By Diba Nigar Goksel
ISTANBUL - It is nearly impossible for anyone to win hearts and minds in Turkey nowadays.
European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso treaded carefully on Turkey's political minefield during his visit last week, because any of his moves could have caused the country’s delicate and divided political scene to rupture.
In his speech to the Turkish Parliament, he did not mention the ongoing legal case against the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), which has been accused of anti-secular activity, and he tiptoed around the headscarf debate. Further attempting to show his even-handedness, he spent time with all of the opposition leaders, visiting them personally in their offices.
Despite these efforts, accusations still abound that Barroso and EU Enlargement Commissioner Olli Rehn timed their visit as a show of support to AKP, coinciding with the Constitutional Court’s consideration of whether the AKP should be banned. Some claimed Barroso and Rehn were disrespecting the Turkish state and the threats it faces: namely, challenges to secularism and territorial integrity.
Turkish support for the EU has been cut almost in half since 2004, dropping from over 70 percent to the low 40s in early 2008. The most widely-quoted reason for this fall from grace is the belief that Europe is leading Turkey on, and will ultimately turn down the country’s membership application regardless of how much progress Turkey makes. This mindset is creating a self-fulfilling prophecy: without the conviction that membership is a viable prospect, there is little motivation to carry out large-scale reforms, and the ensuing lack of progress in turn creates grounds for European skepticism.
The AKP remained steadfast in its goal even as support for EU accession dwindled from 2005 onwards. It seemed that Turks were creating alternate visions of Turkey as a regional power, instead of as a Europeanized aspirant. And despite the opposition parties’ rhetoric that played upon these sentiments leading up to the July 2007 parliamentary elections, the AKP was the only political party championing EU integration, albeit with less conviction than in years past.
Interestingly, judicial action against the AKP has increased support for EU accession among AKP voters as of early April. The Europeans have framed the court case as a breach of democracy (a judicial coup), so AKP supporters now regard the EU as a safeguard for the survival of AKP.
Although the party maintains high ratings, the conviction that AKP is committed to genuine democratization and pluralism has been shaken within the same liberal circles that previously gave them the benefit of the doubt. There are still many Turks who genuinely believe that Pandora’s box will be opened if more concessions are made for those who want to give religion more social prominence. In a country with a weak system of checks and balances, AKP has at times appeared drunk on power over the last two years, brushing aside legitimate concerns from liberal circles.
To strike the necessary common ground for stability in the country, a rejuvenated and genuine commitment to the EU integration process is essential. Only to the extent that European social standards and rationalized governance are benchmarked can individuals gain the freedom to find their own way to reconcile the contradictions of modernity with traditions, of emotional or spiritual needs with economic realities, and of insecurities with temptations.
Turkish society must therefore start emphasizing the empowerment of the individual. This shift may not come easily to the conservative AKP.
Socially and economically, few Turks can afford to stand on their own two feet. Economic and political viability still rests for many on belonging to a certain kinship-based social structure or religious sect. Confidence in the existence of meritocracy and the rule of law is lacking, and the weakness of the welfare system further limits the choices of those with fewer economic means, especially women.
As a conservative party, the AKP emphasizes family values at the expense of institutional solutions to problems individuals face in a rapidly urbanizing and modernizing society. But without strong social services provided by politically and ideologically neutral state institutions, large segments of society will continue to lack the ability to make choices for themselves.
It was a wise move for the AKP to put EU integration back on the top of Turkey's agenda after the case for its closure was taken up by the Constitutional Court. Preparations are ongoing to pass a package of reforms that will benefit a wider segment of society than the party’s traditional base. That indicates a realization that differing social interests need to be met simultaneously in order to strike a consensus.
Opportunism or not, democracy is ultimately at work here. If it takes crises for competing camps to acknowledge the limits of their power, then perhaps Turkey's recent turmoil is a blessing in disguise.
Diba Nigar Goksel is a senior analyst at the European Stability Initiative in Turkey and editor-in-chief of Turkish Policy Quarterly. This article was written for Common Ground News Service.
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