as the European Union calls for more advanced standards of politics and economy by learning through crises, while the Islamic political scene shows worrying signs of more sectarian and ethnic conflicts in the near future. Such developments taking place along Turkey's western and western (and southeastern) borders are causing pains and seem to be dragging the country into a morass.

There were some hopes at the beginning of the Arab Spring, especially as the authoritarian regimes of Tunisia and Egypt (unlike Libya, which was subjected to a military intervention) were overthrown in popular, mainly peaceful waves of protests. The hopes were that perhaps the time was ripe for Arab societies to start developing democratic rule as well.

After all, there was the experience of Turkey. It was true that the road to a promising multi-party democracy and a free economy had been a long and winding one. Being a country born from the ashes of a six-century-old empire, Turkey had first transformed itself politically from a monarchy to a republic, before separating religion from the state and passing a number of radical reforms, from changing the script from Arabic to Latin to adopting the Western reference of calendar and measures thanks to the foresight of its founding leader, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk.

The one-party system under the Republican People’s Party (CHP) was changed after World War II, which Turkey managed to stay out of. There were three military coups during the Cold War afterwards, which disabled Turkey’s potential to enhance its economy and democracy further. But as the Cold War ended with the fall of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s, there was no room left for NATO-backed military interventions. Following a major economic crisis in the early 2000s, the Turkish people elected the Justice and Development Party (AK Parti), which had an Islamic-conservative background but promised to adopt the EU’s democratic and economic standards and coexist with the secular system established with the republic.

But it is already clear that the Arab Spring is not promising new democracies (perhaps it would be better to ask whether that would have been possible without separating religion from the state), but rather new conflicts, as Turkish President Abdullah Gül recently said when he warned of an “Islamic Middle Age.”

The Turkish economy is currently the 16th largest in the world. Its industrial production is more than the total of all Arab League countries. Turkish women are more active in social, economic and political life than in other countries with majority Muslim populations. But these things still fall short of meeting the criteria of the EU, which Turkey has wanted to join for the last 50 years. In other words, Turkey, which is not considered Muslim and "native" enough in the Muslim world, is not considered democratic and prosperous enough by Europeans.

As the gap in between increases, its strain on Turkey gets bigger. In the meantime, there are signs of changes in the Turkish system, mainly for three reasons: The distance between Turkey and the EU as a result of political shortsightedness in Europe, the false hopes of Arab democratization, and the overconfidence of Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdoğan that he was “capable of everything” after netting 50 percent of the vote in the 2011 elections.

Erdoğan’s strong, no-compromise leadership is deepening the gap within today’s Turkey. The government is celebrating the country’s 90th anniversary with a landmark project, a railway crossing connecting the European and Asian continents under the Bosphorus. But other crowds with the backing of the main opposition CHP are planning separate Republic Day celebrations on streets, claiming that Erdoğan’s AK Parti rule has been eroding the “achievements of the republic.” Two other groups, mainly Turkish and Kurdish nationalists, look likely to stay away from both on this 90th anniversary.

Turkey is at a crossroads under these circumstances, and must decide whether to stick with its Westernization targets, or lose more time in the energy-sapping conflicts of the Middle East. This will be a strategic choice for Erdoğan, as Turkey gets ever closer to an election season.