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Where will Turkey's political crisis lead?

May 11, 2007 | Page 4

LEE SUSTAR explains how a showdown in Turkey is affecting U.S. imperial interests.

A POLITICAL crisis in Turkey could spell big trouble for the U.S. government as it tries to shore up its control of the Middle East after the debacle in Iraq.

Turkey faces early parliamentary elections in July following a showdown between Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan of the moderate Islamist Justice and Development Party (AKP) and a coalition of secular nationalist opposition parties.

Tensions came to a head in April when Erdogan tried to nominate another AKP leader, Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul, for the Turkish presidency, a post that is elected by parliament.

While the position has limited powers, the president can veto legislation--and outgoing President Ahmet Necdet Sezer has regularly blocked AKP measures. The presidency also has great symbolic weight, having been held by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the nationalist founder of modern Turkey.

When Gul accepted the nomination, the nationalists responded with a warning from the military--which overturned governments in 1060, 1971, 1980 and 1997--that the president should not be an Islamist.

As nationalists staged mass protests in the streets, opposition members of parliament boycotted the vote for the presidency. Turkey's constitutional court subsequently ruled that since there was no parliamentary quorum, Gul's election was invalid. Erdogan responded by moving elections scheduled for November to July, and proposed constitutional changes that would allow direct election of the presidency, among other measures.

Erdogan apparently calculates that pressure from the European Union--which Turkey hopes to join--will preclude the sort of "soft coup" that forced out a previous Islamist government in 1997.

Nor is the U.S. eager to face the complications of a military coup in a major NATO ally with a population of 72 million that hosts a huge U.S. airbase critical to both the war in Iraq and U.S. military pressure on Iran. Turkey, moreover, has longstanding military, economic and political ties to Israel--the latest sign of which is an undersea oil and fresh water pipeline linking the two countries.

Turkey marches to Washington's tune economically as well. Although Erdogan was elected in 2002 partly on the strength of his populist policies as mayor of Istanbul, he has always been a conservative backed by small business owners and the urban poor attracted by his welfare policies--more of a machine politician than the Islamist firebrand portrayed by the opposition.

He campaigned for clean government against Turkey's notoriously corrupt political establishment, which presided over a financial crash in 2001 made worse by austerity polices pushed by the International Monetary Fund (IMF). Turkey's external debt reached $131.6 billion.

Nevertheless, Erdogan has continued to follow free-market, neoliberal policies. Under the terms of a $10 billion "standby" loan agreement with the IMF, Erdogan's government has opened Turkish markets to foreign investors, particularly in the financial sector; privatized state-owned companies; and pushed plans to cut social spending--for example, gradually raising the retirement age to 65 in a country with a life expectancy of 66.

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IF THE AKP government has retained popular support--it's seen as the likely winner in the July election--it's because of rapid economic growth over the past five years. Thus, "the secularist establishment is keen to prevent the AKP from making inroads into society and gaining popularity in the eyes of voters through its 'successful' management of the economy," wrote Marcie Patton in the Middle East Journal last year.

The Iraq war, however, has complicated Turkish politics. Mass antiwar sentiment in 2002 compelled the parliament to reject U.S. plans for an invasion of northern Iraq from Turkish territory, although the government has facilitated the occupation through support for U.S. airbases.

Further, the creation of a de facto Kurdish state in Iraq under Washington's tutelage has, in the view of the Turkish military, undermined its latest efforts to suppress resistance by the Kurdish minority in Turkey, which comprises an estimated 20 percent of the population.

Turkey's military chief of staff has accused Iraqi Kurdistan of harboring militants of the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK) and threatened to cross the Iraqi border to attack them. This is a dilemma for Washington, which sees Iraqi Kurdistan as a possible fallback base of operations if U.S. troops are compelled to withdraw from the rest of Iraq--and a launching pad for possible attacks on Iran, via Iranian Kurdistan.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Congress is considering a resolution condemning Turkey's genocide of the Armenian population following the First World War--a slaughter long denied by Turkish nationalists.

"Putting all this together, we have come to the conclusion that, for the sake of relations with the Kurds, the U.S. is willing to risk the alliance with Turkey," said Sukru Elekdag, a leading member of the Turkish opposition Republican People's Party. "This is not a superficial conclusion."

All this has unsettled the military hierarchy and the far right, which in recent months have gone on the offensive in preparation for elections. This has often taken violent form, including the murder in January of Hrant Dink, a leading Turkish-Armenian journalist. In April, three people were murdered at a Christian publishing house, and four soldiers were acquitted in a trial over the shooting deaths of a 12-year-old Kurdish boy and his father in 2004. Orhan Pamuk, a Turkish Nobel prize-winning author who has called for acknowledging the Armenian genocide, was forced to leave the country after death threats.

Erdogan and the AKP may well prevail in July's vote. But Turkey's latest round of political turmoil may be only just beginning.

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