Turkey’s June 12 Elections and Eurocentrism

9 Jun

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.   

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16 Responses to “Turkey’s June 12 Elections and Eurocentrism”

  1. Dona Geagea June 9, 2011 at 1:23 pm #

    Thanks Richard for bringing to the surface eurocentric and propaganda-like undertones dissipated in media outlets that choose to use their influence to shape voters’ decisions in developing countries (of interest). Same continues to be done in regards to the rest of the Middle East . Yet, in contrast, this would certainly not be done to ally countries where already favoured governments are in power. I’ll stay posted with your future blogs!

    • Richard Falk June 9, 2011 at 2:51 pm #

      I appreciate, Dona, your encouraging words about our post. Richard

      • Dona Geagea June 10, 2011 at 9:06 am #

        Of course, this message is addressed to Hilal as well. My sincere apologies.

      • Richard Falk June 10, 2011 at 9:08 am #

        We understood this, Dona, but thanks for your caring clarification..R & H

  2. Robert Ebel June 10, 2011 at 7:49 am #

    Richard,

    I too, was taken by the Western centric tilt; but, that said, there was a most important comment made that a most important task is to get serious about the process of decentralization (a very poor terminology term since “decentralzation” is about the complex tasks of sorting out the intergovernmental roles and responsibilities of central and local/middle tier authorities in a manner that provides a meaningful degree of local fiscal and political autonomy). Indeed, as as been demonstrated for many societies, a well designed system of intergovernmental/decentralized arrangments is often key to national cohesion (e.g, Spain, Canada, India, BiH, Indonesia) . The Economist is right to note that if AK were to take a big win as a way to further centralize power, the long term costs are high, indeed

    • Richard Falk June 10, 2011 at 9:12 am #

      I agree, Robert, but I am not convinced that AKP big victory would lead to further decentalization. In fact, my understanding is the AKP approach to a new constitution is to address the problem of minority rights via the decentralization of governmental control, moving away from the Kemalist conception of a unitary state. Thanks for the comment.
      Greetings, Richard.

  3. Jacob M June 10, 2011 at 11:54 am #

    Professor Falk,

    You are either wrong or being misleading purposefully. The Economist regularly endorses candidates in elections, Western or not. Sarkozy, Obama and Cameron all won the Economist´s endorsement. Are you at all worried about being factual?

    • Richard Falk June 10, 2011 at 12:25 pm #

      Endorsing is one thing, telling voters how to vote is another. We made clear that favoring or criticizing candidates was fine, but telling voters in another country how to vote seems to be patronizing in the manner that we contended.

      • Lafayette June 10, 2011 at 2:33 pm #

        Professor,

        Isn’t “telling voters how to vote” the very definition of endorsing a candidate? The Economist has for many years given very clear voting guidance in elections in the US, in Britain, in France, in Japan and other places. At least some of those have to count as “another country”.

      • Lafayette June 10, 2011 at 2:54 pm #

        Just a few examples (there are many, many more):

        Endorsement of Barack Obama:

        http://www.economist.com/node/12516666?story_id=12516666&source=features_box2

        Endorsements in all US presidential elections since 1980:

        http://www.economist.com/node/12499760

        Endorsement of Nicolas Sarkozy:

        http://www.economist.com/node/9005216?story_id=E1_JDDVNTG

        As for suggesting to vote against a party, rather than for one, they have repeatedly asked Italians to vote Berlusconi out of office.

        Ironically, if you had spent a little more time doing some background research you would have realised that the Economist has been a frequent supporter and defender of AKP in the past, especially while CHP was in its worth reactionary throws.

  4. Ivan June 10, 2011 at 2:39 pm #

    I fail to see the distinction between “endorsing” a candidate and telling voters how to vote. But in any event, the Economist has regularly “told” American (and other) voters how to vote. See http://www.economist.com/node/3329802 (“[W]e think American readers should vote for John Kerry on November 2nd”)

  5. Anon June 10, 2011 at 3:21 pm #

    October 28, 2004: “With a heavy heart, we think American readers should vote for John Kerry on November 2nd”.

    October 30, 2008: “Given Mr Obama’s inexperience, the lack of clarity about some of his beliefs and the prospect of a stridently Democratic Congress, voting for him is a risk. Yet it is one America should take, given the steep road ahead.”

  6. Jürgen W. June 10, 2011 at 7:33 pm #

    Professor Falk and Ms. Elver,

    If indeed there is a distinction between endorsing and telling others how to vote, I do not believe it is relevant here, as The Economist did the former.

    “The best way for Turks to promote democracy would be to vote against the ruling party.”
    “But we would recommend that Turks vote for the CHP.”

    How exactly are these commands and not endorsements? The Economist editorializes, meaning that its journalists will make a recommendation and give reasons why they believe it to be a good one. It has done this many times in the past and will do so in the future. What it does not do is to make any claim of sovereignty over any other nation. Do you argue that because it is not a Turkish newspaper, it should not be allowed to present an opinion on Turkey’s election? I for one am happy that The Economist does not confine itself to the machinations of Britain alone–it would be a far shorter, and less interesting newspaper if it did.

    “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.”

    This statement is demonstrably false. As pointed out by the commenter above, The Economist consistently advises citizens of all those countries (and others) how to vote when a major election takes place, including the elections of the candidates you mention. As an example I give you the title of an article from Sept. 11, 2008: “Give Livni a chance: Israel needs a new leader. Tzipi Livni is the best on offer”.
    As a respected academic I think you owe it to your readers to make a retraction.

    Finally, you don’t seem to dispute what seemed to me to be the main reason they argued to vote against AK–that if Erdoğan achieves a 2/3 majority, he will have the power to write the new constitution unilaterally. Do you not consider such unbalanced power to be inherently dangerous, regardless of how authoritarian and anti-media a leader is?

    • Richard Falk June 11, 2011 at 7:13 am #

      We are persuaded by these comments that are description of The Economist description was inaccurate and misleading, and are preparing a retraction and explanation. It was a mis-interpretation based on the initial internal Turkish reactions to the editorial and language without adequate research into the practice of The Economist.

      We would, however, also maintain some disagreement with the view that a one-sided victory on Sunday would allow Erdogan to rewrite the constitution at will. Recent indications strong divisions within the leadership of the AKP as to the desirability of moving toward a presidential system.

  7. Bennet July 7, 2011 at 4:27 pm #

    I am not sure as to the cause of your anger, because you do sound angry. You frame your arguments elequantly at times; but in reading a larger body of your work I do not think you are a very nice person overall and certinally not a happy one. At our age, we should be able to afford the ability to be truely honest. I remain hopeful for you.

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  1. Turkey’s June 12 Elections and Eurocentrism « HAKKANI – Defender of Truth - June 11, 2011

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