The Turkish ‘model’

21 Jun 2016

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The writer is a foreign policy expert based in Washington, DC.
The writer is a foreign policy expert based in Washington, DC.

OUR civilian leadership is quite enamoured of Turkey. They aren’t the only ones. Military and public intellectual circles also find it fashionable to talk about the ‘Turkey model’. It means different things to different people but it all seems to converge around President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s supposedly strong, relatively clean leadership and effective governance.

No one can quibble with the desirability of these qualities. But we must understand how he used them to deliver. And what is replicable in our context.

The fact is that Erdogan mattered, but it was not about him. It was the promise of Turkey’s entry into the EU that did the trick. Erdogan used it to great effect.

Here is how the EU bid (hereafter EU) helped Turkey scale the heights it did.

First, it broke Turkey’s institutional logjam. Turkey, like most developing countries, suffered from elite capture. The status quo was marked by an elitist economy and a military-manipulated political system similar to ours. EU helped break this elite pact. But crucially, it did so by offering greater returns for the macro-economy, built around private sector growth and market opportunities and not by threatening elite privileges. The case of the average Turk was simpler: they had no real reason to oppose their ability to look for livelihoods in Europe. The combination created space for real economic reform, and fuelled ‘good governance’.


Erdogan mattered but it was not about him.


Second, EU gave just enough to get Turkey’s most influential institution interested. The fear of the unknown in terms of acceding to the EU was always there within the military but was offset by support from important sections inside the camp. Fundamentally, it was about being a part of the Western security club. Turkey’s longing for this hadn’t always been easy to detect but the EU debate crystallised it enough to prevent the military from opting out.

Of course, the military never felt the process would mean an end to their domestic supremacy or they would have scuttled it. And there was no reason to expect it would necessarily cut them to size, but for one political reality everyone seemed to overlook: EU forced political parties on the right and left to work together, to the extent they did not give the naysayers in the EU system an obvious excuse to use divisions on secularism to keep Turkey out. This facilitated compromise and consensus in ways uncommon for countries with a troubled political history. It made the military’s task of manipulating politics to their domestic advantage without complicating the larger EU discourse more challenging.

Even this may not have been enough. The legal angle — the formal changes to domestic codes Turkey was required to make to qualify — had to complement the process. Statutory requirements linked to democratisation allowed Erdogan to push through measures to cut out major impediments, eg the judiciary’s historically troubling role in stifling attempts to correct the civil-military imbalance.

There were other factors that helped. But these were the fundamental ingredients of the cocktail — they were internally linked and worked in tandem. Erdogan was critical to all this in three ways.

One, leadership. Strength and effectiveness were invaluable. But the two other qualities that made the real difference were charisma and a keen eye on timing. Erdogan was Bhutto in terms of his ability to mesmerise the common folk. Charisma without good governance is insufficient. But charisma was critical in inflating his success in the minds of his followers, making them more patient with painful reforms. His real genius, however, was his ability to sequence things right. Had he tried to do too much on the military piece before getting popular support, it would have backfired.

Incidentally, the stalling of the EU process is also partly responsible for Erdogan’s more recent shenanigans. His undemocratic tendencies, the preference for cult-based politics, a break from secularism, and reversal of Turkey’s ‘zero problems with neighbours’ policy would have been muted if the EU card was still as potent. Now unhindered, Erdogan is proving to be dangerously similar to the leadership type we are so familiar with in our part of the world.

So what of the Turkey model?

Simply put, it ain’t as simple as finding the right guy to lead you. And good governance didn’t just happen because Erdogan wanted it. You need a number of things to come together in the right combination and sequence; not all of this can be planned.

An analogous situation in Pakistan’s case would be a Saarc that can force these internal changes. Some have hoped the US would do this. But its policy has never been about that. Nor perhaps does it have the leverage given its negative perception among Pakistanis. Then there’s CPEC that promises an economic transformation. But the Chinese don’t care about the rest. As always, no easy answers.

The writer is a foreign policy expert based in Washington, DC.

Published in Dawn, June 21th, 2016