On two occasions in April hundreds of thousands of Turks took to the streets of Istanbul and the capital Ankara to defend “the Republic”.
Wrapped in Turkish flags and pictures of Kemal Ataturk – the founder of modern Turkey – they shouted, “Happy is he who says I’m Turkish”, “No to Islamic fundamentalism”, “We are not Armenian, we are Turks”.
Some carried placards calling on the armed forces to “do its duty”, clamouring for the military to stage a coup against the government led by Justice and Development Party (AKP).
Turkey’s ruling party comes from an Islamic background.
For the past five years it has done two things. Economically, it has slavishly implemented a neo-liberal programme set out by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) that includes a programme of privatisation, and cuts in social security and the health service.
In doing this, the AKP has won the support of big business in the country. It has also gained friends in the US for its unstinting neoliberal policies and its support for US plans in the Middle East – even though AKP members of parliament voted against allowing US troops to use Turkish soil for the invasion of Iraq in 2003.
The government continues to enjoy the popular support it won in the general elections in 2002. It gained a majority because it was not an establishment party.
The party leader and current prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, was briefly jailed for reciting an Islamic poem during a rally. The party promised reforms and a more relaxed approach to religion in a country dominated by the secular establishment.
Despite the neo-liberal economic policies, the AKP government has taken hesitant but unprecedented steps to resolve the Kurdish problem and the issue of Cyprus. Partly under European Union pressure, it has liberalised many restrictive laws governing human rights.
While it has not taken any steps which could in any way be interpreted as “Islamic”, the fact that it comes from an Islamic tradition has meant that religious people – both Muslim and Christian – have not felt under pressure from the state.
The AKP government has cut against the grain of Turkey’s Kemalist official ideology. Kemalism is a deeply nationalistic ideology which gives primacy to the state, the unity of “the nation”, secularism and Westernisation.
It is the justification for military interventions (four coups since 1945) against real and imagined “enemies”. Usually the victims of the military were the left, now the enemy is Islam.
The demonstrators who think they are defending “the Republic” against Islamic fundementalism are in fact bolstering a state which stifles democracy and limits human rights in the country.
What is widely dubbed “the deep state” in Turkey – in reality not “deep” but the state itself, from the army to the bureaucracy to semi-official hit-squads – has watched the government with a growing sense of panic.
The sacred cows of Kemalism, the indivisibility of the country and secularism – meaning no concession to the Kurds or on Cyprus and no
concessions to any sign of religious expression – have seemed to be under attack.
There have been two mouthpieces of Kemalism and reaction. One is the armed forces. The second, perhaps more surprisingly for a Western observer, is the social democratic party, the main opposition party in parliament.
Both have screamed against all attempts at reforming the monolithic and repressive state apparatus. And they have constantly harped on “the danger of Islamic fundamentalism” supposedly represented by the government party.
There is no such danger in Turkey. Indeed, it is precisely because the social democrats have constantly shouted about the illusory danger of Islam that the government has got away with its neo-liberal programme unopposed.
The crisis came to a head recently after the foreign minister, Abdullah
Gül, was nominated for president of the republic. The election for president is held by MPs rather than a general vote.
The president is elected by parliament every seven years. The army and the social democrats have warned that they will not allow a man whose wife wears the Islamic headscarf to become head of state.
Given that the AKP government can use its parliamentary majority to get whoever it wants elected, “not allow” means “not allow a democratically elected government to implement due democratic process”.
The two demonstrations last month represent an attempt by the army to create a popular base for its fight against the government.
There has never been a demonstration in Turkey that has received such a good press and such help from the authorities. I have never seen so many people arrive on a demonstration in four-wheel drives and expensive hair-dos.
Turkey’s middle class, organised by the army and the social democratic party, have taken to the streets to call on the army to defend their life-styles. The wealthy neighbourhoods of Istanbul were awash with Turkish flags on the day of the march, elsewhere in the working class areas there were no flags or support for the demonstration.
As Gül secured a majority in the first round of voting in his election, the armed forces issued a declaration threatening a coup, and the social democratic party took the issue to the constitutional court on a technicality about parliamentary arithmetic.
After the court annulled Gül’s vote the general elections, scheduled for November, will probably now take place in July or August.
There is no doubt that the AKP government will win handsomely. In the meantime, the onus is on us to speak up for democracy against the military, while continuing to fight against the government’s neo-liberal programme and to build the campaigns against the occupation in Iraq and threats against Iran.