Friday, July 18, 2008

Democracy in Turkey

I used to think that democracy in Turkey was a bit like democracy in Latin America where people were allowed to vote as they pleased so long as it was in line with American policy. Here in Turkey they could vote as they please so long as the Military approved. The rest of the world seems to find this strange so this time I asked a few questions from my friends here.

When Mustafa Kemal Ataturk created Turkey from both the ruins of the Ottoman Empire and the carving up of the 1919 Paris Peace Conference, he was determined to make it into a modern secular liberal "European" state. Consequently the Constitution firmly separated religion from government, much to the disgruntlement of conservative Islam. Elected governments which have "stepped over the line" (as drawn by the Military) have found themselves deposed in a coup until such time as power could be "safely" returned to an elected government that was not "Islamist".

The current governing party is the AKP which is considered mildly Islamist (by some and fanatically Islamist by others). One of Kemal Ataturk's laws forbade the wearing of the headscarf in government buildings, which included government funded universities. Last fall the AKP passed a law allowing women to wear the headscarf in Universities. The feces hit the fan.

The law was subsequently over turned by the courts as unconstitutional and the courts will decide this August whether the AKP party should be disbanded and some 70 of its members including the Prime Minister and the President banned from politics. To a Canadian this is the dumbest thing one ever heard of, but it is very real to the Turkish people.

The AKP party won 47% of the popular vote and 51% of the seats in Parliament so they certainly have a claim that they legitimately represent the will of the people. Part of the problem may be loss of power by the "secular, traditional ruling and business class" and the rise of people from the "rural villages and lower working class" who are pulling themselves up the economic ladder. "Women in head scarves used to clean our houses, now they are our neighbours".

But there is fear too. Especially on the part of women. Islam is a religion and culture which at its extremes "puts floor length black bags over the heads of 50% of the population and treats them worse than 5 year olds". The women I spoke with are terrified that Turkey could incrementally become another Iran, where the population vote for freedom but the 5% who hold the levers of power (army, police, courts) keep a strangle hold on them in the name of Allah. They are glad the Military is there to protect them. Paranoia fed by the secularists or not, it could happen, though I personally doubt that it will in Turkey.

On the other hand, the people from the rural villages and lower working class may be tired of being second class citizens. They see AKP as their party. Poverty, discontent and a feeling of powerlessness can drive them to the Mullahs who see the opportunity to increase their own power by pushing conservative Islam.

I do not understand it and I do not envy the Turkish people who will have to work it out for themselves to preserve their great nation.

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