Saturday, June 11th, 2011


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Turkey’s June 12 Elections and Eurocentrism

9JUN

The following post is written in collaboration with Hilal Elver, my Turkish wife. It is posted a few days before Turkish elections this Sunday that will have a great impact on Turkey‘s political future. As a sign of changes in the world, the pre-election attention given to these elections in Turkey is a notable example. Turkey has emerged as ‘a success story’ in a global setting where most of the news is interpreting various forms of failure, especially in meeting global challenges such as food security, climate change, and economic instability and recession.

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            The Economist leader headline in its June 4th issue is revealing: “The best way for Turks to promote democracy would be to vote against the ruling party.” It reveals a mentality that has not shaken itself free from the paternalism and entitlements of the bygone colonialist days. What makes such an assertion so striking is that The Economist would know better than to advise American or Canadian or Israeli citizens how to vote. And it never did venture such an opinion on the eve of the election of such reactionary and militarist figures as George W. Bush, Stephen Harper, or Benjamin Netanyahu. Are the people of Turkey really so politically backward as to require guidance from this bastion of Western elite opinion so as to learn what is in their own best interest?

 

            Surely it is a strange recommendation even putting aside its interventionary aspects. As The Economist itself admits the progress Turkey has made internally and internationally since the governing Justice and Development Party (AKP) came to power in 2002. Its economy has flourished, civilian control of the governing process has been greatly strengthened, creative efforts have been undertaken to solve outstanding conflicts involving the Kurdish minority and Cyprus, and Turkey has fashioned a creative and constructive foreign policy that has greatly enhanced its regional and global reputation. With such an unquestioned record of achievement, it seems strange to go so far beyond calling attention to some serious lingering problems in Turkey by instructing the people of Turkey to vote for an opposition party that attacks the AKP relentlessly but offers no alternative vision for how it might improve upon its policies.

 

As Stewart Patrick put it recently in the pages of Foreign Affairs, the influential American journal on global policy: “The dramatic growth of Brazil, China, and India—and the emergence of middle-tier economies such as Indonesia and Turkey—is transforming the geopolitical landscape and testing the institutional foundation of the post-World War II liberal order.” Notable here is the recent acceptance of Turkey as a major regional and global actor, something that was not present in the political imagination before this period of AKP leadership.

 

And if we look beyond Eurocentric perspectives, the rise of Turkey is even more dramatic. In the Middle East, it is Turkey, although outside the Arab orbit, that has most inspiring to those leading the movements that have produced the Arab Spring. Public opinion polls in the region again and again rank Recip Tayyip Erdogan as the world’s most admired leader. It is a mistake to suggest that these movements will opt for ‘the Turkish model,’ as each national situation has its own originality, but all share a passionate insistence that destiny of the country will be shaped by its own people according to their values and aspirations, and without imitation of others. It is possible to learn from the Turkish experience in dealing with such tendentious issues as the future participation of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egyptian politics or the desirability of pursuing a foreign policy based on ‘zero problems with neighbors’ while maintaining this fierce insistence on the nationalist character of political transformation.

 

At the same time, in a world lacking effective and legitimate global leadership, it would be a mistake to overlook the enormous contributions made by Turkish diplomacy over the course of the prior decade. AKP foreign policy, as principally shaped by Ahmet Davutoglu, provides a reasoned, peace oriented voice of intelligent moderation that draws upon deep historical and cultural affinities, and suggests a very different political profile than that associated with such other regional voices as those emanating from Iran and Saudi Arabia.

 

Such an affirmation of the AKP achievements is not meant to be an uncritical endorsement of its policies. There are disturbing features of its approach to internal dissent, including the imprisonment of a large number of its domestic critics, especially journalists, and recent examples of police brutality in responding to anti-government demonstrations. There are also widely discussed worries about Mr. Erdogan’s ambitions, contentions that he is a closet autocrat as well as an immensely skillful politician in the populist mode, and it might be reassuring to the electorate as a whole if the elections do not give the AKP a parliamentary two-thirds super-majority that would allow the amendment of the 1982 Constitution without the need for a ratifying referendum. The fear is that with such control, 376 members out of a total of 550, the AKP could push through a presidential system that would allow Mr. Erdogan to become the dominant political leader in the country for another ten years. However, a new constitution is necessary. There is little disagreement among the Turkish voters about the desirability of a new constitution to replace the outdated 1982 Constitution, a byproduct of military rule. Aside from its statist and ultra-nationalist features, the present Turkish constitution keeps alive unpleasant memories of repressive rule when abuse of the citizenry was the order of the day.

 

Secular Turks mainly worry about certain forms of constitutional reform that they fear will keep the AKP in power forever and will somehow challenge their European modernist life style by such measures as Internet censorship instilling Islamic morals with respect to sexual content or impose restrictions on the public availability of alcohol. In the background, as well, is an unresolved struggle for economic and cultural primacy among elites with different geographic and class roots in Turkish society, the AKP bringing to the fore new energies that come from the more traditional atmosphere of Anatolian towns and villages, as opposed to the CHP elites that are concentrated in the main urban centers of western Turkey: Istanbul, Izmir, and Ankara.

 

Instead of telling Turks how to vote, The Economist might have more appropriately warned Turkish voters  (if their concern was the future wellbeing of the country) against the perils of the free market economy that the AKP has so enthusiastically endorsed, and especially encouraged while dramatically expanding trade with neighboring states, especially to its East.   Despite the impressive economic growth of recent years, there seems to be too great a readiness in Ankara to go along with the sort of neoliberal globalization that minimizes the regulation of markets, fails to address climate change, indulges speculative finance, and generates ever greater disparities between rich and poor within and among countries.

 

Even here in relation to the world economy the Turkish record is better than its harshest critics are ready to admit. Recently Turkey took over from Belgium, itself symbolic of a power ship on the global stage, as host for the next ten years of the UN efforts to assist the poorest countries in the world, known as the Least Developed Countries or LDCs. It hosted a mega-conference of 192 member states of the UN in Istanbul last month, and made it clear through statements by Mr. Erdogan and Mr. Davutoglu to the assembled delegations that Turkey’s vision of its role was to make sure that economic justice was being achieved through this UN process, an assessment that took issue with the efforts of the prior 40 years of grand rhetoric and miserable performance. Expressive of this intention, the Turkish Foreign Minister established an Intellectual Forum of independent academic specialists gathered from around the world that ran sessions parallel to the inter-governmental conference, offering a critical perspective on the entire UN approach to extreme poverty and societal vulnerability.

 

Perhaps, the greatest deficiency in the current Turkish political scene is not the quality of AKP leadership, but the absence of a responsible and credible opposition that offers the citizens some alternative policies on key questions. Until the current elections the main opposition party, Republican People’s Party (CHP), has been a party of ‘No,’ agitating secular anxieties about ‘a second Iran’ and withholding all appreciation for what the governing party has managed to achieve. Turkey, as with any vibrant democracy, needs a robust opposition, preferably with a genuine social democratic orientation, both to heighten the quality of policy debate and to make the electoral process more responsive to the values of and challenges facing Turkish society, but this will not be achieved at this stage by voting the AKP out of power. We have the impression that its new leader, Kemal Kilicdaroglu, seeks to move the party’s program and tactics in this direction, and he has moved away from the polarizing language and approach of the impoverishing Baykal period of CHP decline, but dislodging the old guard of the party has limited the adjustment. In contrast, the Erdogan leadership has exhibited a pragmatic capability to respond intelligently to changes in the political setting.

 

The Economist and others outside of Turkey should certainly be free to comment on AKP policies and the record of its government, but telling voters how to vote goes too far, and recalls the worst sides of the European relationship to the Middle East. We live in an increasingly integrated and interconnected political, economic, and cultural global space within which critical dialogue and mutually beneficial cooperation are indispensable if the future holds any promise of becoming peaceful, fair, and sustainable for the peoples of the world. In this regard, it is crucial that the imperatives of such free expression be reconciled with respect for the dynamics of self-determination, above all the autonomy of national electoral procedures.  It is disappointing that Eurocentricism has not yet become an embarrassment for the editors of The Economist.

http://richardfalk.wordpress.com/   

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WHAT’S happened to higher education in California? Two academics there have attacked The Economist for presuming to advise the Turks how to vote in their forthcoming election. One is Richard Falk, Albert G Milbank Professor Emeritus of International Law at Princeton University and Research Professor in Global and International Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Another is Hilal Elver, his wife, also at Santa Barbara.

They say:

The Economist leader headline in its June 4 issue is revealing: “The best way for Turks to promote democracy would be to vote against the ruling party.” It reveals a mentality that has not shaken itself free from the paternalism and entitlements of the bygone colonialist days. What makes such an assertion so striking is that The Economistwould know better than to advise US or Canadian or Israeli citizens how to vote. And it never did venture such an opinion on the eve of the election of such reactionary and militarist figures as George W Bush, Stephen Harper, or Binyamin Netanyahu. Are the people of Turkey really so politically backward as to require guidance from this bastion of Western elite opinion so as to learn what is in their own best interest?

What’s so peculiar is that anyone who has a glancing familiarity with this bastion of elite opinion knows that, for good or ill, it has indeed advised American, Canadian and Israeli citizens how to cast their votes. Don’t professors do any homework nowadays? As for all that “paternalism” nonsense, I was dimly under the impression that Turkey had a colonialist past of its own.

http://www.economist.com/blogs/lexington/2011/06/not-doing-your-homework

Turkey’s bitter election

On the last lap

The ruling party heads for re-election after a polarising campaign

Jun 9th 2011 | ISTANBUL | from the print edition

Waving a flag for the opposition

IT IS now official: women should have babies and stay at home. That was how feminists greeted this week’s announcement by Turkey’s prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, that he would scrap the ministry for women, along with seven other cabinet jobs. Coming days before the June 12th election, it has raised fears that a third term for Mr Erdogan’s mildly Islamist Justice and Development (AK) party could embrace a new puritanism.

Mr Erdogan suggests instead a ministry for “family and social policies…as we are a conservative democratic party, we need to strengthen the family structure.” His words set off alarm bells among those who recall the AK government’s previous efforts to criminalise adultery and Mr Erdogan’s calls for women to have at least three children. He is fiercely against day-care centres. Those who entrust their children to others, he said, would end up alone in old-age homes. “Do the maths,” snaps Hulya Gulbahar, a feminist lawyer. “He wants us to have three children and stay at home. In other words, no career for at least 15 years.”

Claims by the secular establishment that the AK party’s ultimate plan is to introducesharia law are plainly overblown. Yet such thinking lay behind the unsuccessful attempt by prosecutors to ban the AK party in 2008. Among its supposed crimes was seeking to ease restrictions on the Islamic-style headscarf in universities, which have kept thousands of pious women from pursuing their education. In fact, since it came to power in 2002, the AK government has pushed through unparalleled reforms, giving women more rights than ever. Rape inside marriage is now a criminal offence. Penalties for “honour killings” of women who mix with men to whom they are not married have been stiffened. But Ms Gulbahar, who helped craft some of these measures, complains that Mr Erdogan “turned” after being re-elected for a second term of single-party rule in 2007.

His increasingly prurient tone may have encouraged a climate that has led to the sacking of Zeynep Aksu, a psychiatrist at a social-services centre in the Black Sea province of Samsun, because she refused to stop wearing short skirts. In January a headmaster in the southern province of Mersin provoked a furore after ordering male students to remain at least 45 centimetres from their female peers. An inquiry was launched only after a parliamentarian from the opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) petitioned the government. Yet the headmaster kept his job.

Binnaz Toprak, a sociologist running for parliament on the CHP ticket, published a survey last year arguing that such incidents reflect a countrywide lurch towards intolerance. She found that in many Anatolian provinces alcohol is no longer served and pressure to fast during Ramadan is on the rise. “The picture I encountered is truly alarming,” she concluded.

Yet there is another side to the story. As universities proliferate across the country, students from places like Izmir and Istanbul infect locals with their freewheeling ways. In Erzurum, an eastern backwater, girls and boys can be seen strolling hand in hand, for which they might until recently have been flogged. In Istanbul veiled girls can be spotted snogging with boyfriends on park benches. Sometimes, in short, Turkey seems to be growing simultaneously more conservative and more liberal.

A greater worry is Mr Erdogan’s increasingly authoritarian bent. Turkey has more imprisoned journalists than almost any other country (there were some 57 at the last count). A pair of students who unfurled a banner saying “we want free education” during a speech by Mr Erdogan have languished in jail for over a year on charges of “membership of a terrorist group.” And Mr Erdogan is increasingly fond of blasting his critics in public.

In the past week, this newspaper has been a target for daring to suggest in our June 4th issue that Turks should vote for the CHP to deny the AK party the two-thirds majority it needs unilaterally to rewrite the constitution. At successive rallies Mr Erdogan has accused The Economist of acting in concert with “a global gang” and taking orders from Israel. This may win him votes at home, but it will hardly add to his credibility in the West.

June 10th, 2011 – The Economist