Turkey and Erbekan:
For seven decades, Turkey was ruled by the secularist state that was established by Kemal Ataturk in 1924 after abolishing the Islamic Caliphate. Turkey then moved from military rule to civilian rule in 1946, and has developed as a major ally of the US and west ever since. During the Cold War, Turkey played a leading role, since had common borders with the US. The American missile and aircraft basis in the country were direct threats to the USSR and a powerful support for the NATO to which Turkey was accepted as member. Turkey was able under the secular state to turn into the largest and only Western state with a Muslim majority, but never involved in Muslim relations.
The change in public opinion which pulled the Turkish voters away from choosing the secularists and turning to the Islamic Welfare Party could be attributed to a number of factors, mainly the collapsing economy, frustration with the European Union, and the Kurdish question.
Welfare Party leader, Necmeddine Erbekan announced his economic plans on several basis. First of all, he accused the interest-rate-based economy as responsible for the awkward situation of the economy. Besides, Erbekan promised his voters that there would be rises in payment for all, even to the six million public servants. Increases in payment would reach up to 50%. Even though abolishing the interest rate economy sounded impossible, and despite the fact that increases in payment promise inflation and increase in the deficit, voters were excited by these promises, especially as Erbekan announced that the needed resources to honor these promises would come from “God’s Blessings” and from a better exploitation of Turkey’s natural resources. It was the first time a Muslim fundamentalist was in charge of the state since the republic was established, but the people were ready to accept any new promises due to their frustration.
Besides, economically, Erbekan would be more efficient in establishing better economic relations with his Arab neighbors than the secularists who could neither establish these relations with the Arabs because of poor relations, nor with the European Union which still rejects Turkey’s membership because of Greece’s veto.
Evidently, Erbekan’s victory in the December 1995 elections was the result of the voters’ frustrations with the consecutive failures of secular parties in resolving Turkey’s economic, political and social problems. These governments have not been able to deal with the growing deficit and unemployment. They have also failed in eliminating the Kurdish Question which is the major cause of terrorism in Turkey, nor have they succeeded in joining the European Union because of the hostilities with Greece.
In the presence of all these frustrating events, it could only be natural that Necmeddine Erbekan would be elected by a majority. In the eyes of many voters, he is considered to be the soldier of last resort for Turkey’s bewildered dreams, and for this reason, voters were ready to overlook his fundamentalism.
Erbekan’s inauguration as prime minister created fearful memories of Khomeini in the West, especially on the side of the US, and particularly with Erbekan’s early shuttle visits to Iran, Syria, Libya and Iran. Western political analysts believe that Turkey might be about to break up with the west to return to the Islamic world.
It is true that Erbekan started his campaign in 1996 with an agenda that is full of Islamic promises, such as carrying Turkey from the bottom of the west to the top of the Islamic world. Promising the Turks a leading role for Turkey in the Islamic world was not all, for Erbekan also promised to reorganize relations with the west and Israel. However, for an observer of Erbekan’s past rhetoric, this agenda is considered to be almost harmless, since it contained none of the usual statements that Erbekan and the Welfare Party had carried in mind, such as breaking off with the US and western allies, suspending the humiliating relations with Israel, and re-establishing Turkey as the leader of the Islamic world.
Bewildered and stunned, western governments are unable to see which of the two Erbekans is the real one. Was Erbekan’s past rhetoric only a means to mobilize and gather Islamic voters around him? Or is he only maneuvering today in order to be accepted by the anti-Islamic institutions of the state and the army?
Even though pre-judgment could be erroneous, it is most probable that Erbekan’s real intentions have changed with respect to foreign policy. Deciding whether Erbekan imposes a threat on the west and on Turkey’s relations with the West is early, but not too early, because the apparent signs of his capabilities are already clear.
Erbekan’s electoral rhetoric does not have much chance to become real. Turkey’s relations with the West, particularly the US have never been spontaneous. They have always been strategic relations, based on a full understanding between the two states. Erbekan as an individual is unable to change the state, mainly because the secular state distrusts him, and he distrusts the state as well. This mutual distrust weakens Erbekan’s abilities to make his own foreign policies. Ciller being minister of foreign affairs does not make much difference, because Erbekan alone could not change the historical bases of the Turkish state which consider relations with the west as sacred as the republic itself.
Therefore, Erbekan’s break-up with the West, if it ever happens, is illogical because it ignores the most fundamental aspects of the Turkish-Western relations. Besides, there are no signs that such a break-up could take place in the future.
Analysts argue that Erbekan’s visits to Syria, Iran and Libya, in addition to his overture to Iraq carry a clear hostile message to the West. In fact, these assumptions are not true for many reasons. Studying the nature and results of these tours shows why.
By visiting Libya, the most hostile state on the US blacklist, Erbekan intended to show the US Turkey’s independence of the West. However, his visit harvested nothing but failure. Instead of welcoming his guest, Colonel Kaddafi humiliated him by scorning Turkey’s relations with Israel, and by demanding an independent state for the Kurds. With this, Erbekan returned to Istanbul pulling his failure behind. His disillusionment with Kaddafi’s views was most disappointing.
Other visits did not prove to be less disappointing. In his visit to Iran, Erbekan realized that Iran was not willing to share its leadership of Islamic states with Turkey, especially with the sectarian differences between the two sides. Besides, Iran was not willing to give up its support to the PKK which launches its attacks upon Turkey from its territories. Hence, despite the improvement of the Iranian-Turkish relations, nothing serious has happened, and the relations remain formal. In fact, tension still prevails over these relations as tape recordings showed that during Erbekan’s visit, Iranian officials asked the PKK to reduce their attacks on the Turkish borders, only to increase them causing heavy casualties in the Turkish army after Erbekan’s return to Istanbul.
Erbekan’s visit to Syria was also disappointing, because it failed in achieving the two goals that it was aiming at. First of all, Erbekan failed in eliminating Abdullah Ocalan as a serious threat on Turkey, supported by Syria. And second, he failed in reaching an agreement with Syria by which Syria would stop supporting the PKK, which would in the end lead to the destruction of the PKK.
Erbekan was able to establish better relations with Iraq, but he failed to achieve his objective of convincing the Iraqis to establish a security zone in North Iraq that would act as a security zone against the PKK attacks.
Erbekan had many expectations with Iraq and Libya, since they are both totally isolated by American pressure. He believed that his visits to the four countries would have magical influence, but this did not happen, and Erbekan returned with no gains, expect for his disillusionment about the realities in the Middle East.
If Erbekan wants to lead the Islamic world as he has always announced in the past, he would at least Arab and Muslim countries to follow. Erbekan cannot let this happen if he does not offer attractive offers to these countries. He can offer Syria more water in the Euphrates, and Iraq and Libya recognition since Turkey is still a western ally, but this is the farthest he could go.
As a matter of fact, Erbekan is need of these countries more than they need him. First of all, he needs petroleum and gas from Iran. He also needs the UN embargo on Iraq to come to an end so that the Turkish lines start pumping Iraqi petroleum to Europe. Erbekan also needs Syrian, Iraqi and Iranian support in order to reach a compromise with the PKK, and neither country is willing to give him any promises, at least because of Turkey’s strategic relations with Israel.
The analysis of Erbekan’s miscalculations and disillusionment after his Middle Eastern tour prove that he alone cannot be an effective player in raising anti-western sentiments, or in leading to a break-up between Turkey and the West, especially that Erbekan’s relations with the state are still poor and lacking any trust. Besides, the major anti-western players in the area refuse to cooperate with Erbekan as long as Turkey maintains strategic relations with Israel, a reality which Erbekan hardly has any chance to change.
Hence, if capable of doing any harm to the Turkish-Western relations, Erbekan could only create low-level tension that would only undermine his popularity, create more complications for his government, and probably lead to his isolation.
Rival Hypothesis: Turkish voters elected Erbekan due to a shift in voter beliefs towards Islamic fundamentalism.
Since the declaration of the republic, Turkey has been more of a western state, not only in the structural term of state, but in the conclusive meaning of a whole country. Turkey has become part of Europe, culturally as well as economically and politically. Consequently, the power of Islam in Turkey has been reduced to minimal levels. Even the Welfare Party could not claim that it won with Islamic votes alone. The victory was the result of many factors, including voter frustration with the economy and politics.
Besides, Islamic fundamentalism in the Egyptian, Palestinian or Algerian sense does not exist in Turkey. On the contrary, Islamic traditionalists are very open minded. For example, while considering the veil a must for their women, they do not mind if women put on fashionable clothes with the veil. They do not even mind if their veiled daughters walked with their hands clenched to those of their boyfriends.
Furthermore, Islamic fundamentalism does not have the political or economic impact that it has in other countries. It is true that Erbekan came to power with a powerful Islamic rhetoric, but as soon as he assumed office, he became a moderator, shunning away most of his previously promised policies such as abolishing the interest-rate-based economy, or the termination of Turkish relations with Israel.
The Welfare Party victory in Turkey, together with the inauguration of Erbekan as Prime Minister should not be considered as an ideological shift in Turkey, but as a result of economic and political frustrations which make a phenomenon out of Erbekan rather than a fundamental change in Turkish political thought and preferences.
Turkish voters are now trying Erbekan after they have tried all the others. In case he fails as the others had done, this phenomenon would come to an end. However, his success remains a different story. Still, yet, Erbekan’s success might not have the magical influence he expects on the Turkish voters, especially after the moderate line he has committed himself to, a few days after assuming office.