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‘Torn between East and West, and still struggling to define identity’

Mar 05,2014 - Last updated at Mar 05,2014

During the 1950s and 1960s, Turkey was proclaimed the success story of this region.

Experts argued that the country had transformed itself from the powerhouse of the Ottoman Empire to a secular, modernising, democratic, Western-oriented republic.

But two factors were ignored: the authoritarian legacy bequeathed on Turkey by its founding father Mustafa Kemal Ataturk and the military, which had been given the role of guarantor of the secular state.

Turkey’s reputation as a secular, modernising democracy was always an illusion. Politicians grabbed power whenever they could and generals grabbed the world’s attention by staging coups from time to time. The first was in 1960 when they ousted the democratically elected government under increasingly authoritarian prime minister Adnan Menderes.

Few recall that Menderes was executed by hanging along with two of his ministers or that the spokesman for the coupists was Alparslan Turkes, another authoritarian, who founded the extreme Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) and left a legacy of corruption.

In 1971, the military again ousted the government, headed this time by Suleiman Demirel who was turfed out at a time of unrest and replaced by Ismail Nihat Erim. This coup was carried out by “memorandum” rather than tanks.

In 1980, the army rolled out the tanks and overthrew a coalition government again headed by Demirel who had been unable to end unprecedented violence that had left 5,000 dead. The military, led by General Kenan Evren, took over and stayed in charge until 1983.

In 1997, the army mounted a “white coup” that overthrew the coalition government led by Necmettin Erbakan of the fundamentalist Welfare Party, in which the current ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) is rooted.

In 2002, the AKP won the parliamentary election with a two-thirds majority in the house and Recep Tayyip Erdogan became prime minister.

In 2007, the AKP won 47 per cent of the vote, and in 2011, it increased this share to nearly 50 per cent.

While the AKP portrays itself as “conservative” and democratic rather than fundamentalist, the party, founded in 2001, became a magnet for religious conservatives. Nevertheless, it was deemed to be “moderately Islamist” by the West.

The AKP adopted a pro-Western, pro-US stance in foreign affairs, embraced the liberal free market economy and boosted efforts to join the European Union.

On the economic plane, the AKP was at first very successful and transformed the country into a regional hub. Scholars promoted the idea that Islam, democracy and economic liberalisation can coexist, and cited Turkey as the model for Muslim states to adopt and adapt to.

Turkey also reached out to its neighbours with the aim of promoting good relations and Ankara’s regional leadership. But this did not bear fruit after the Arab Spring uprisings during 2011, the outbreak of civil conflict in Syria, and Erdogan’s efforts to bridge the gulf between Iran and the Western powers — which do not want the gulf bridged.

The AKP model — like the secular Westernising model adopted earlier — has been smashed by events of the past eight months, starting with the rallies in Istanbul and across the country protesting the redevelopment of Taksim Gezi Park, one of the city’s few green spaces.

Developers, backed by Erdogan, sought to construct a shopping mall, a mosque and luxury flats on the park’s land.

An estimated 3.5 million out of Turkey’s 80 million people took part in protests and castigated Erdogan.

The demonstrations mounted the most serious challenge to Erdogan’s decade-long term in office and set in train events that ended Erdogan’s drive to become an all-powerful president in a presidential system.

Opposition has, however, exacerbated Ergodan’s authoritarian tendencies, which had surfaced during his second and third terms in office, leading him to crack down hard on opponents.

On December 17, Turkey’s honeymoon with the AKP came to an end when the sons of three ministers and businessmen with ties to the party (now freed) were detained on corruption charges and one of Turkey’s major banks was found to be paying Iran in gold for imports of natural gas in breach of US-imposed sanctions.

Since then, one scandal has succeeded another.

Last week, the media played audiotapes of five conversations between Erdogan and his son Bilal, in which the prime minister told his son to clear from family homes corruptly obtained funds.

The conversations are said to have taken place during a 26-hour period from the morning of December 17.

Bilal was told to “zero” the cash, but on December 18, he apparently had $40 million remaining to “zero”.

These leaks do not seem to have discouraged the Erdogans from amassing more “black money”, as two more conversations were confided to the Internet last week. In one they discussed the size of a contribution that should be expected from a businessman and in the other recording, two businessmen talked about a payoff. These revelations could harm AKP’s prospects in municipal elections due at the end of this month.

Erdogan’s conversations were conducted over government-provided, allegedly, secure telephones tapped by the official Technological Research Council. Department chiefs have been fired and employees responsible for the recordings have been suspended, reported Roy Gutman of McClatchy news service.

Erdogan has countered opposition by firing prosecutors, policemen and judges, attempting to block Internet websites critical of the government, and giving the justice minister control over the appointment of judges and prosecutors who carry out investigations into wrongdoing.

The three measures are regarded as a means to limit the ability of government opponents to express criticism and to restrict investigations into corrupt criminality.

The history of modern Turkey over the past six decades shows that it never was a viable model for Muslim states, whether Ankara was pursuing a secular or “moderate Islamic” agenda.

Turkey was, and is, like other states in the region, a deeply troubled country, torn between East and West, and still struggling to define its identity.

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