Friday, November 10, 2006

On the passing of Bulent Ecevit

Could the death on Sunday of Turkey ’s former left-leaning PM Bulent Ecevit mean the end of aggressive Kemalist secularism?

Like many countries in Europe, Turkey has experienced a significant shift to the right. The current Prime Minister, Recep Teyyip Erdogan, is regarded as a social conservative. Conservative leaders in nominally Christian countries (including Australia ) look to their religious heritage. Similarly Turkey ’ current PM looks to Turkey ’s Islamic heritage for legitimacy.

Yet Turkey ’s current government is by no means seeking to reintroduce the Caliphate or any other form of theocracy. The ruling AK Party is more like the Muslim equivalent of the German Christian Democrats.

At the same time, the AK Party is the most pro-EU government in Turkey ’s history. In this sense, they are following the precedent of Ecevit who won European Union candidacy for Turkey in 1999.

Ironically, Ecevit spent much of the 1970’s trying to keep Turkey away from the West and the EU. Though known as a leftist, he exercised a certain degree of pragmatism when it came to free market reform. At the same time, Ecevit stood for a balanced foreign policy, supporting Israel yet criticising it for committing what he described as “genocide” in its 2002 attacks on Palestinian refugee camps.

Ecevit’s most controversial decision was to send Turkish troops into northern Cyprus in 1974, apparently to protect Cypriot Turks from what was viewed in Turkey as a genocide carried out by Cypriot Greek national chauvinist forces.

Ironically, the present conservative Muslim government has steered Cypriot Turks toward supporting reunification of Cyprus . 65% of Turks voted in favour of reunification, while over 75% of Greeks opposed it in the 2004 referendum. This didn’t stop Cyprus from being ‘rewarded’ with EU membership in May 2004.

Perhaps the most significant comment Ecevit made was when he changed his mind about EU membership for Turkey : “It is now understood,” he said, “that there can be no Europe without Turkey and no Turkey without Europe .”

Whether ruled by Kemalist secularists, aggressive nationalists or mild Islamists, Turkey is clearly headed west. For that, Turks have their veteran politician Bulent Ecevit to thank.

© Irfan Yusuf 2006