Monday, June 17, 2013

Whither Turkey?

Whither Turkey? Turkey is at a crossroads. The Republic of Turkey was born in 1923 out of the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. The “Sick Man of Europe” had lingered on life support for 200 years until World War I terminated the Ottoman Empire with extreme prejudice. The winning allies were in the process of dividing up the Turkish lands with Greece as a major beneficiary. General Mustafa Kemal rallied the Turkish forces in the heartland of Anatolia. Ataturk won the Turkish War of Independence. The Turks had they country. Ataturk knew the past could not be the future. The Ottomans were exiled; their properties seized. Turkey’s population was overwhelmingly Muslim, but the country would be secular. He adopted western dress. The civil law replaced Sharia. How much of the country is devoutly Muslim is difficult to determine, just as how much of France is devoutly Catholic is an enigma. Istanbul boomed, but Anatolia lingered. The secularists ruled for 80 years until 2002 when Istanbul Mayor Recep Tayyip Erdogan assembled a coalition of conservatives and the alienated Muslims of eastern Turkey to win election as Turkey’s Prime Minister with 34% of the vote. He was devoutly Muslim, but subordinated religion to economic growth. Turkey boomed. He won reelection in 2011 with a 49.66% plurality. Turkey has been on a pro-growth, pro development model under PM Erdogan. He thinks big. His current projects and proposals include construction of a third bridge over the Bosporus, a third airport for Istanbul, a rail tunnel under the Bosporus, and a canal about 15-20 miles west of and parallel to the Bosporus to connect the Black Sea with the Sea of Marmara. The heavy ship traffic would go through the new canal and the Bosporus will be limited to recreation and pleasure craft, and ferries. He also proposed building a new mosque, 15,000 meters square, high on Camlica Hill on the Asian side, visible to almost all parts of the City. It would tower over the Blue Mosque, the Hagia Sophia, and the Sultan Suleymaniye Mosque. This was America’s agenda, with the exception of the mosque, until 1970 with the advent of America’s Environmental Age. Robert Moses would have been proud of PM Erdogan. The catalyst was the proposed razing of Gezi Park, the only green area in that part of crowded Istanbul. The razing was part of a lesser plan to build a replica of an Ottoman Barracks, with a shopping mall inside, and a mosque on the site with a new traffic tunnel underneath. The deeper issue is the cultural divide between the open, educated middle class, secular populations, usually in the cities, and the conservative, Muslim Turkey. He sought to impose restrictions on abortions, and recommended Turkish women bear at least three children each. His Parliament recently imposed substantial restrictions on the sale and marketing of alcoholic beverages. He abhors smoking although Ataturk was a smoker and drinker. The Prime Minister believes he has 50% of the population behind him. He received a mandate in the 2011 election. He is also intolerant of opposition. He has muzzled much of the press and replaced the top leadership of the military with loyalists. Turkey is a democracy, but power is concentrated in the Prime Minister’s office. The country does not have the forms of citizen involvement available in the United States. A couple of hundred peaceful demonstrators occupied Gezi Park 18 days ago in opposition to the loss of the trees. We have certainly witnessed tree huggers, tree climbers, and tree houses in this country in fights to save the trees. Someone gave the order to the riot police to break up the demonstration. Force, heavy force, was used. The lid blew off the pressure cooker. The social issues, the secularists, the opposition to specific programs sat off national protests and demonstrations. The Prime Minister does not back down easily, but he reached an agreement Thursday night. The government would hold off any further work in Gezi pending the outcome of a judicial case, which has resulted in the issuance of an injunction against the project. If the injunction is upheld, then the project will end. If the courts uphold the government’s position, then the Prime Minister will put the proposal up to a city wide referendum binding on the government. The demonstrators in exchange would have to vacate the park. The sanitary conditions of the park had obviously deteriorated, as they had with Zuccotti Park in New York’s Occupy Wall Street. The protestors didn’t, were forcibly evicted, and riots spread throughout the city and nation. The authorities cut off subway, light rail, bus and ferry service to the area yesterday, but did use the busses and ferries to bring thousands of Erdogan’s supporters to a seaside rally in the suburb of Kazlicesmr. Somewhere between an estimated 200,000 to a million showed up at the Prime Minister’s rally. The protestors Sunday spread out of Gezi Park, and Taksim Square. The police used water cannons, tear gas, and perhaps rubber bullets. Protestors seeking refuge in luxury hotels were tear gassed. The major shopping street of Istiklal is bare of shoppers. The Turkish economy will suffer a major blow, the promising peace talks with the Kurds may fail, and Istanbul may lose the 2,000 Olympics. The people of Turkey will in the end decide the outcome. The balance between secular and sectarian should be decided at the ballot box. Prime Minister Erdogan has the will to outlast the demonstrators, but to do so he has to maintain the support of the police and the military. If the protestors can drag out the demonstrations, then the Prime Minister will progressively lose popular support. The Prime Minister, having gained control of the riots, could offer an olive branch of peace. He did so last Thursday, which had to be very difficult for him to do. And if he does, will the majority of protestors accept it? If he is gracious, and they reject the olive branch, then they will self-marginize themselves. If events quiet down until the next election, then the people will decide whether or not to elect the Prime Minister to the Presidency of Turkey or approve his amended constitution. The secular Turkey wants individual freedom and economic prosperity. The question is if the Prime Minister’s religious supporters also want economic prosperity. If they don’t, then Turkey may be headed the way of Egypt, and the shining beacon of an enlightened Islamic democracy in the Mid East darkened. Turkey has not yet crossed the line into darkness. Two possibilities could trigger radical changes. The first is if the protestors, probably a small faction, resort to extreme violence, such as shooting police officers or setting off IED's or car bombs with extreme loss of life, especially with substantial police casualties. The police response could turn very ugly. The second is that the government starts rounding up opposition and protest leaders, whether actual or suspected, tossing them in jail, and then "throwing the keys away." That will mark the end of Turkey's democracy. Prime Minister Erdogan wants a stable Turkey. He can still do it.

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