Changing positions in Turkish politics

Instead of a structural change, Turkish politics brings a change to the tradition »»

Instead of a structural change, Turkish politics brings a change to the tradition of the elite serving in old structures. It is in fact a matter of loyalty of the elite -- whether loyalty is directed towards Kemalism and its institutional representatives or towards the agencies of the “new Turkey” under the Justice and Development Party’s (AK Party) rule.

Allegiance is certainly important; public authorities should have allegiances towards democratically elected rulers of the country, not towards an ideology and its vanguard within the state. Yet the change that Turkey needs should transcend a simple shift in loyalty. Interestingly for some, including the government, this seems satisfactory enough.

The changing attitude towards the military is the case in point. Only one or two years ago the military used to be regarded by the government and its allies as an obstacle to full democracy. Its personnel and activities were thus constantly scrutinized and transparency and accountability was demanded. Now thinking that it is in full control of the appointments within the military and thus breaking the autonomy of the military, the government is in defense of the military, its operations and secrecy.

The Uludere incident in which 34 Kurdish civilians were massacred by Turkish jets by “mistake” is an example. Even after it became clear that Turkish jets made an incredible mistake and bombed innocent civilians, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan congratulated the military and the chief of General Staff. To this day the Uludere controversy continues and Prime Minister Erdoğan has not moved from his position of defending the military. It is still unknown what happened on that particular day, who gave the order to bomb and why. What we hear instead from the government and its allies in the media is that “we should trust our military and not weaken its spirit in the fight against the Kurdistan Workers’ Party [PKK].”

Surprisingly though, the main opposition party has become very critical of the military. Its leader, Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, questioned the stance on the Uludere incident the other day asking, “Who is governing the country, the government or the military?” This displays the changing positions of the actors towards the military depending on the shifting loyalties on the part of institutions.

Another most recent case is a column written by journalist Bekir Coşkun, a strong Kemalist and an old ally of the military, who wrote a fable about a dog called Paşa. The column undoubtedly criticized the new form of relationship between the generals and the AK Party government. The military issued a strongly worded statement, just like the old days when such statements were issued against the conservatives and liberal writers and newspapers. It was the herald of the new relationship between the government and the military in which the Turkish military issued a statement condemning a Kemalist journalist. This time, while the conservative media remained silent against the statement, the Kemalist writers and newspapers reacted. Over this issue Prime Minister Erdoğan called on all generals to sue Coşkun for insulting all paşas, including Kemal Atatürk. Indeed, the General Staff headquarters eventually filed a complaint against Coşkun, the most famous Kemalist writer and journalist.

All these events tell us that once loyalty of institutions and their administrators have shifted, the stances change as well: Old time pro-military Kemalists turn against the military while the conservatives, once the victims of the military, come around and defend the generals. Another case in point is the Higher Education Board (YÖK). Last month an academic who is also a columnist in a conservative daily wrote, “Apart from its name, nothing is left to change in YÖK.” This reflects the attitude towards the old institutions inherited from the Kemalist era: So long as they are staffed by “our men,” there is no need for structural change.

Everyone knows that YÖK is one of the key institutions established by the military regime in 1982. The liberals, democrats, socialists and conservatives have criticized it for its centralized, commanding and ideologically driven administration. Instead of regulating higher education, it tried to turn it into an ideological instrument of the state. As a result, throughout Turkey students were suppressed for wearing headscarves, or using Kurdish in their activities, and academics were intimidated.

These days are over but the structure remains unchanged. However, trusting in the new rulers at the top, can we say, “Nothing is left to change?” This is the greatest challenge for the “new Turkey” if we are interested in building democracy instead of simply replacing the old Kemalist tutelage.



Columnist: İHSAN DAĞI