Turkey's Risky Transition
by Ali Uyanik
Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey's Prime Minister and leader of the Islamist Justice and Development Party (AKP), has called for revision of the Turkish constitution through a referendum making it impossible for the secular judiciary to close down Islamist parties.
His chief political adversary, Kemal Kilicdaroglu of the Republican People's Party (CHP), says "No" to constitutional amendments that would reinforce the position of the AKP.
Kilicdaroglu comes from the eastern Turkish province of Tunceli. If you travel to Tunceli, you will see inscribed on a hillside a uniquely malevolent warning from the state: "We are strong and brave; we are ready." The message is unmistakable. Tunceli is also the name of the provincial capital, a city 99 percent populated by Alevis, who practise a stream of spirituality combining Sufi mysticism, Shia Islam, and traditional Turkish practices.
Local people call this province "Dersim," its older name. The Turkish state considers it a hotbed of separatism. As the Ottoman empire came to an end, many military operations were carried out here. The region is mountainous and inaccessible, with considerable natural beauty. Under the Ottomans, many Alevis took refuge in this wild area. Dersim was virtually independent of the Ottoman state; the people paid no taxes and did not fulfil the demands made on them to serve in the military.
Mass murder, approaching an attempt at genocide, occurred in 1938, when the Turkish government sought to "urbanize" the region. The local tribes fought back. Politicians of the time spoke of "civilizing" the people, while inflicting massacres and the deportations of thousands. Hatred for the Turkish state led the populace to support leftist organizations, including clandestine movements. In the 1990s, war between the state and the ultra-leftist Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) left many innocent people dead; up to 3,000 villages were destroyed, and forests were burned to prevent their use as sanctuaries.
Erdogan and Kilicdaroglu are now touring the country, holding rallies. The country is gripped by a "yes or no" fever regarding the proposed constitutional changes. Erdogan accuses his opponents in the CHP of responsibility for crimes against humanity in Dersim. But many Alevis will vote for the CHP, as it is seen as the only alternative to the AKP, and the perspective of the AKP for Turkey's ideological Islamization.
In his long power struggle with the military, Premier Erdogan has lately won a victory. Early in August, he successfully rejected the army's candidate for chief of land forces, General Hasan Igsiz, to replace General Isik Kosaner, and allowed Kosaner to rise to the post of military chief of staff. Turkey had never before seen so bitter a struggle over the top military posts. Traditionally, the generals in Ankara decided by themselves on promotions and responsibilities, with official approval a mere formality. But this time it was different: General Igsiz was accused of establishing anonymous internet sites opposed to the AKP government. Eventually a compromise prevailed; Igsiz was excluded from promotion to head of land forces, and Kosaner became chief of staff. Erdogan and the AKP exercised their influence against only one figure in the military hierarchy's succession, but that move was historic.
Turks are to vote in the constitutional referendum on September 12 whether to curtail the political influence of the armed forces. The date for the vote is curious: it is the anniversary of the military coup of 1980. The AKP's constitutional reforms prove that Turkey is democratic, according to Erdogan. His Islamist government had gained passage of more than 20 constitutional amendments through parliament by May. The amendments left for the referendum provide, in addition to greater restrictions on the political power of the military, improving the conditions of women and strengthening the right to strike. In addition, the constitutional changes would make possible prosecution of the surviving leaders of the last military coup in 1980. Although the package of reforms has gained much support, and while the European Union gave its blessing to the changes, all major opposition parties find fault in the referendum.
The secular Kemalists in the CHP consider that Erdogan is hiding his Islamist aspect, which is expressed in the provisions for judicial reform. They claim this has been an attempt by the AKP government to deprive the judiciary of its established powers. The nationalist right criticizes the package of reforms as representing submission to the U.S. and the EU. The Kurdish-interest Peace and Development party (BDP) has called for a boycott of the vote as a protest against the neglect of the needs of the Kurds. The guerrillas in the Kurdish PKK have told travellers in southeastern Anatolia that they must vote for the referendum.
The referendum is more a choice between political parties than a process involving constitutional issues. If the package of constitutional amendments is adopted, the AKP will have a year before the next election to solidify its dominance in Turkish politics. If the constitutional reforms are voted down, the AKP will lose.
Thus, the "yes or no" battle dominates the Turkish news. If the people approve a constitutional reform, the AKP will have won an important victory against the Kemalists.
Turkey's social contradictions are sharp. Western Turkey lives at a Western European level, while eastern Turkey is condemned to poverty, with high unemployment. Eastern Turkey is the place of origin of many emigrants to the West – some of whom left because their villages were destroyed by the state, or flooded in dam-building programs.
In eastern Turkey, young girls who flirt secretly with boys may be killed, while the western cities of Istanbul and Izmir, as well as the capital, Ankara, have openly gay districts. Youth is celebrated in western Turkey but without hope in Diyarbakir, the eastern Turkish metropolis.
A beautiful Orthodox Christian mountain monastery near Trabzon in eastern Turkey held a mass on August 15 for the first time in 88 years. But Christian life is marginalized in Turkey. Many churches in the eastern region have collapsed, their frescoes defaced and destroyed.
While western Turkey blossoms, eastern Turkey fades.