Saturday, January 19, 2008

A Beginning

I arrived in İzmit on January 14, 2008, and instantly found myself caught up in the city’s daily bustle. My first time in Turkey, I could not fully anticipate the commotion that characterizes this city’s streets on a daily basis. Although the city can be somewhat quiet in the early morning, by noon its streets are packed with a great diversity of people—all with something to do and some place to go. Since I cannot speak Turkish, this sight seems all the more mysterious, exotic, and—although careful not to be trapped in some sort of Orientalist trap—almost romantic. Everything from the yells of the simitçi selling hot simit outside of my apartment (“sıcak, sıcak!”) to the aromas of food I have never before tasted tells me I am in a different land and that I am in for a range of experiences very different from those to which I have before been accustomed. Although the aim of this blog is not personal, it seems appropriate at its beginning to share my foreigner’s sense of being overwhelmed by this country—the difference I feel between it and me.

This said, I must say that just three days here has brought an end to much of this mystery or sense of Turks being somewhat ‘other’ than myself. I have found that this happens whenever you meet people who at first seem outwardly different than you, but during my time here I expect it to be proven even more profoundly true. This is unquestionably one of the tremendous comforts of the normalcy that comes with getting to know people and, of course, one of the great dangers of wrapping what are essentially other people up in what is often one's own de-humanizing fiction of another. Further, I believe one of the ways in which living in this country will prove most valuable to my career is simply the fact that its people are not so easily ordered. While one person might appear very ‘Western’ on the surface—familiar clothes, hair fashions, etc.—their beliefs might be much more outside what might be considered a more liberal or 'Western' understanding of things when compared to those of another person who perhaps dresses in fashions more foreign. It is cliché in Middle East studies to say that little is as it appears (if Turkey can even be considered "the Middle East"), but there does seem to exist a great deal of veracity to this claim. What is perhaps much more interesting and meaningful, though, is the fact that no ‘Turk’ seems easily categorized.

From the beginning, I want to make it clear that I aim to steer away from generalizations about what is ‘typically Turkish’ and what is not, what is "Western" and what is not. While these dichotomies and their constructions no doubt carry real meaning in contemporary discussions of Turkey, my own discoveries made in just the past few days have informed me that such distinctions are obfuscatory, if not misleading, and should be held suspect. Just as the United States and Americans are baffling in terms of the sheer multiplicity of ideas and identities that characterize their culture, so, I know must be Turkey and Turks. Of course, much more familiar with the United States and aware of the difficulty in drawing definitive conclusions about any country or its people from my own attempts to understand the place in which I was born and raised, I am equally aware of the conscientiousness and care required in any such task undertaken in reference to another country.

More so, I expect Turkey to be all the more baffling—perhaps just because the country is itself in so many ways at a crossroads between what Edward Said has called our conceptions of ‘Occident’ and ‘Orient.’ A set of puzzles most certainly exists, but I do not see my work as an attempt to solve them—only to arrive at a better understanding as to their existence and their role in shaping the lifeworlds of Turkish people, in particular, Turkish citizens. T.S. Eliot once wrote that “we shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.” I am not anywhere near so optimistic or foolhardy as to think that by the end of this project I might know the place where I now begin. My ambition is only that I will move a little closer.

To introduce this project, let me first state that my intention is in no way to present myself as an authority on Turkish politics. I am a student—nothing more. As a result, any analysis I present in this forum will indubitably be influenced by unrefined assumptions and judgments still very much in the process of being formed and, of course, inevitably grounded in my own experience—those events and historical processes that as Gramsci informs have deposited themselves in me without leaving any inventory as to their contribution. My prior experience consists only of a sustained interest in Turkish politics that has lasted for approximately two-and-one-half years and has led me to intermittently follow the subject in the English-language Turkish press and engage in a fair bit of reading that can by no means be characterized as comprehensive. So, from the start, I ask readers to be aware of and patient with the very novice and incipient nature of this project.

Rather than try to author some grand introduction to politics of Turkey and the plethora of issues present therein, I will avoid this near impossible task and instead present such information as later commentary might demand. This said, I do think it necessary to introduce the basic political context in which my project exists so that I might convey how excited I am to finally be here and writing.

This year promises many groundbreaking political developments for the country as Turkey’s ruling political party, the Islamic-oriented, yet reform minded, Justice and Development Party (Adalet ve Kalkinma Partisi—AKP) prepares to introduce a new constitution that might well overhaul important elements in the country’s 1982 constitution. After winning a bold mandate—a near 47 percent of the vote—in last July’s elections, AKP is in a powerful position from which the party might transform Turkey (for better or worse depends on with whom you talk). The current constitution was drafted following Turkey’s infamous 1980 coup and is in many ways a relic to the political circumstances that accompanied the military’s seizure of political control following the establishment’s unease with the leftist tone oppositional politics were taking at the time. Hence, a new constitution promises systemic change. Prior to being appointed the chairman of the academic commission to which AKP tasked the drafting of the new constitution, Ergun Özbudun highlighted the dramatic change a constitution would promise the country.
"A constitution, which should be an ideologically neutral instrument as far as possible, should not impose the same social and economic choices on all contesting parties. If it does, the essential meaning of multi-party politics and inter-party competition will be lost."
Although the draft of a new constitution was released in September, its introduction to parliament has been stalled as the country has turned its attention to the suppression of PKK terrorist activities in the southeast. However, AKP has already been heavily criticized for the draft indubitably due to its polemical inclusion of articles pertaining to freedom of dress at university (effectively permitting women to wear the headscarf, or türban, on university campuses), freedom of expression, and most significant, its revision of articles that would revise the strict definition of secularism imposed by the current constitution—the most controversial imposition that the drafters of the new constitution hope to eliminate.

The background in which constitutional debate is set to occur is defined by July's groundbreaking elections. With a history of military-led coups and interventions, these elections are a watershed in Turkish politics. The elections affirmed AKP’s political popularity throughout the country and consolidated democracy in lieu of a military coup. They also represented a victory for the country's rising Islamic middle class, a social fact with which Turkey's paternalistic establishment and its attendant political class is having trouble coming to terms. Infused by powerful national sentiment rooted in the story of Turkey's founding by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the Immortal Leader, the power this political class once held over national politics is waning. The old political class' rabid protection of the secular components of Kemalism can become quiet virulent, the myriad contortions of which are anathema to democratic liberalism: free speech is restricted, electoral majorities undermined, and when deemed necessary, detention and torture used against "enemies of the state."

In party politics, Turkey's established political class is best represented by the Republican People’s Party (Cumhuriyet Halk Partisi—CHP) —a party that is itself not easy to characterize, but that has long held true to a staunchly secular vision of the Turkish state and that has as of late been very much in-line with the opinions of the Turkish Armed Forces (TSK). CHP is also Turkey's oldest party, the party of Atatürk, and, in theory, the country's center-left party. Despite the influence of liberal politics in the 1960s and membership in the Soviet International, CHP is a devotedly nationalist party intent to preserve the status quo. Interestingly enough, another large component of AKP is the ultra-nationalist National Movement Party (Milliyetçi Hareket Partisi—MHP). MHP has a long standing in Turkish politics and was once associated with far-right paramilitary groups and it is only in the past ten years that it has moderated its position, sought in roads with religious Sunni Muslim voters, and played a prime role in parliament.
With no other viable opposition to challenge the status quo, AKP has become the reform party and as such has filled what had long been a progressive void in Turkish politics. AKP portrays itself as a moderate, pro-Western party that seeks to protect the rights of all citizens and its pro-EU position belies the anti-European, pro-Arab diplomacy of past Islamist parties. AKP politicians have repeatedly denied that there agenda is one of political Islam and have rejected the Islamist label entirely. However, critics are simply not convinced. AKP detractors often point to the party's support for policies that benefit its conservative Muslim base, in particular its advocacy for lifting the headscarf ban at universities. However, AKP answers that conservative Muslims have not been allowed to realize their Turkish citizenship to the same degree as their more 'secular' counterparts due to social barriers and that it is merely seeking equality for all citizens. To this extent, the party contends that the headscarf ban has prevented conservative Muslim women from receiving education. In retort, the secularists claim that AKP is merely couching an Islamic agenda in liberal democratic rhetoric. They opine that the party's pro-Europe position is a farce and the AKP has everyone fooled, especially Europe toward which secularists are becoming more and more hostile. For them, AKP's ties to the radical Welfare Party (Refah Partisi—RP) are enough to condemn the party.

Shortly after Turkey’s last coup in 1997 (the 'post-modern' coup), Turkey’s Constitutional Court closed RP and banned from politics its prime minister, Necmettin Erbakan, along with other RP politicians (including Erdoğan who was then the mayor of İstanbul). RP was widely feared when it came to power in 1994's municipal elections and then entered parliament with a plurality of the vote in the next parliamentary elections. The party's ideology was an amalgam of political Islam and anti-imperialism and never did it espouse liberal democratic ideals. It was authoritarian to its core, anti-EU, and paid little heed to the concept of personal liberty. Although the party moderated its radicalism once in parliament, it did so because it had to in order to maintain the coalition it had formed with the center-right. Despite this moderation, Erbakan was subject to a deluge of criticism when he made state visits to Iran and Libya, seeking to influence foreign policy, traditionally the domain of the president. Further, he urged children to attend religious schools, proposed the construction of mosques in secular centers, and most importantly, failed to control RP municipal authorities who began to pass very restrictive laws, shutting down cinemas, lingerie stores, and restaurants that refused to close their door during Ramazan. Following the dissolution of RP, many of its members re-organized and established the Virtue Party (Fazilet Partisi—FP) in 1998. FP was in many ways a continuation of RP and although posting a strong showing following elections in 1999, faced problems soon after resulting from internal divisions among more Islamist sectors in the party and those who began to identify themselves as reformers. Erdoğan and Gül are members of the reform group and it is this group which formed AKP in 2001 just after the Constitutional Court’s closure of FP. Although some of the more radical actors within RP and FP entered AKP, Erdoğan dismissed with many of them upon coming to power.

Following the collapse of a divided parliament in early 2002, AKP swept to power in elections held in November that year. The party won a surprising 34 percent of the vote—enough to capture an absolute majority in Parliament. AKP's victory seems to have had more to do with reform than Islam. This is indicated by the losses of truly Islamist parties in 2002 and the years that followed. In contrast to AKP, the Felicity Party (Saadet Partisi—SP) was formed by the faction of more Islamist FP members and did quite poorly in the 2002 elections. The general conclusion to be drawn is that AKP was not successful because it was Islamist, but because of the large coalition it brought together thanks to its promises of stability, an end to corruption, and significant economic reform. Again, the success of AKP in delivering its promises depends with whom you talk, but beyond question is the country’s economic success following the increased political stability that followed the election and largely thanks to a series of economic reforms AKP made to correct a disastrous economy. Since AKP’s election, Turkey’s inflation has been brought under control and the country has repeatedly posted a GDP growth rate between five to seven percent. Additionally, foreign direct investment has drastically increased, a stronger and healthier middle class has started to emerge, and unemployment has decreased. Significantly, cash is also flowing in the east of Turkey as entrepreneurs move to invest in cities like Diyarbakır, Elazığ, and Erzincan and the governments found development projects aimed to improve standards of living that lag far behind the west.

The party strengthened its electoral mandate in the 2004 municipal elections when it won 42 percent of the vote. Significant to this election was AKP's increased support in the cities along the coast of Turkey (which are less religiously conservative) and in the southeast. In the southeast, AKP made considerable inroads among the Kurdish community and cut into the support its representative party—the Social Democratic People’s Party (Sosyaldemokrat Halk Partisi—DTP). This latter vote is important insomuch as it represents co-opation of the Kurds’ prime political party. DTP is often accused of being comprised of Kurdish nationalists and of having links to the militant Kurdistan Workers’ Party (known in Kurdish as the Partiya Karkerên Kurdistan, or most commonly, the PKK). AKP’s promises of economic development in the southeast have undoubtedly weakened the hand of the DTP and more significantly, undermined support for the PKK. In the July elections, several Kurdish constituents made it known that they would only cast votes for DTP MPs who promised to support Gül's candidacy for the presidency.

Things came to a head this past April with the expiration of President Necdet Sezer’s term in office. Under the Turkish Constitution, the president is appointed by vote of the Parliament. With an AKP-controlled parliament, for the first time the president and prime minister would be coming from an allegedly Islamist party. Although Turkey’s constitution places the president 'above politics,' important powers are vested in the office, e.g. the right to veto legislation and appoint judges to the Constitutional Court. Following a first round of voting in parliament in which Gül was elected by a total of 357 MPs, the military issued a stern warning that shook the country and moved it into a period of great uncertainty. Amidst talk of another coup, CHP filed a petition with the Constitutional Court to annul Gül's election. CHP had boycotted the vote and argued that a quorum (367 MPs) was required to elect the president and that as a consequence Gül’s election was unconstitutional. This “367 criterion” had not before been applied, but the Court nullified the election on May 1 on these same grounds.

Following a second round of voting that failed to procure the needed 367 votes, AKP called for parliamentary elections. The elections were held on July 22 and the party increased its mandate and won enough MPs to guarantee Gül’s election under the Court’s criterion. The months in which these events pursued were quite intense and talk of possible military intervention did not recede until after Gül was elected on Aug. 28 in a third round of voting without disruption. For a detailed account of these events, see Walter Posch's occasional paper, “Crisis in Turkey: Just Another Bump on the Road to Europe?” Occasional Paper No 67 (European Union Institute for Strategic Studies, June 2007).

Soon after the election, AKP came through in its promises to deliver liberalization in the form of a new constitution and soon entered the Özbudun-led constitutional commission. The new constitution engenders a democratic project that aspires to expand civil liberties and political participation while curtailing the power of the military, and granting Kurds formal recognition of their ethnic identity, language, and culture. For reasons already mentioned, civil liberties and increased political participation represent represent serious challenges to the state structure. There is a great amount of fear that mass politics would degenerate into violence that would jeopardize the political stability of the country and its Kemalist underpinnings. In just three days, I have already been presented with the argument that Kemalism protects all Turks, including the Islamic hordes from middle and eastern Anatolia who might turn Turkey into another Iran if given ample opportunity. Unrestricted speech and majoritarian democracy would surely give way to chaos. "Turkey is not like Europe," I was told. Additionally, the military is expected to firmly resist weakening of its authority and the guardian role it has played since the inception of multi-party democracy. Concessions to Kurdish demands will augment resistance to democratization in that a more empowered Kurdish southeast is seen as a grave security threat by the military and many Turks alike. Constitutional reform is faced with a number of hurdles and I wait in eager anticipation to watch the process unfold.

In addition to the constitution, controversial elements in Turkey’s penal code in regard to freedom of speech are also likely to be revisited in the coming year. Turkey has long been criticized by human rights organizations for its prosecution of journalists, academics, politicians, activists, and ordinary individuals for speech acts that government officials find offensive. Most important in this debate is Article 301 in which it is codified a crime against the state to insult ‘Turkishness.’ Despite enduring pressure from the European Union, moves to revise the article have been slow. Indeed, just last week parliament’s consideration of a legislative proposal to amend the law was again delayed. Future stall tactics are likely since status quo forces strongly oppose revision. For them, Article 301 is a necessary tool to prevent defamation of the state by the opposition and even a national security issue. Recent 301 prosecutions include the conviction of renown Turkish-Armenian journalist Hrant Dink before his assassination last January and the more recent proceedings brought against Turkish novelist and Nobel Prize-winner Orhan Pamuk following comments each made regarding the Ottoman Empires’ involvement in the re-location and mass killings of Armenians in 1915. Pamuk’s case was dismissed, but only after attracting a great amount of negative press in Europe.

To close, I am sure many people will be asking me, “Why İzmit?” Many of the people I have met have already posed this question to me. The answer is that the province of Kocaeli of which İzmit is the capital is one of the places where Turkey’s emerging middle class is among the most active and visible. Suit-and-tie Islamists are not at all an uncommon sight nor are elegantly clad headscarved women donning all sorts of colorful and expensive-looking jewelry. Kocaeli is home to a very diverse population that cuts across class lines and geographic heritages. Essentially, people come here from all over Turkey—for jobs. Just outside of İstanbul (İzmit is one hour by bus), the province includes Turkey’s industrial corridor as it unfolds along the Sea of Marmara. It is home to numerous multinational companies including major operations of Ford, Honda, Hyundai, and Isuzu motor companies. Tüpraş, Turkey’s largest domestic enterprise and producer of 27 percent of the country’s refined petroleum, is also located here. Outside of the tourist hustle and large ex-patriate population of İstanbul, my guess is that İzmit might afford me a better understanding of Turkey and perhaps provide more opportunities to interact with people and hopefully learn a decent bit of Turkish.

This said, I had a chance to visit İstanbul for the first time today and was amazed by how distinctly 'Turkish' it still felt in spite of its cosmopolitan and international character. Indeed, the posted photo is of a view of the Bospurus and not from İzmit. (I have not yet had a chance to take photos of İzmit.) Although Kocaeli province is perhaps best known for the destruction wreaked here following the 1999 earthquake of which Gölcuk, just across the Marmara from where I live, was the epicenter, it seems to have recovered quite well. There are still some evident signs of the earthquake—I am fairly confident he building next to mine was leveled. However, from the frenetic daily bustle on the streets each day, one would find it hard to know without being told or arriving here with previous knowledge of the event.

In terms of politics, although historically a stronghold of CHP, Kocaeli's influx of immigrants and rising Islamic middle class have formed a strong base of AKP support that earned the party control of the province in 2004. Since the 1950s, Kocaeli had been the center of a bureacratic and industrial working class, the traditional base of CHP support. Before, the province had been governed by CHP notable Sefa Sirmen. Sirmen is largely responsible for developing the province throughout the 1990s and in spite of charges of corruption, he seems largely respected. He resigned before the 2004 elections to make a bid for the Parliament and was replaced by one of İzmit's municipal mayors, Hikmet Erenkaya. I am told Erenkaya was a rather disastrous replacement and he lost heavily in the 2004 elections to an AKP candidate. Like elsewhere in the country, AKP won significant majorities at all levels of government throughout the province.

I know this was a rather long first post and I hope it has not been too cumbersome to read. I look forward to sharing more as I pass the coming months here and, again, am excited about what this opportunity has to offer.

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