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Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Turkey's Elite and Anatolia

From the Financial Times:

Turkey’s elite ponders the revenge of Anatolia

By David L. Edgerly

Published: July 20 2007 19:17 | Last updated: July 20 2007 19:17

The elegant, 40-something woman sits in one of Istanbul’s better restaurants along the Bosphorus, her diamond stud earrings glittering in the candle light. She sips a glass of Sancerre and nervously taps the table as a garishly lit tour boat full of women in shapeless raincoats and head scarves makes its way up the straits.

“I hate them, I hate them, I hate them,” she mutters with increasing vehemence – twice in English and once in French, just for emphasis. “They are ruining my country.”

The target of her ire is not the innocent women on the boat, but the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) whose vision of modernity most definitely clashes with her own. Her reaction is perhaps extreme, but illustrates the deep and widening social/political divide in Turkey.

The traditional secular elite, the so-called White Turks, bitterly resents the erosion of the power that it has assumed since the founding of the Turkish Republic in 1923. The elite sees itself as the true embodiment of Ataturk’s secular reforms, and now fears that those hard-won reforms and its traditional leadership position are under threat from the AKP. The fact that AKP draws much of its strength from the so-called Black Turks - that part of the population steeped in traditional social and religious values, less well travelled, less educated, based in Anatolia and the poor sections of the large cities, that tends to spend its holidays with families in small home towns scattered across the country rather than Europe or the US - only intensifies the resentment. Some call AKP’s political success the ‘revenge of Anatolia.’

A prominent businessman reinforced this sense of being besieged by Anatolia at a lunch in Istanbul’s swanky Kanyon shopping centre, complete with Harvey Nichols and Jo Malone when he laughed that Kanyon “is the last fortress of the White Turks.” Indeed, head scarves were far outnumbered by £100 hair constructions.

At the other end of the spectrum a cab driver wondered why I was even bothering to ask a question about the elections. “Tayyip bey (Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan is the head of AKP) is the only choice.”

In the previous election almost five years ago the AKP crushed all other parties, and emerged with enough votes to form a single party government – a very difficult feat in Turkey where coalitions of small, fractious parties have dominated government in recent decades.

It is unclear whether AKP will win enough members of parliament to form another single-party government after the July 22 elections, but all the polls show them winning the highest percentage of the vote.

AKP’s political success is due in large part to its ability to capitalise on and mobilise a large segment of the population often overlooked by Turkey’s shallow political class. A member of Turkey’s educated and professional class concedes as much when he says, “The serial failures of the traditional politicians to deal successfully with our social and economic problems opened the door wide open for AKP.”

While he won’t be voting for AKP, he is unhappy with the alternatives. “None of the parties deserves to be elected. We’re forced to vote for the least bad of bad alternatives.”

Often overlooked in criticism about AKP’s ‘hidden’ Islamic agenda or its efforts to stuff the bureaucracy with its supporters is the party’s skill at fundamental political organization. It has been preparing for this election ever since coming to power more than four years ago. AKP members have spent a great deal of time on mundane tasks such as updating voter lists and staying in touch with the electorate.

The party has held regular meetings, training sessions, with its officials from all parts of the country. When elections were recently called, AKP was able to hit the ground running and its election meetings around the country have vastly outnumbered those of its opponents.

The AKP says it is working to extend democracy to all corners and segments of the country. Its vocal opponents claim it is abusing democracy to extend its own Islamic agenda at the expense of secularism - one of the main pillars of the modern Turkish Republic laid down by Ataturk.

Regardless of the election outcome, however, the problem of how to resolve Turkey’s growing social/economic divide will dominate the country’s agenda for a long time to come.

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