Turkey: time to put up?

September 3, 2007 | Turkey, World news

Be careful what you set your heart upon – for it will surely be yours.” — James Baldwin


After months of electoral uncertainty, Turkey has a new President: Abdullah Gul.  As reported in The Washington Post:



Mr. Gul can smile now; he’s in


Aug. 28 — Beaming as the votes were counted, a veteran government figure with roots in political Islam won a parliamentary vote to become Turkey‘s president Tuesday, in defiance of the country’s strongly secular military.  Abdullah Gul‘s triumph presented Turkey‘s generals with a choice: overthrow Gul in what would be a deeply unpopular coup or accommodate the rise of political Islam in the Muslim world’s most rigidly secular state.


Whither Turkey now? 


In the upcoming year, even as Mr. Gul is learning on the job, I expect to be doing a fair bit of work seeking understanding of Turkey’ affordable housing situation, and what Mr. Gul and Prime Minister Recep Erdogan do will have a large influence on housing’s future course.



A Prime Minister and a President shake hands


Back in May, after my trip to Istanbul to present at the Turkish Real Estate Conference —



“If you want to close the cost-value gap, it takes money.”


— I wrote a five-part post on Turkey’s affordable housing situation, whose publication happened to coincide with a national political and possibly Constitutional crisis as to whether the Justice and Development Party (in Turkish, AKP) would prevail in placing its candidate, Abdullah Gul, into the presidency.  In particular — this being a housing blog, after all — I observed that for the AKP, with majority power will come responsibility to deliver politically, among other elements via housing:


The civilizing influence of responsibility, and the importance of political delivery.  Istanbul, like so many emerging-world cities (like Cairo, Johannesburg, Nairobi, or Panama City Panama, to name four I’ve seen personally), is a study in contrasts, a nucleus of sophisticated, rich, cosmopolitan, successful people, business, institutions and capital markets. 



Expanding Aswan, Egypt


Every one of these countries has an educated elite class that is doing very well, and in the main trying their level best to improve their country, of which they are fiercely and understandably proud.


Yet within a biscuit toss of these gleaming high-rises, is a teeming world of squalor, informal employment, poverty, malnutrition, ill health and questionable sanitation, surrounding the shining city like detritus thrown from Gormenghast’s battlements:


GORMENGHAST, that is, the main massing of the original stone, taken by itself would have displayed a certain ponderous architectural quality were it possible to have ignored the circumfusion of those mean dwellings that swarmed like an epidemic around its Outer Walls.  They sprawled over the sloping earth, each one halfway over its neighbor until, held back by the castle ramparts, the innermost of these hovels laid hold on the Great Walls, clamping themselves thereto like limpets to a rock. 



Istanbul, high-rises and gecekondu side by side


I finished with this observation:


Paraphrasing Anna Karenina by way of Tip O’Neill, every country’s politics is unique to that country.  Yet there is one takeaway for the AKP — tackle the housing problem, in a substantive way, lest your voter base become disenchanted with the AKP, with democracy, and with liberalism itself.


Now, after a new election, Mr. Gul has attained the Presidency. 


Gul immediately sought to reassure the military and other doubters. “Turkey is a secular democracy ….  These are basic values of our republic, and I will defend and strengthen these values,” he told parliament after taking the oath as Turkey‘s 11th president.


Many Turks say the popularity of Gul’s mildly Islamic Justice and Development Party after five years in power, and the unprecedented economic prosperity it has brought, will probably shield it from any immediate putsch.


Gen. Yasar Buyukanit, chief of the military, posted a statement on the military’s Web site Monday warning against “furtive plans that aim to undo modern advances and ruin the Turkish republic’s secular and democratic structure.” There was no immediate comment from the military after Gul’s election victory.



A general defending democracy: Buyukanit


Is the AKP, as it professes, committed to secularity?  To improving the economy, strengthening Turkey‘s economic and social relations with Europe, and raising the standard of living? 


The Justice and Development Party came to power in 2002, taking parliament and the prime minister’s office. Since then, Erdogan and his ministers have presented themselves far more as Rotary Club than religious zealots.


Under their guidance, Turkey‘s economy has been transformed, turning Istanbul into a bustle of construction projects and high-design restaurants.



Istanbul: the hills are alive with the sound of building apartments


Certainly the new AKP super-majority has opened with clear statements of its commitment to secular, liberal democracy:


With Tuesday’s election, Erdogan and Gul pledged to push for economic reform and constitutional amendments and try to win European Union membership.


Many Turks have been won over by the boom times, especially for a growing middle class; improvements in public services; and the ruling party’s comparative restraint in helping itself to the economic spoils. But among secular Turks, there remain widespread concerns that Erdogan’s government has given political Islam a toehold that will lead Turkey the way of much of the Middle East, perhaps starting with lifting Ataturk’s restrictions on the head scarf, outlawing alcohol or criminalizing adultery.


Whatever Westerners may think of these symbols, the head scarf ban is defended as being a religious symbol, and hence its display violates the Turkish constitution.



Never seen in public without her demure scarf: Hayrunisa Gul


“With a first lady in a head scarf, a taboo is finished in Turkey. Some people are not happy about that,” said Ehmet Ali Birand, a columnist in Turkey‘s press, which seized upon the military chief’s warning as a sign of grave tension between the military and the government.


But Turkey — a country bridging Europe and Asia, as well as Islam and secularism — is different, and the Justice and Development Party doesn’t fit well into the growth of political Islam elsewhere, said Omer Taspinar, a Turkey expert at the Brookings Institution in Washington.


The election success of “Hamas or Muslim Brotherhood is . . . essentially a protest vote” in countries with authoritarian leaders and little viable political opposition, Taspinar said by telephone.


Protest votes are a luxury cast by those whose candidates have no chance of winning.  The AKP cannot afford protest votes; it must govern, and it must deliver.


“But the reason the [Justice and Development Party] won is largely due to the services they have provided,” he said.


That’s the thing about political capital — you can accumulate it by providing services, but you have to keep providing the service.


Hard-liners in the military believe that “it is thanks to the military’s efforts that the [party] and political Islam are learning to become moderate,” Taspinar said. “Islam in Turkey is getting closer and closer to the West,” he added, even as “the global trend is that Islam is getting more confrontational with the West.”


For the AKP, is it time to put up?



Okay, AKP, let’s get going