Voice from the Commonwealth Commentary, World Views and Occasional Rants from a small 'l' libertarian in Massachussetts
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Just six months after its landslide victory, support for the AKP is starting to decline. Many of those who voted for the party simply as a protest vote against the traditional (secular) parties have become disenchanted with the inability of the AKP to tackle a range of economic and social problems facing the country. At the same time, the party is losing support from its core voters, many of which are disillusioned with the way that Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the prime minister, is failing to advance a more clearly Islamic agenda. While Mr Erdogan may wish to articulate more radical views he has shown that pragmatism is called for at this stage. Unfortunately for Mr Erdogan, the growing disillusionment in the rank and file about the party's failure to take a more ambitious approach is finding an outlet in the form of Bulent Arinc, the Speaker of the Grand National Assembly. Over the past few months Mr Arinc has proved to be a major thorn in the side of the government; a role that he evidently relishes. In addition to having been the most prominent member of the party to speak out against any change in policy on the Cyprus issue, he was also widely credited for having played a pivotal role in building up opposition within the parliamentary AKP to any moves to bring Turkey into line with the US over Iraq.
However, it is his growing reputation as a standard bearer for a stronger adherence to Islam within the party that is now causing the greatest concern. This role has been strengthened not by the specific activities of Mr Arinc, but by those of his wife who has upset state protocol by wearing a headscarf at official events. By permitting this, many in Turkey see this as a clear indication of Mr Arinc's desire to challenge to the secular nature of the state. As a result the military and main opposition parties decided to boycott the recent annual reception organised to mark the founding of the Grand National Assembly. While Mrs Arinc did not eventually attend the event, the absence of General Hilmi Ozkok, the Chief of the General Staff, President Sezer and Mr Baykal, the leader of the main opposition Republican Peoples Party (CHP), provoked what many saw as a mini-constitutional crisis. This event played a large, although by no means the only, part in prompting the statement from the National Security Council.
While thd traditionally politically active military is pulling in a different direction.
Ranged against the AKP are those members of the armed forces who are growing increasingly disillusioned with the idea of EU accession and the changes that the process requires. The first hint of this came in March last year, when the Secretary General of the National Security Council, General Tuncer Kilinc, gave a speech at the Istanbul army college in which he suggested that Turkey could instead look to form new strategic relationships beyond the EU, perhaps with Russia and Iran. Despite the fact that General Kilinc made it clear that his comments represented his own personal beliefs, many felt that it was unthinkable that such a senior figure would have made such a statement had it not been supported by at least some other high ranking figures.
Since then it looks increasingly likely that this line of thinking has its adherents at the highest levels. According to recent published reports, those who sympathise with General Kilinc include General Huseyin Kivrikoglu, the predecessor of General Ozkok as Chief of the General Staff, and General Aytac Yalman, the current Commander of Land Forces. At the same time, more and more of the retired generals who support the new direction thesis are making their thoughts known publicly. To this group, the fundamental changes required for EU accession are simply not worth making if the EU has no real interest in ever letting Turkey join and any moves to ease up on the secular nature of the state should not, and will not, be tolerated. If these reports are to be believed, General Ozkok, who is known to be in favour of Turkey's EU accession process and is a believer in greater democratisations, is in an increasingly uncomfortable position.
What are the possible ramifications of this confrontation?
Needless to say, fears of a military coup are already being raised. However, one must caution against reaching such a conclusion too easily. It would require a lot more intense provocation to push the General Staff in this direction. The military hierarchy in Turkey is all too aware of the enormous ramifications such a step could have, especially if it were to amount to full-blown coup of the type staged in 1980. However, a coup of this nature would be very unlikely. Instead it would be more probable that the military would stage a quasi-coup of the type seen in 1997 when the General Staff issued a proclamation that rendered the government almost powerless, again prompted by fears of a growth of Islamic sentiment in the government. The danger is that even this would seriously damage any remaining hopes that Turkey could join the European Union. Quite apart from the reaction from the EU, which would regard such a step as being proof of the failure of Turkey to democratise, a move along these lines could well lead to the formation of a new government that would take a less welcoming attitude towards EU accession.
The problem, however, is that those elements of the military that are the most sensitive about the secular issue also appear to be those that are most sceptical, or hostile, about EU accession. They are, therefore, the most likely to feel that there is little to lose by forcing AKP out of power should it show any signs of adopting a more radical Islamic agenda. Given the apparently growing influence of this group, it is likely that the Chief of the General Staff is likely to have little choice but to act on their demands. At the same time, within the AKP there is a growing group that wish to see a more Islamic agenda adopted. The pressure is now on Mr Erdogan to start producing economic and social results that will keep the moderate non-ideologue supporters on side and, at the same time, resist any moves to pull the party down a more Islamic path without totally alientaing the more radical members of the party. Quite how this balance can be achieved is difficult to envisage given the government's poor record, which would show little sign of improving, and Mr Erdogan's own suspected beliefs in favour of a stronger Islamic agenda in the longer term. The prospect of political instability in Turkey is therefore increasing.
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