Booming Turkey at a crossroads as it gears up for key election
Published 06/06/2015 | 02:30
The highway into Istanbul bears the chaos of the Turkey's economic boom. A two-lane highway, going both ways, it hugs the shore of the Bosphorus which separates Europe from Asia, and is jammed full of impatient, glossy cars. A 40-minute journey in from the airport took two hours going out, as rush hour descended.
However, two things break the traffic boredom, one sad and the other exuberant. The sad image is Arab mothers, holding their babies, and begging between cars - two million Syrians have arrived in Turkey from the neighbouring civil war, a staggering influx. The other, more exuberant, image is the endless banners and bunting for the parties competing in the general election this Sunday.
The Turks like their elections, and especially this one, which is an important contest not only for Turkey, but for Europe and for the Middle East. With over 77 million people, Turkey is a major crossroads between two continents, as well as to the former Soviet empire. An Islamic country which is not Arab, Turkey is partly European and, indeed, rightly believes that it was cold-shouldered in its application for EU membership.
It is surely nothing more than mild Islamophobia in western Europe that would make the witless EU court a basket-case country like Ukraine and not an economic bridgehead (and NATO member) like Turkey.
However, with the recent EU crisis, the Turks have gone cool on Brussels and, anyway, Turkey has re-emerged as a mini-superpower in its own near- Eastern neighbourhood. This has created some tensions, as Turkey once ruled this region as the Ottoman Empire.
Turkey's economic boom has been phenomenal and widespread, quite in contrast to bankrupt Greece, its old enemy. Roles are reversed now. But the boom is also the cause of new tensions. Turkey has thousands of young, educated, westernised citizens who now want the liberties and social rights that go with economic prosperity. It is a familiar formula: remember the Arab Spring? In 2013, government plans to turn an Istanbul park into a shopping centre created serious protests, but the unrest was about more than a park.
The country is ruled by a moderate Islamic government which, though moderate in its Islam, is still quite religious. It is also a government with increasing authoritarian tendencies, personified by the former prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and his AKP party, which has now been in power for decades.
Mr Erdogan is now president and wants to increase the power of this position, a plan that makes the opposition and others nervous.
The AKP's posters are everywhere, along with pictures of the imperious though charismatic Mr Erdogan. This is a country fond of the cult of personality and portraits of the nation's famous founder, Kemal Ataturk, are also ubiquitous.
However, the election campaign has been generally fair and intensely competitive and other parties are offering the ruling AKP a tough challenge. These main opposition parties are the left-wing CHP and the nationalist party MHP.
But the big surprise, and indeed the big story of the election, has been the emergence of the new left-wing HDP party. This is a party which represents the country's sizeable Kurdish population but which is also appealing, beyond that, to progressive and anti-government voters.
A long-time Kurdish insurgency in the country's south-east has cost tens of thousands of lives, but with the Kurdish guerrilla group, the PKK, now on a ceasefire and exploring a purely political route, there are hopes for a peaceful settlement.
Many Turks see a parallel with Northern Ireland and the transition of the IRA and Sinn Féin into eventual government. The key threshold in the Turkish election is 10pc. If the HDP gets over this, it could hold the balance of power, an extraordinary situation.
Such a prospect has increased the rhetorical attacks on the HDP, but also physical ones and there has been some unrest at political rallies.
Given Turkey's often volatile political history and its long periods of military rule, nothing can be taken for granted.
Ironically, in Turkey, the army sees itself as the guardian of the modern Turkish state against Islamic extremism and political chaos.
The election is thus something of a watershed and has already created a measure of development for Turkey's democracy, and pluralism.
But problems remain, regardless of who gets in, not least dealing with the consequences of unparalleled economic success, as illustrated by all the spanking new cars clogging up the roads of Istanbul.