The Road to Political Change Runs Via Europe

Article published on May 24, 2004
community published
Article published on May 24, 2004

This article has not been vetted by an editor at Paris HQ

Turkey’s political class is wavering between modernity and archaism, thereby limiting real rapid development and favouring immobilisation. The promise of Europe could act as a wake-up call.

‘Is is a sign of modernity to go to sleep with a dead child in your stomach?’ asks the novelist Adalet Agaoglu through one of her heroines. Turkey has in fact quickly discovered the limits of a modernity which it has embraced without looking back since 1923.

Turks directly and definitively experienced the limits or intimate contradictions between the powers of creation (humanism: innovation, creation, democracy) and vertical political and religious powers (sovereignty, identity, tradition) at the end of the second world war on the road to a multiparty system.

Popular and democratic effervescence

The Rural Institutes, 21 training centres scattered across Anatolia, were created in 1940. Their aim was to respond to the need for development in the ‘real’ country - the countryside. From a jumping off point of agricultural rationalisation they embraced cultural rationalisation and education. The successful institutes, which were self-run, introduced libraries and Western literature to Anatolia. Courses were provided for a largely illiterate adult population. The teachers, who were locally recruited and trained, provided insider knowledge of the students who were scattered throughout the neighbouring villages. Through this scheme, the country experienced a lively popular and democratic effervescence.

That was exactly what was causing concern. From 1946, counter-reform laid down vast numbers of death sentences and sanctions. For the ruling power, the Institutes were perceived as a source of Marxist agitation. They were also seen as a threat to the status of the local notables who the opposition (born of new open-mindedness towards a multiparty system) would go on to lean on, thereby allying itself to the birth of the Turkish right.

In 1954 the Institutes closed. Democratic effervescence had provoked a classic conservative reaction. Democracy had been sacrificed at the alter of a pluralism which had become the formal, democratic front for a confrontation between vertical authoritarian modernity and the conservatism of the archaic rural (feudal) notabilities.

An often divided right

It initiated a spiral of growing tension from which the country is yet to escape. In two decades, three coups d’Etat took place (in 1960, 1971 and 1980). The political landscape froze in the structures which still hold good today.

On the one hand, the impossibility of the emergence of a modern, democratic and popular left-wing (a direct consequence of the failure of the Institutes) condemned the Left to the revolution/repression alternative; to the choice of violence used by extreme right-wing groups; to the inevitable return to the bosom of the supremacist, progressive authoritarian Left, personified by the State and the CHP (People’s Republican Party), formerly the only party in the one-party system and today the only parliamentary opposition party.

In the opposite corner lies the constant domination (at least socially speaking) of right-wing parties since the journey towards pluralism began. The Right is often divided, sometimes unified, but always quick to play the religious card (from the Centre to the Islamists). The latest reunification, and perhaps the most complete to date in terms of integrating Islamic positions, was that produced within the AKP (Party for Justice and Development) currently in power.

The current face-off between the AKP and the CHP partly reflects the persistence of the sterile and immobile confrontation over themes which now only retain a symbolic skin (the veil, religious teaching, the Kurdish issue and so on).

The European issue is vital

This confrontation between ossified progressivism and social conservatism comes from an ambivalent concept of modernity, wavering between supremacy, identity and democracy. It is a matter of looking like the modern West and therefore getting rid of the differences which the West uses to define itself. There is an impossible gulf to fill, where modernity is transformed into a far off and abstract ideal - to be maintained at all costs for some, to be abandoned for others.

Two types of conservatism therefore stand together, one modernist, the other traditionalist. Both are concerned about the consequences of a real democracy (the AKP because of the female question, the CHP because of the Kurdish question). They never betray the fossilised description, the Medusa expression which the West gives the East, as if it reflected the static social and cultural reality, and which the East seems ready to accept.

This is why the European question is vitally important for a Turkey which has so firmly anchored its destiny to the West, by choosing for itself, in a unique example, a description which tries to exclude it. It is a paradoxical position which only the much sought after membership of the EU can untangle (or the promise of it alone), by filling in the impassable development gulf and by opening the way for real social and political progress. The European dispute currently being fought by the AKP is distorting the old opposition by making itself out to be the promise of a real democratic flowering. Will a powerful alliance between the Turkish and Kurdish left wings, which exists but is still marginal, induce germination?