Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Erdogan leads Turkey - and the Middle East

Situating oneself in a fairly recent decade, if one were to suggest that someday Turkey, a staunchly secularist country, could have an Islamist head of government, it would have seemed a joke. And to suggest that an Islamist leader could as well prove to be the longest-serving leader in that country, second only to Kemal Attaturk, its founder and father figure, would have seemed a macabre joke.

"No way, the Pashas will never allow it to happen." That would be the repartee. The Pashas, or civil or military authorities, are confined to barracks. The results of the parliamentary elections held in Turkey on Sunday need to be put in historical perspective.

Without doubt, the resounding victory by the ruling party AKP (Justice and Development Party) led by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, with a mandate of 50% of popular support is a landmark event. Victory was expected, but not on a scale exceeding the 47% mandate of the 2007 elections.

The heart of the matter is that Turkey is reaching unprecedented heights of economic prosperity and is a land at peace after several decades of strife, bloodshed and chronic political instability. The contrast couldn't be sharper with its neighborhood, which is passing through great upheaval and uncertainties.

Turkey's economy grew at a rate of 9% last year, second only to China's among the Group of 20. The economy is already the world's 17th largest and growing income is beginning to percolate and give people hope of a better tomorrow.

Today, Turkey borrows more cheaply than Spain; a far cry from the not-too-distant past when it used to hold a begging bowl before the International Monetary Fund (IMF). Yet, it also showcases the IMF's success. Turkey has been one of IMF's biggest borrowers - US$25 billion in the past decade - but is well-poised to pay back its debts by 2013. The contrast with Greece, a pristine European Union (EU) member country, is at once obvious.

Unsurprisingly, a Turkish name that spontaneously sailed into view as a terrific candidate for the vacant post of managing director of IMF was of Kemal Davis, who nursed the sick Turkish economy at a critical phase when it was in intensive care. Arguably, it would have been a bitter pill to swallow for EU member countries if a brilliant Turkish wizard were to be employed to restore their economies to recovery.

Explaining Erdogan's mandate
Ironically, as a Bloomberg report wrote, "Rebuffed in its efforts to join the EU, Turkey now borrows at 10-year yields lower than at least eight members of the 27-nation bloc." The Turkish electorate is grateful to Erdogan's government for successful economic management. However, Erdogan's renewed mandate to lead the country for a third successive four-year term demands a much broader explanation.

Personal charisma was certainly a factor, as there is no one today in Turkish politics who can even come up to his shoulders in sheer stature as a statesman. It is a saga that becomes the stuff of an absorbing political biography - a long journey from the backstreets of a Black Sea town to Ankara via Istanbul, from a prison cell to the office of the prime minister, from rabble-rousing Islamism to consensual politics, from a Turkish politician to a towering regional figure who might very well end up in the years ahead moulding the New Middle East in a far more enduring and humane way than the Ottomans from Suleiman the Magnificent could manage through centuries.

The Turkey which Erdogan inherited in 2003 was a practicing democracy in appearance but still had common characteristics with the authoritarian regimes of the Middle East.

The military as the self-appointed Praetorian Guards of the Turkish state; the strong authoritarian undercurrent of the "deep state"; coercion as the instrument to smother dissent; a form of secularism that was as militant and suffocating as any religious extremism; the deep-rooted religiosity of the common people who were observant Muslims but steeped in worldly concerns; and, the inability or refusal to comprehend and to come to terms with political Islam - these were as much features of the Turkish crisis.

Erdogan proved himself to be a "liberator" and a "conqueror". He gently eased Turkey to face the reality that practicing or holding religious beliefs is not antithetical to the state or modernity. The thought churning through the Turkish mind when Erdogan took over the leadership was whether the practice of women wearing headscarves was compatible with the tenets of a secularist state.
M K Bhadrakumar in Asia Times. Here

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