Turkey has been ruled by the Islamic-Conservative Justice and Development Party (AKP) for 14 years. The previous years have seen a wave of violence and instability, and the most dramatic event took place on the night of 15 July with a failed coup attempt. The Turkish governmentholds its long-time partner, the Gülen movement, responsible for the putsch. In external relations, Turkey has recently re-positioned its stance in the Syrian civil war, while the country’s relationship with the Western world is going through one the most complicated phases in decades. This seminar aims to provide an analytical overview for these issues and ponder what is likely to take place in this pivotal country in the foreseeable future. How to approach and assess recent events in Turkey and changes in its foreign policy? What kind of developments are likely to take place in this pivotal country in the foreseeable future?
Speakers: Assistant Professor Behlül Özkan, Department of International Relations at Marmara University
Research Fellow Halil Gürhanlı, Faculty of Social Sciences, University of Helsinki
Comments: Dr Toni Alaranta, Senior Research Fellow, the Finnish Institute of International Affairs
Chair: Dr Juha Jokela, Programme Director, the Finnish Institute of International Affairs
Summary of the seminar:
Juha Jokela, Programme Director at the Finnish Institute of International Affairs, opened this seminar focusing on the recent developments in Turkey and the country’s future prospects. Jokela noted that the seminar’s topic is without a doubt of high importance, as the failed coup attempt on the 15th of July this year has not only caused concerns in Turkey but also in Europe at large. Furthermore, FIIA has been following closely the developments in Turkey during the last couple of years, including Turkey’s regional role and relations to the EU and Russia. As a last point Jokela mentioned the newly published articles by FIIA’s Senior Research Fellows Toni Alaranta and Marco Siddi discussing EU-Turkey relations.
Assistant Professor Behlül Özkan from the Department of International Relations at Marmara University was pleased to be in Helsinki to present his views on the failed coup, the reasons behind it, and prospects of future politics in Turkey. Ever since Turkey’s transition to a multiparty democracy in 1946, the country has experienced many military coups. The failed takeover attempt carried out by a faction of the army proceeded quickly and was the bloodiest coup attempt in Turkish history with at least 240 people killed. Özkan presented a corrective narrative to the interpretation of the coup attempt, by first mentioning two of the often presented western perspectives. The first perspective denied the fact that this was an actual coup attempt. The other perspective claimed that the coup was fabricated and used by Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to consolidate power. Özkan underlined that both these perspectives were completely out of reality. The 15 July coup attempt led to a profound disturbance in the Turkish army hierarchy which in turn will have a destabilizing effect on the army itself. According to Özkan, this new unstable order in the armed forces poses a risk for the coming years. Furthermore, Özkan elaborated on the historical background which is important in understanding the reasons behind the coup attempt. The Gülen movement and the AKP have been close allies since 2002, when they formed an alliance against the secularist elite in Turkey. The supporters of the Gülen movement gained significant power especially in the police force and the judiciary, which demonstrates the fact that the Gülen movement was never marginalized by the Turkish government. Commenting on the strong Islamist influence in Turkey, Özkan mentioned Turkey’s membership in NATO in 1952 and NATO’s supportiveness of Islamist movements in their anti-communist doctrine at that time. Moreover, he underlined that the Islamist movements in Turkey have had a unique and powerful position in the political sphere stemming from the 1970s, when the first Islamist political party was established. The struggles between AKP and the Gülen movement emerged in 2012, and since then there has been a division into Erdoğan supporters and Gülen supporters. For a number of years, the Erdoğan-ruled Turkey was looked at as an exemplary model of democracy for Middle Eastern countries. Özkan noted that the Islamist model in Turkey is completely different than anything in the rest of the Middle East and could therefore not even be comparable with other Islamist movements in the region. This model was also preferred by the EU, which supported both AKP and the Gülen movement. According to Özkan this praise and pursuit of the AKP model for democracy in the Middle East worsened the state of democracy and destroyed the secular system in Turkey.
The presentation by Halil Gürhanlı, Research Fellow at the Faculty of Social Sciences, University of Helsinki, focused on the Turkish government’s homogenization of a single narrative and its consequences for pluralism in Turkey. The AKP has ruled Turkey for 14 years, and according to Gürhanlı, the party’s strategy is based on two dimensions. The first dimension focuses on the supporters and the second dimension focuses on defining the enemy, that changes depending on the circumstances. The goal is to always win the elections, which means that only one day after an election day, the party starts preparing and campaigning for the next election. One central aspect of this is the role of wealthy businessmen in Turkey. If these businessmen can attract voters, they are offered more business opportunities and power. Another important aspect of AKP’s supporters are women. Through the party, women are able to access the public sphere and get educated, which is not possible in the same manner outside the party. The second dimension of AKP’s strategy consists of populism and mass mobilization against a common enemy defined by the leadership. Gürhanlı emphasized that the Turkish society today is highly polarized and divided. During the last 3–4 years, the AKP has labeled all the opposition as its enemy and made organizational opposition an existential threat. Furthermore, looking at the aftermath of the failed coup attempt, there is to be seen a direct continuation of the polarization and homogenized narrative from the state. Gürhanlı suggested that in order to avoid dangerous polarization there has to be room for a third opinion and that the role of the EU is central in providing a safe ground for Turkish opposition parties.
Toni Alaranta, Senior Research Fellow at the Finnish Institute of International Affairs, was pleased to have experts on Turkish domestic politics and history on this panel. Alaranta noted the importance of Özkan’s corrective narrative regarding Islamist movements in Turkish history and the background leading to the events on the 15th of July. Alaranta also brought up the question of structural dynamics inside Turkey and how they could be challenged. The AKP has now created a collective political actor dominated by a strong narrative of Islamic conservative nationalism, which is getting even more difficult to challenge.