Much ink is spilled and breath expended within Turkey and beyond its shores on the ‘increasing polarisation’ of the population. Generally this phenomenon is attributed to the machinations of ‘the Islamist-rooted Justice and Development Party (AKP)’ government. Most recently I read of a workshop planned for May 2014 in the enlightened Aegean coastal city of Izmir, entitled ‘Encounters with Europe in an Era of Democratic Stagnation in Turkey’.
The convenors, from Bilgi University in Istanbul, speak, in their abstract for the workshop, of an ‘authoritarian regime’, ‘legal and de facto restrictions [on] the freedom of press’, ‘use of disproportionate force by the police’, ‘anger and resentment against the government’s policies’, and ‘the EU . . . stressing its concerns.’
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Well, all these things may be true, and if so, those Bilgi University academics are to be admired and congratulated for their courage in organizing such a workshop and allowing their names to be published. However, for all the talk of ‘authoritarian regimes’ Turkey remains a multi-party parliamentary democracy holding free elections every four years. What really puzzles me is the apparent inability of the opposite pole of this ‘polarised society’ to get their act together and support a political party capable of mounting a serious challenge to the Justice and Development Party (AKP) people.
It has longed seemed to me, and at last I hear other voices singing the same refrain, that the greatest threat to democracy in Turkey is not the paternalistic certainty of AK Party Prime Minister Tayyip Erdoğan, but the lack of a parliamentary opposition with the nous to come up with some credible alternative policies or programmes that will encourage people to vote for them in sufficient numbers. It is not enough merely to say NO to everything the government of the day proposes, and engage in personal attacks on its leader (or his wife).
Unfortunately, on the contrary, the other two main parties (MHP – Nationalist People’s Party, and CHP – Republican People’s Party) represented in Turkey’s parliament seem completely devoid of any positive ideas to offer the electorate. What is worse, after saying NO and NO again to the government’s ‘Islamist-rooted’ proposals, they then do a complete about-face and adopt the policy they had just finished slamming the AK Party for. Possibly this is tacit recognition of the fact that Turkey’s population is ninety-nine percent Muslim – but at the same time it shows a rather sad ignorance of very real problems within the country that could be addressed by a serious opposition ‘people’s’ party. Three that spring to mind are:
- The education system. Pretty much everyone agrees that education in Turkey is unsatisfactory at every level, and the government, after ten years in office, has so far failed to show that it has any idea how to fix it.
- Conditions of employment and rights in the workplace. According to government statistics, Turkey has a workforce of twenty-five million, of whom a mere 3.9 million belong to any kind of trade union. As a result, collective bargaining is almost non-existent and workplace conditions are very much in favour of employers.
- Many work places display on the wall somewhere a framed certificate proudly announcing that here workers are paid asgari ücret – the basic minimum wage – currently amounting to 773 TL net per month (about $US 384), not much to support a family on, even in Turkey.
Instead of formulating policies to rectify these problems, and in so doing winning themselves a good deal of popular support, recent news items tell me that:
- The Republican People’s party, supposedly the heirs of Atatürk’s secular legacy, have nominated a head-scarved lady by the name of Sevinç Özdemir as a mayoral candidate in the forth-coming local body elections.
- Not to be outdone in the race for the Islamic vote, a Nationalist People’s Party member of parliament Yusuf Halaçoğlu has introduced a bill proposing that the 1,500 year-old Byzantine cathedral church of St Sophia, established as a museum by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk in 1935, should be converted back into a mosque, as it was after the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople in 1453.
What can you say? Will the true secular democrats in Turkey please stand up?