Pragmatic Populism or Islamic Extremism?

November 16, 2009

How can a country that is supposedly turning authoritarian at home and Islamist in its foreign policy be pursuing a democratization package for Kurds and an engagement policy with Armenia?

The Kurdish reform initiative, which will expand cultural rights for Kurds, is applauded by both the EU and Washington. Such democratic steps aimed at a peaceful solution to the Kurdish problem are likely to bolster Ankara’s stalled accession process with the EU. One can thus argue that by tackling the Kurdish issue, the Justice and Development Party (AKP) is also trying to improve Turkey’s chances of EU membership. The same goes for the opening with Armenia. Rapprochement between Turkey and Armenia is a crucial priority for the Obama administration. The U.S. president needs a face-saving excuse in order to convince the Armenian lobby and the U.S. Congress that genocide recognition is not the way to go with Turkey. He can only do so by pointing at the progress on the ground. Therefore, by improving its relations with Erevan, Ankara is in fact also improving its relations with Washington.

So where is the Islamic agenda in all these policies? Skeptics will argue that Ankara’s close relations with Iran and recent problems with Israel illustrate the Islamist tilt in its foreign policy. But is Turkey’s Iran policy based on a sense of Islamic solidarity? Would a more secular government in Turkey follow a very different Iran policy? There are major trade and energy contracts, amounting to $10 billion, between the two countries. In my opinion Turkey’s Iran policy is more about economic interests and “realpolitik.”

As far as Israel is concerned, the policies of the AKP government reflect the feelings of the Turkish street. In other words, Turkey’s anger with Israel is not an Islamic expression. It is rather a populist expression of frustration and willingness to punish the country for killing 1,400 innocent civilians earlier this year in Gaza.

Do you have to be an Islamist to feel such anger? This is why it doesn’t make much sense to talk about an Islamist turn in Turkish foreign policy. Turkey is becoming a country where public opinion matters much more than before. Populism and democracy often go hand-in-hand. After all, politicians who run democratic countries need to always think about elections and the ballot box. This is why they develop a chronic habit of looking at opinion polls. They do their best to follow the wishes of their constituency. In that sense, the AKP is not any different. It is a populist party rather than an Islamist one. If the EU is popular with the Turkish street, the AKP will push for more EU reform. If people are angry with the EU, as seems now to be the case, there will be less political will for EU reforms.

Are there, then, no dangers in populism? The answer depends on the social and economic context. The street can sometimes turn to extreme ideologies and elect extremist politicians. After all, Hitler was an elected politician, and he was popular with the German street. But any objective observer of Turkey would agree that the Turkish street is pragmatic. Turkish voters, like voters in Western democracies, look at the economic situation first. Bread and butter issues are much more important than ideology for them. Therefore, if the AKP is unable to run the economy properly, it will most probably lose the elections. This is why job creation, the economic growth rate, the trade balance and volume with neighbors are such critical factors for Turkey’s democratically elected politicians. No democratically elected government can ignore such issues. For all these reasons, democracies tend to be pragmatic systems. The need to get re-elected has a moderating impact on politicians. There are no reasons to doubt that the same dynamics are at play in Turkey’s own political evolution.