Turkey: The New Ottomans

Instead of an In Our Time this week we listened to the first episode of a recent series about Turkey from Radio 4. In the series Allan Little is looking at the current political situation in Turkey, both in terms of how it’s developed over the last few decades & how it’s interacting with the rest of the world.

This episode covered the internal politics & focussed on the rise of the AKP (the current ruling party in Turkey) and how they compared to the previous rulers. Around a hundred years ago the Ottoman Empire fell, and Turkey became a republic. The military were heavily involved in the formation of this republic, and there have been several coups over the years as the military replaced leaders they no longer approved of. The regime was authoritarian, but also very secular and focussed on being a part of the West. Little spoke to various people who were targeted by the previous regime because of their religion as much as anything else – anyone who was a practising Muslim was automatically suspect. Study of the Ottoman past was also suspect – textbooks for children glossed over it in a few paragraphs, archives of Ottoman papers etc were locked up & academics forbidden to look at them.

The growing discontent with the secular authoritarian regime led to the formation of the AKP about a decade ago, and at first this was seen as the dawning a of a new era. The election of the AKP put an Islamist but still Western-leaning party in power. Little talked to both members of the AKP and some of the same people he’d interviewed about the previous regime, and the picture all of them painted was of hope for the future at that time. The AKP were heavily invested in the idea of becoming a part of the EU and this drove both increasing prosperity (via their economic policies) and human rights reforms (to make themselves palatable to the EU).

However over time the AKP has become more authoritarian in its turn. Little opened the programme with a bit he’d recorded on the day the demonstrations in Gezi Park started (and I guess he had had the idea for the series before and had to re-write it as events caught up with him). Little, and some of his interviewees, linked the changes to both increasing confidence on the part of the AKP and to the rejection of the Turkey’s application to join the EU. Little made the point that majority rule is not the only thing required to make democracy a functional form of government – the rights of the minority & the right to oppose the elected government are also important. He was saying that the AKP are using their election to justify any changes they want to make, including talk of changing the constitution to make the AKP’s grip on power even stronger. This hasn’t sat well with the growing middle class, and it’s their discontent that is driving the recent protests. The next two programmes in the series will (I think) go into more depth about the change of focus from the West to the Arab world, so Little only covered it briefly here.