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Turkey's regional ambition distances it from Europe

Source: Thomson Reuters Foundation - Tue, 2 Oct 2012 13:44 GMT
Author: Reuters
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* Islamic world focus at congress

* Newspapers barred from coverage

* Signs of fracture within the party

By Jonathon Burch

ANKARA, Oct 2 (Reuters) - From a poem steeped in Islamic tradition to his choice of guests from across the Middle East, Turkey's authoritarian prime minister left little doubt at his ruling party congress as to which way his country was facing.

Former Ottoman territories and world Muslim capitals were the focus of Tayyip Erdogan's drawn-out greeting, and while allies from Brazil to Japan got a brief mention, the European Union, Turkey's largest trading partner, was noticeably absent.

"The narrative of his speech was very religiously oriented with a lot more emphasis on the Islamic world. There was no mention of Europe, no mention of the Atlantic alliance," Soli Ozel, a prominent Turkish academic and commentator, said of Erdogan's two-and-a-half hour oration.

Billed as the biggest overhaul of his Justice and Development (AK) Party since it swept to power a decade ago, Sunday's event was supposed to lay out the party's manifesto - and Turkey's likely political direction - for the next decade.

It did little to dispel fears about Erdogan's growing authoritarianism.

Six newspapers deemed as critical of the government were barred from covering the conference.

"When that media is disrespectful to us, when it hurls lies and insults at us every day, our answer is to put them in their place," Erdogan told members of the AK Party at a parliamentary meeting on Tuesday, defending the decision.

Erdogan's ten years in power has seen per capita income nearly triple and re-established Turkey as a regional power, with Western nations viewing its mix of political stability and Islamic culture as a potential model in a volatile region.

But opposition politicians, academics and journalists are among hundreds of people in jail pending conviction for plots to overthrow the government. More than 300 army officers were handed long jail terms last month on accusations they schemed to topple Erdogan almost a decade ago.

"As Turkey has become more alienated from Europe, the liberal and democratic forces and instincts within the AKP ... have gradually given way to increasingly authoritarian tendencies," Svante Cornell said in an article published by the Brussels-based Centre for European Studies, a think-tank created by the European People's Party grouping of centre-right parties.

"NARROW-MINDED" EUROPE

Turkey's ambitions to join the European Union were a dominant theme at previous party summits. Turkey began talks on joining the EU in 2005 but has only completed one of 35 policy "chapters" every accession candidate must conclude.

This year was a marked contrast.

Erdogan opened by reciting the last verse of a poem by Sezai Karakoc, a famous Turkish poet, whose work blends Islamic conservatism with European and Ottoman sensibilities. Some people in the crowd wept as the words were read aloud.

One newspaper, Taraf, dubbed his speech - given to an audience which included Egyptian President Mohamed Mursi and Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal, who received the loudest applause as well as a standing ovation - a "Turkish-Islamic Manifesto".

"The guest profile more or less indicated which kind of international audience Erdogan is aiming at and is playing for," Semih Idiz, a commentator with Milliyet newspaper, told Reuters.

"Here is a prime minister supposedly drawing his party's vision for the next 11 years and it seemed he didn't even mention the EU once."

Turkey's talks to join the EU have all but ground to a halt in recent years, blocked by an intractable dispute over the divided island of Cyprus and opposition from core EU members.

All but 13 policy chapters are blocked and the European Commission, the EU's executive arm, says Turkey does not yet meet required standards on human rights and freedom of speech.

Turkey's EU Affairs Minister Egemen Bagis said Erdogan had deliberately chosen not to refer specifically to Europe.

"The prime minister chose not to use the words European Union too much and that should be a message to the narrow-minded politicians of Europe," Bagis told Reuters.

"I hope this congress and the Turkish nation's determination will signal to the leadership of Europe that Europe needs Turkey at least as much as Turkey needs Europe, if not more."

Buried near the back of a 70-page manifesto, the AKP did reaffirm its goal for full EU membership but called on European leaders to "speed up" negotiations.

FRACTURES EMERGE

Sunday's congress was meant to mark the renewal of a party which has won three consecutive landslide victories since 2002 under Erdogan, re-elected as party leader for the final time.

Numan Kurtulmus, head of the former Islamist-rooted HAS Party, and Suleyman Soylu, one-time leader of the conservative Democratic Party, were given positions in the party's administrative body, a further signal that it is seeking to glean support from rival right-of-centre parties.

The rise of the AK Party ended a history of fragile coalition governments punctuated by military coups; but there is uncertainty about who will succeed Erdogan at the head of the party and fractures are starting to emerge.

It is an open secret that Erdogan wants to bid for a newly constituted executive presidency at elections in 2014, although a poll published last week showed Turks would prefer to see incumbent Abdullah Gul as their next president.

Gul criticised Erdogan on Monday over members of parliament being held on remand in alleged conspiracy trials, telling the opening of parliament that deputies in such cases should be allowed to work until final verdicts were reached.

Erdogan quickly rebuffed the comments.

"I don't want to enter into a polemic with our president. It is obvious we don't share the same view," he told reporters.

"These are not people who earned their deputy status by working in the field. They were inside (prison) at the time," Erdogan said, referring to a handful of opposition deputies accused of involvement in conspiracy plots.

The main opposition Republic People's Party (CHP) has struggled to mount any effective opposition to AK, in parliament or on the streets. Some observers contend that the only real threat to the party might come when Erdogan relinquishes power.

"Erdogan wants to become a president like Putin, he wants to lead the country until the end and he wants the country to obey his vision of Turkey as a world power," said Cengiz Aktar, professor at Istanbul's Bahcesehir University.

"He thinks he has done enough for the country and the country has enough in terms of public freedoms. He has difficulty understanding why people continue to ask for more."

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