Are liberal politics possible?

Turkish politics has been more than an interesting phenomenon for years now. The »»

Turkish politics has been more than an interesting phenomenon for years now. The keen observer will note sporadic pockets of liberal politics within the political spectrum. Yet, there is not a natural home for Turkey's liberals. For a long time the Justice and Development Party (AK Party) was the natural home for liberals. After all, the party has been instrumental in balancing civil-military relations, putting the economy back in order and giving the system a sense of predictability that was so dearly missing for decades.

Ravaged by the internal violence of the 1990s, badly managed by a semi-authoritarian regime with frequent meddling by the military, Turkey's political system was no longer able to respond to the needs of Turkish society. The forces unleashed by Prime Minister Turgut Özal's liberalization in the 1980s had opened the Turkish economy to the rest of the world. Consequently, Turks from all walks of life came to demand more.

First, the 1999 earthquake and then the devastating 2001 economic crisis paved the way for the rise of the AK Party. Of course, there were other factors at play. After a long centrist and prudent run from 2002 to 2008, the AK Party has slowly begun to return to its roots. Especially since 2011 a more conservative and nationalist agenda has seemed to dominate the leadership.

The EU issue has effectively been shelved, despite the official discourse between Brussels and Ankara. This was an important reason for Turkey's democrats and liberals to support the AK Party since 2002. Important strides have been made in the effort to push the military back to its barracks and prevent them from interfering in the daily political process. There were already signs of discontent among Turkey's liberals before the closure case was opened against the AK Party in 2008, but that quickly subsided as the larger danger was quickly identified. The closure case became a test case against the deep state and the authoritarian system it represented. Hence, the liberals marched back behind the AK Party in recognition of the larger stakes at hand. A resolution to the Kurdish issue is nowhere to be seen as we have stepped back from the courageous Kurdish opening back to the hard-line policy of the 1990s.

The 2011 election once again confirmed that Turkey has no credible opposition. The AK Party won decisively after almost nine years in office. The hope generated by the leadership change in the Republican People's Party (CHP) that a new CHP was at hand proved to be false. The Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) barely passed the 10 percent threshold quota and simply seems to be content to be in Parliament. How have the liberals voted, then? I believe they overwhelmingly voted for the AK Party again as they have no natural home. I am sure a segment of the liberal vote gave the CHP a chance but has by now utterly regretted that choice.

Turkey needs a credible opposition. That opposition needs to unite the center and have a liberal platform. It needs an opposition that respects religion and the devout but favors liberal democracy. I was encouraged to read Mustafa Akyol's “Islam Without Extremes: A Case for Liberal Islam” and see better that it is not really Islam itself that prohibits liberal politics in Turkey. It is rather the authoritarian political culture and discourse that prevents liberalism taking hold in Turkey. Also, most Turks do not understand what liberalism stands for, either. For many of them, liberalism merely stands for the freedom to pursue materialistic gains. Yet, our Islamic and Ottoman history is full of liberal applications of which we are mostly ignorant of.

Is there hope that liberal politics can have a future in Turkey? Liberal politics need to find a language that can resonate with Islam as Turkey has become a more conservative country. Mustafa Akyol, Berat Özipek, Hilal Kaplan and many others are in search of devising such a language. It is not easy and there will be many to oppose it. Yet, as Aristotle long ago noted, “Of all the varieties of virtues, liberalism is the most beloved.”