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Turkey At A Crossroads

  • Abbas Djavadi

The Turkish government and its sharp-tongued leader, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, have steadfastly refused to try to build cooperation with the opposition.

The Turkish government and its sharp-tongued leader, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, have steadfastly refused to try to build cooperation with the opposition.

As Turkey heads toward a historic referendum on September 12 on proposed changes to its constitution, two opposing pictures of the country are emerging. One is of a country capable of peaceful progress and reform; the other is of one beset by endless, destructive internal divisions.

Turkey has been one of the success stories of the last decade, particularly since the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) came to power eight years ago. It is now one of the top-10 fastest-growing economies in the world, with a stable currency and consistently rising GDP, foreign investment, and exports. A NATO member since 1952, Turkey remains a candidate for possible European Union membership, despite the bloc's "expansion fatigue" and a growing indifference toward Brussels among many Turks.

Ankara has also improved relations with its neighbors and has evolved into an important regional power.

However, Turkey has a big Kurdish problem. Ethnic Kurds compose a large majority in the country, and, despite repeated government promises in recent years, their basic individual and group rights are far from secure. For more than three decades, the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) has been waging a bloody war against Turkish troops seeking either broad autonomy or independence. More than 30,000 people have been killed in the violence.

The government, the military, and public opinion reject negotiating with the PKK, but they also remain deaf to calls by moderate Kurds and Turks (as well as the EU) to ensure the basic rights of the Kurdish community.

AKP In Driver's Seat

Another serious obstacle to Turkey's further development is the deep social division that emerged after the AKP won an absolute majority in elections in 2003 and 2007. These triumphs enabled the party to create a government on its own, without building a coalition or any consensus with other political parties.

This position has enabled the party to implement sweeping reforms over the last eight years that previous coalition governments had been unwilling or unable to advance. But it has also created strong resentment within the state bureaucracy and the army, which had de facto ruled the country for decades. The suspect that the AKP, because of its Islamist history, is gradually diverting Turkey from its secular, democratic path -- a charge the AKP vehemently rejects.

Although the last eights years has generally been a sustained period of economic and political success for Turkey, they have also been a time of struggle between these forces, a struggle that seems more like a fight for survival than ordinary parliamentary competition. At one point, the courts attempted unsuccessfully to ban the AKP and its leaders from the government, and the military has allegedly attempted to overthrow the government. At the same time, the government and its sharp-tongued leader, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, have steadfastly refused to try to build cooperation with the opposition. Both sides have adopted undiplomatic (to say the least) rhetorical styles in relation to one another and political dialogue is at a standstill.

Continuing Risk

On September 12 -- coincidentally, 30 years to the day since the 1980 military coup that introduced the country's highly undemocratic constitution -- Turks will go to the polls in a referendum on amending that document. The proposed changes are aimed at reducing the influence of the military in politics and the judicial system and boosting European-style social and family rights. The government is urging voters to adopt the changes, while the opposition rejects them, saying they would increase government control over the judiciary and weaken the system of checks and balances.

Undoubtedly, the 1980 constitution needs to be amended. It no longer suits the stronger, more democratic Turkey of the 21st century. But can the politically deadlocked country move in this direction without resorting to violence or illegal measures? If it cannot find a process of compromise and consensus, much of the progress of recent years could be in danger.

Abbas Djavadi is an associate director of broadcasting at RFE/RL. The views expressed in this commentary are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL

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