Turkey – The Clash of the Two Parties of the Past
02 August 2016
By Amir Taheri
As Turkey's political drama continues, it is important to bear two things in
mind when trying to analyze the situation. The first is that Turkey is a major
country with a vital role to play in what is now the most dangerously unstable
region in the world. A stable Turkey, even one that does not fit our ideal
model of democracy, is an urgent necessity for building new structures of
stability in the Middle East and the eastern Mediterranean region.
Thus, it is important to guard against any temptation of Schadenfreude. The
jubilant tone adopted in reporting the Turkish imbroglio by the Tehran daily
Kayhan, published under the supervision of the ''Supreme Guide'' is in bad
taste and out of place.
The second point to bear in mind is that reducing the whole drama to an
occasion for further attacks on President Recep Tayyip Erdogan could mean
missing the deeper causes of the current crisis.
There is no doubt that Erdogan bears a good portion of the responsibility for
the current state of affairs. Short-fused and impulsive, Erdogan has
antagonized many people who need not have become his political enemies. At the
same time, his quaint quest for the revival of the Ottoman caliphate in a new
disguise is certainly troublesome if only because trying to build a future
with a recipe from the past is always bad politics.
It is no mystery that Erdogan has been preparing a massive purge of real or
imagined opponents in the military, the judiciary and the civil service at
least since 2013. He is also open to justified criticism because of his
crackdown on the media and at least implicit support for under-hand practices
in favor of his cronies. His Justice and Development Party (AKP) boasts about
being ''The White Party'', but Erdogan is certainly no Snow-White.
Erdogan also bears much of the responsibility for the fractures that have
appeared in almost all sections of Turkish polity. His tongue-lashing of his
opponents and his verbal violence in general are unexpected from a democratic
politician. Last week, for example, he transformed a funeral ceremony for
victims of the abortive coup into a political demonstration. That was in bad
taste. Equally in bad taste was his description of his opponents as ''a virus
spreading cancer.'' Incidentally, cancer isn't caused by a virus!
Nor should we get starry-eyed about Erdogan's popular base. He certainly
enjoys significant support in all sections of Turkish society, enough to have
helped him win four general elections. However, the number of votes he has won
never hovered much about half the electorate. Even then, not all those who
have voted AKP for the past decade or so share all of Erdogan's agenda or
accept his style.
And, yet, we must never forget that Erdogan is the leader of a government that
owes its legitimacy to reasonably fair and pluralistic elections. Such a
government must be removed through another set of elections, not with tanks
rolling over the Bosporus bridges. A military coup may be justified only if
the regime in place annuls all possibility of free and fair elections. For
example, that was the case in 1974 when the Portuguese army moved in to topple
the Salazarist dictatorship. In contrast, the Colonels' coup in Greece in 1967
was nothing but an act of treason.
Erdogan is a player, albeit a very important one, among many in a deeply
fractured polity. Identifying those fractures and cementing them should be at
the center of the Turkish political agenda. Outside observers divide Turkey
into two major camps: secularists and Islamists. But there are numerous
subdivisions in each camp.
By the end of the last century Turkish Islamists succeeded in creating a broad
coalition when 17 different groups agreed to merge and create the AKP. The
Turkish branch of the Muslim Brotherhood and the Hizmet (Service) movement led
by Fethullah Gulen played crucial roles in leading AKP to a string of
Partly thanks to the personal feud between Erdogan and Gulen, that coalition
is now largely unraveled. Even within the AKP apparatus, several factions as
well as personalities like Abdullah Gul, Ali Babacan, Cemil Cicek and Ahmet
Davutoglu fear that too sharp a twist towards Islamicization could block
Turkey's European future. It is not at all certain that Erdogan would be able
to command a majority even in the Islamist camp to install the kind of
autocratic regime his rivals claim he is preparing.
The secularist camp is also divided. The People's Republican Party (CHP) still
clings to its mixture of Kemalism and Socialism. But new urban middle class
constituencies have also appeared for a liberal reading of Kemalism.
Nationalist, pan-Turkist and moderate conservatives are also identifying with
a broadly secular agenda without accepting the paternalist version introduced
Though a religious minority, the Alevis have always sided with secular parties
for fear that a government system dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood may
further restrict their freedoms, something that has already happened under
Kurds, accounting for up to 15 per cent of the population, are also divided.
There are separatists who dream of a Kurdish state seeking a future in the
European Union. Then there are pan-Kurdists who dream of bringing all
Kurdish-speaking peoples of the region under one flag in a single independent
state. Then again, there are Kurds who want a Communist Kurdish state.
The other major ethnic community, the Arabs, is also deeply divided between
those who see their future in a modern and democratic Turkey and those who
dream of secession. The arrival of some three million Syrian refugees, many of
whom may remain in Turkey for good, is likely to add a further layer of
The leaders of the failed coup tried to peddle a recipe from the past, using
terminology that sounded very 1960-ish. In that sense, they provided a mirror
image of Erdogan who is also looking to an imagined past rather than a
Neither of the two parties of the past can handle Turkey's current crisis and
future challenges. Both, however, must be part of the solution. Turkey's
friends, partners and allies must help rather than offer brass farthing
The question Tukey, the Middle East, Russia and Europe face is simple: how
will they help a deeply fractured society hold together?
Amir Taheri was born in Ahvaz, southwest Iran, and educated
in Tehran, London and Paris. He was Executive Editor-in-Chief of the daily
Kayhan in Iran (1972-79). In 1980-84, he was Middle East Editor for the Sunday
Times. In 1984-92, he served as member of the Executive Board of the
International Press Institute (IPI). Between 1980 and 2004, he was a
contributor to the International Herald Tribune. He has written for the Wall
Street Journal, the New York Post, the New York Times, the London Times, the
French magazine Politique Internationale, and the German weekly Focus. Between
1989 and 2005, he was editorial writer for the German daily Die Welt. Taheri
has published 11 books, some of which have been translated into 20 languages.
He has been a columnist for Asharq Alawsat since 1987. Taheri's latest book
"The Persian Night" is published by Encounter Books in London and New York.