Turkey’s Descent

March 16, 2016

Terrorist attacks continue to claim rising numbers of innocent lives. The word “gridlock” can hardly describe the political atmosphere. The country is polarized like it has never been. Foreign and security policies are in shambles. Tourism, a major source of income and an irreplaceable avenue for interaction with the outside world is on the rocks. Lawlessness is widespread. People are increasingly agitated. There is little respect for rules, even speed limits. A traffic accident can be described by the media as a “vehicle getting out of control” as if the vehicle has an independent mind of its own. Similarly, most of our problems are attributed to foreign hands, dark forces which are determined to stop Turkey’s rise as a regional and global power. Western political support during the early years of the Justice and Development Party (JDP) rule, the launching of accession talks with the EU in October 2005, President Obama’s remarkable visit to Ankara in April 2009, cozy relations with Russia until the downing of the Su-24 warplane and “strategic cooperation” with President Assad’s Syria are conveniently forgotten. In brief, there can never be any wrongdoing on our part.

This extremely bleak picture is essentially the result of JDP’s growing addiction to power after fourteen years of rule; hubris and the misguided foray into the Syrian quagmire. Indeed, the JDP has won five consecutive elections, the difference being that in the beginning the big project was said to be improving Turkey’s democratic standards whereas now it is only bridges and tunnels. Since how the country got here is amply clear, one needs to focus on what can possibly be done. Unfortunately, there seems to be little room for optimism.

Turkey’s first and foremost challenge is overcoming polarization. Here, if we can still claim to be a somewhat democratic country, foremost responsibility lies with the JDP’s parliamentary group and rank-and-file. They have to get a grip on the situation and tell their leaders that they need to change course starting with the obsession for a new constitution. Drafting a new constitution is the last of Turkey’s worries. And, they also have to tell the government that our Syria policy, with a multitude of negative implications, requires a thorough review; that recent Ankara attacks have provided the world with irrefutable evidence that the PKK is a terrorist organization but we did not have PYD/YPG problem five years ago. Unfortunately, none of this is likely to happen because current political culture emphasizes devotion/submission to leaders rather than democratic debate within political parties. Twice in the past emerging political leaders successfully challenged well-established ones but that is ancient history.

The second and purely theoretical possibility is for the JDP government to finally admit that it needs to change course. The truth is that policy changes, no matter how dramatic, will enjoy the full backing of JDP’s supporters, fifty percent of the polarized electorate. For example, they did not object to Turkey’s involvement in the Syrian conflict and they would not fail in their support even if the government were to embrace “brother Assad” once again. In other words, political cost is not a question. Hubris, however, remains a huge obstacle.

The third possibility is Turkey sliding deeper into trouble. There isn’t a fourth one. Surely, we have the opposition but it does not appear to present the country with an alternative. With neighboring Iraq and Syria already in turmoil, further internal commotion should be a dark scenario not only for Turkey but also for the region and the world beyond. All Turkey needs now is common sense to prevail.

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