Contemporary Turkish Politics: Challenges and Prospects
Professor Ustun Erguder introduced some of the broader issues facing Turkey by detailing the work of the Istanbul Policy Center, a public policy think tank affiliated with Sabanci University in Istanbul. Professor Erguder, who is director of the Center, said education reform is a key research area of the Istanbul Policy Center. The Center works with the Turkish Ministry of Education and civil society organizations to improve K-12 education, with "an eye to European succession." In a similar vain, the center acts as a "European Observatory" by analyzing Turkey's progress towards European Union membership.
The Professor believes with the imminent presidential and parliamentary elections coming, in the spring and fall respectively, that 2007 will be an important year for Turkey. Turkish politicians will have to contend with foreign policy issues that span Cyprus, Iraq and EU accession coupled with an increasingly assertive Turkish military, headed by General Yasar Buyukanit.
With the term of President Ahmet Necdet Sezer, former Chief Justice of Turkey's Constitutional Court and a staunch secularist, set to expire in April 2007, professor Erguder warns that the spring presidential elections may prove to be extremely divisive for Turkey. The political, bureaucratic, and military establishment, which supports Sezer, fears the selection of a pro-Islamic President, such as current Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. They are certain that Erdogan would approve religiously motivated legislation and appoint Islamists to the Higher Education Council. However, secularist fear, most of all, that if Erodgan were elected president, his wife would wear her headscarf at state functions. Professor Erguder believes a middle of the road consensus candidate would be best for Turkey.
Professor Erguder launched into an analysis of Turkey's ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP). The AKP, a spin-off of the Islamist movement in Turkey, often compares itself to the Christian Democrats of Europe. However, many in Turkey are skeptical of the AKP's democratic credentials and those in Turkey who treat "secularism as a religion" see the AKP as a direct threat to the Turkish state. Professor Erguder argues that, despite these concerns, Turks should not look to the military to intervene on behalf of secularism or democracy, because military interventions have been very costly to Turkey in the past.
Professor Erguder predicts that the AKP will likely hold onto its parliamentary majority in the upcoming fall 2007 general elections. A strong political opposition would be healthy for Turkey, but the AKP's current competition is not very impressive. The only opposition in Parliament is the unpopular Republican People's Party (CHP). The AKP and CHP are the only two parties in power because the Turkish constitution stipulates that political parties must win 10% of the national vote in order to receive any representation in Parliament. It is unlikely, but not impossible, that a third party will pass the 10% threshold in the 2007 election. Many voters unhappy with the AKP will simply choose the CHP as the lesser of two evils, but even this will not be enough to break AKP's plurality.
Professor Erguder pointed out that the military still plays a role in Turkish politics. According to Erguder, Buyukanit, who took over the military in August, is a hawk who is very sensitive of criticism of the military. A large segment of Turkish public opinion favors a strong role for Buyukanit and the military.
Professor Erguder then focused on Turkey's foreign policy issues. Two intertwined issues on the foreign policy agenda are the questions of Cyprus and EU accession. Turks feel that they have already done a great deal to conciliate the Turkish Cypriots. This, along with anti-Turkey sentiment in Europe, is dampening Turkish enthusiasm for the EU. The AKP government views the process of EU accession as an insurance policy against threats from the military. However, Professor Erguder warns should the secular Turkish state be threatened, Europe will not matter to the military.
An issue that has a greater bearing on the U.S.-Turkey relationship is that of the Kurds. Professor Erguder argues that while the Turkish government has made positive legislative steps toward expanding cultural rights for Kurdish citizens, it has not adequately implemented these reforms. At the same time, PKK terrorism has enflamed nationalist sentiments in the Turkish public. Many Turks feel that the U.S. secretly desires the creation of an independent Kurdish state, and nearly all view the U.S. invasion of Iraq as the trigger that set off the latest wave of PKK violence. Further, the U.S.-Turkey relationship is not helped by the fact that the AKP occasionally placates its Islamist base with foreign policy statements contrary to U.S. interests.
Linked to the Kurdish issue is the question of what will happen to Iraq. The worst fears of the Turks seem to have been realized in Iraq, with the increasing talk of a federal state or independent Kurdistan. The professor posits that the political elite should comprise a "plan B" should an independent Kurdish state develop which considers a more "European" civil rights oriented approach. Overall, the professor believes that Turkey should strive to find creative ways to be more of a leader in the region.