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Food for Thought


The New Vision of the "New Turkey" - Özdem Sanberk

People of "New Turkey" will be able to preserve their historical and cultural richness only if the state refrains from interpreting and shaping religious beliefs of minorities and continues liberal reforms for individual rights and freedoms.

As expected, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan won the presidential elections with a slight margin and became the 12th president of the Republic of Turkey. This result in light of the trials and tribulations entering the 21st century is the indicator of a new vision for Turkey. It is necessary to wait for the general elections in 2015 to fully understand the content of this vision. The shaping cabinet, however, can offer some clues.


The Conservative Revolution


This much must be granted: in the aftermath of Tayyip Erdoğan’s election as the president, Turkey is on the brink of a conservative revolution. Erdoğan’s presidency will effectively end parliamentary democracy in Turkey, replacing it with an as-yet undefined system that will concentrate all decision-making processes in the presidency role, both in theory and practice. Only time will show whether checks and balances will work. 


By this means, the new president will radically alter the way the Republic of Turkey functions, turning a new page in its 90-year history. This new page will have impacts not only on the fate of Turkey and the region, but also on the state of affairs in world politics.


The Short Term


The new government forming immediately after the election of the president will probably follow two main strategies in domestic politics. The first strategy will be to focus on obtaining the parliamentary majority in the general elections in 2015, which will enable the ruling party to create a new constitution. The second strategy will be laying foundations of conservative revolutionary social and institutional structures which will pave the way for the "New Turkey" with the motto, “No stopping – the march continues!”


If one dares to make some predictions regarding actions the new government might take within this framework and possible developments until the general elections in 2015, one may venture to say the following:


The new government will first try to maintain economic stability and the flow of foreign investments to Turkey. Foreign capital, in its turn, will closely monitor the government’s economic policies and the measures it will take against corruption.


The new government will also focus on policies that will keep the Peace Process alive. Critical issues such as autonomy and alternative identities will not be resolved in this interim period, but will remain on the agenda all the same.


In foreign politics, however, the new government will more or less follow the same line it has maintained up until now.


President Erdoğan will continue to emphasize the importance of partnership relations such as NATO, EU, and the US. Even though occasional tensions will arise between Turkey and the West, the new president will not allow any differences of opinion to turn into serious and open crises. If one remembers that the recently elected president declared 2014 as the year of EU, one may expect the new government and the president to actively pursue policies aiming to bring the full accession process into the EU back to life.

Cooperation with oil and gas producing neighbours such as Russia and Iran, both being Turkey’s energy suppliers, will continue to be a priority. As always, Turkey will be in solidarity with Muslim populations under pressure regardless of their geography and defend their causes. It will try to deal with the security threats created by conflicts in the Middle East, the Black Sea region, and the Caucasus.


2015 and After


Following the general elections in 2015 if the ruling party remains in power, Turkish diplomacy may essentially continue following its current course. In other words, Turkey will continue supporting HAMAS, the Muslim Brotherhood, and Assad’s opposition in the Middle East. Due to its dialogue with HAMAS and its alliance with the US, Turkey may find space for diplomatic manoeuvres in the region.  This space, however, may be condemned to remain small if no progress is made in restoring broken relations with Israel and Egypt.


Compounded with security threats resulting from civil wars in Iraq and Syria and the subsequent mass migrations, the growing Islamic State will seriously test the new administration both domestically and internationally. These threats borne out of the collapse in the Middle East and blocking Turkey’s foreign trade routes may create the need for revising the regional dimension of Turkish diplomacy in the short and medium terms. However, the longer it takes to free the Turkish citizens held hostage by ISIS, the more Turkeyʼs space for manoeuvring in the Middle East and its means for switching to new policies may be limited. 


The "New Turkey" will remain focused on the policy of increasing its influence in the region and the Islamic world. As a consequence, it will find itself in the centre of geopolitical competition and balance of powers.


If Turkey fails to close its capability/capacity gap and to determine its core long-term strategic priorities in its foreign affairs, the trouble and strife Turkey will face in this regard may deplete most of its energy in foreign policy. This in turn may cause Turkey to be left out of the international efforts and decision-making mechanisms concerning solutions to global issues such as liberalization of world trade, nuclear non-proliferation, and climate change and environment, which constitute the real agenda of the 21st century and have implications for Turkey and as well as the future of humankind. If global issues do not gain priority and the coldness that has crept between Turkey and Arab countries is not remedied, Turkey’s attempts at becoming a temporary member of the UNSC will not come to fruition. Unless Turkey firmly aims to become  part of the greater European Union which will cover the whole continent by expanding to western Balkans and partially to Ukraine, the country may find itself consenting to being a buffer country between the Middle East and Europe; blocking instabilities and demographic movements that originate in the region from reaching the West.


Vision for Domestic Politics


The real conservative revolution under Tayyip Erdoğan’s presidency will actually occur domestically in the socio-cultural sphere. Today, the conservative revolutionism of the AKP accrues legitimacy as long as it reflects the preferences of the majority of the population. The overwhelming majority in Turkey is religious and perceives religion as a source of stability and conservatism. In general, this majority tries to live by the dictates of religious beliefs. As another generalization, most of these people are moderate people from lower or middle income groups residing in the cities or in rural areas. They want to have a secure future and better living standards thus seeking for peace and calm. In addition, as a part of their world view, they stay away from radical movements and reject violence.


The increase in the visibility of piousness in Turkey in the last decade is mostly the result of the transition to new social conditions that allow these conservatives to experience their religious preferences free from oppressive secularism, rather the imposition of the Islamic life. This conception of democracy, which rests on the freedom of religious preferences of the Hanafite/Sunni majority by means of the current government, meets the daily spiritual needs of the masses that constitute President Erdoğan’s electoral base. As a result, instead of being an imposition, the conservative revolution finds democratic legitimacy since it is supported by the vast majority of the population in Turkey. Opposition parties find it difficult to penetrate this base, which has no additional demands concerning freedom of expression and the press. Naturally, one cannot say the same for Alawites and Christians who constitute sizeable faith groups besides the religious majority.


Under these circumstances, one can conclude that the new conservative majority in Turkey will continue to support the state - which has granted them the ability to practice religion freely – in its affirmative role for the increasing piousness  as long as economic and political stability continues.


There is, however, an inherent risk of this support that should not be overlooked; regarding the monolithization of the society and the reduction of the socio-cultural plurality of social life to a uniform minimum. One must also remember that in the last presidential elections, very nearly half of the electorate rejected this religious society project and demanded more freedom of faith, expression, and the press. It seems obvious that this part of the society will resist any possible imposition of religiousness of the "New Turkey" just as the other part of the society resisted the secular impositions of the old Turkey. Thus, peace and calm in Turkey’s political life will be hard to come by.


For this reason, the "New Turkey" will be able to preserve the historical and cultural richness of its people only if the state refrains from trying to interpret and shape the religious beliefs of minorities, expands the life space of the non-religious population, supports gender equality, and continues with liberal reforms to improve individual rights and freedoms.


If the "New Turkey" places these goals in the core of its new vision, Turkey will be able to make its own contribution to the world order in the 21st century.