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Europe must embrace this confident Turkey 14 juin 2011

Posted by Acturca in Turkey / Turquie.
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The Times (UK) 14 June 2011, p. 20

Jack Straw *

Erdogan’s election victory gives the lie to those who say democracy and Islam don’t mix’. Believe me, » Recep Tayyip Erdogan said after his re-election on Sunday, « … the people of Damascus won as much as the people of Ankara. »

For the thousands fleeing President Assad’s brutal massacres, the Turkish Prime Minister’s words are much more than rhetoric. Camps are being established on the Turkish side of the border to welcome refugees forced from their homes, with no discernible angst of the kind so often heard in Western Europe about being « flooded with foreigners ».

Mr Erdogan was, until recently, a close ally of the Assad regime, as part of his « zero problems with neighbours » foreign policy. Now, in stark and noble contrast to other allies of this nakedly brutal government (such as Russia, China, Iran), he has cut Assad loose, condemning his actions as barbaric.

In Bill Clinton’s immortal words « it was the economy, stupid » that gave Mr Erdogan’s AKP party its victory. They have benefited from some tough decisions on public spending taken in 2002 when they assumed office. GDP has nearly doubled in less than a decade and Turkey came through the 2008 credit crisis almost unscathed.

Its growth rate is up with China and India. Unemployment is still high by UK standards, at 11.5 per cent, but has fallen from 14.4 per cent in the past 12 months. The economic boom has led to a widening and unsustainable trade deficit that the new Government must tackle, but the measures needed will not undermine the transformation in Turkish living standards . By British third-term standards, the AKP’s success was eye-watering. Compared with the 2007 election his share of the vote rose by four percentage points to 49.9 per cent. (The highest postwar share by any party in a UK general election was 49.7 per cent in 1955.) This victory was not achieved by a minority of sullen voters dragooned to the polls; it was a hotly fought, multiparty contest, clean by all accounts, with an 84.8 per cent turnout, which puts the UK to shame. It is 50 years since the turnout here exceeded 80 per cent. Is anyone still asserting that democracy and Islam cannot mix? There was considerable chatter before the election that the AKP might win such a huge majority that it could railroad through important changes to the constitution without any opposition buy-in, and without a referendum, to give Mr Erdogan, so it was alleged, a « Putin-style » ascendancy. This cannot now happen, as his majority was not big enough. This means that the AKP will have to seek a wider consensus for such change, something Mr Erdogan recognised in his victory speech.

Consensus was not something much practised by many of the secular leaders who preceded him. The legacy of the founder of modern Turkey, Kemal Atatürk, is immense. He did transform a decrepit, crumbling theocracy into a modern state, but it was aggressively anti-religious in a country where 98 per cent hold to the Muslim faith, and gave disproportionate power to the « deep state », principally the military and the judiciary. Mr Erdogan, having been elected Mayor of Istanbul in 1994, was barred from holding office, and jailed for four months for reading a poem deemed a « violation of Kemalism ».

That ban was in force when the AKP first won an election in 2002, so Abdullah Gul, Mr Erdogan’s close collaborator and deputy leader of the AKP (now President of the Republic), had to be interim Prime Minister until the ban was lifted. More recently, the Constitutional Court upheld the ban on women wearing headscarves in any public institution (including state universities) in the teeth of parliamentary opposition and came within a whisker of banning the AKP.

The present constitution was introduced after a coup in 1980. The case for reforming it, to clarify the role of the military, to make the judiciary more accountable and to extend participation, is strong. It may be that the AKP will propose an executive presidency along French lines. (The smart money predicts that, if so, Mr Erdogan and Mr Gul will swap roles.) My guess is that in seeking change Mr Erdogan will not emulate those who jailed him. He could show his self-confidence by ensuring that those journalists now incarcerated are brought swiftly to trial for offences in any democratic country’s criminal code, or released.

In the same passage of his speech that referred to the Syrians « winning » from his re-election, Mr Erdogan brought in the Bosnians, Lebanese and Palestinians as well. Turkey is now the dominant actor in the region and increasingly influential on the world stage. The UK has been honourable and strategic in its support for Turkey. Not so France, Germany and others on the Continent who have effectively blocked Turkey’s EU negotiations.

Mr Erdogan continues to want good relations with Europe (half its trade is with the EU) and formally to aspire to membership. But if there are those in the Chancelleries of Europe who now (wrongly) feel apprehensive about Turkey’s increasing assertiveness in foreign and economic policy, they have only themselves to blame.

The one loser from these elections is the EU. At a time when it desperately needs strong allies to help to ensure a benign outcome to the Arab Spring, it is myopic in the extreme for its leaders to appear to be turning away from the strongest, richest and most democratic state in the wider Middle East.

* Jack Straw was Foreign Secretary, 2001-06.

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