Diatribes of Jay

This is a blog of essays on public policy. It shuns ideology and applies facts, logic and math to economic, social and political problems. It has a subject-matter index, a list of recent posts, and permalinks at the ends of posts. Comments are moderated and may take time to appear. Note: Profile updated 4/7/12

08 June 2015

The Turkish Earthquake


There was an earthquake in Turkey yesterday. Its epicenter was Diyarbakir, but it did no damage there. In fact it did no damage anywhere. It was a political event, not a seismic one.

Turkey’s strongman Recep Tayyip Erdogan had asked his people for a mandate to amend the Turkish Constitution and make himself even stronger. His people denied him that majority. In addition, the small Peoples’ Democratic Party passed the 10% threshhold for representation and won about 12% of the vote, or some 80 seats in the 550-member Turkish Parliament.

The election was notable for several reasons. First, it denied Erdogan the role of Turkey’s Vladimir Putin. Like Putin, Erdogan has worn the masks of president and prime minister interchangeably, self-evidently seeking the authoritarian role of “president for life.” It’s bad enough that the world’s second mightiest nuclear power has such a leader. Now, with Nicolás Maduro unable to match Hugo Chavez’ charisma, and with Erdogan chastened, our species will have only one Putin to contend with. (Kim and Mugabe have no credible claim to being democrats.) Turkey will remain a democracy in substance as well as name.

Second, this election confounded the skeptics of Middle Easterners in general and Muslims in particular. The People’s Democratic Party that set Erdogan back is composed mostly of Kurds, who are nearly all Muslims. But this time it attracted a much broader coalition of leftists and others unhappy with the strongman’s rule.

Coalition building and democracy, it seems, are alive and well in Turkey. And they are not beyond the imagination or capacity of Muslims. Unlike Russians, Turks and their Kurds apparently understand the counterintuitive secret of democracy and a healthy economy: decentralization and inclusion of minorities, not more power at the center.

Finally, yesterday’s election showed how far the Kurds have come toward integrating into the several nations in which they live and contributing to peaceful governance there. Although in the minority, they will be a powerful moderating and stabilizing force in the Turkish Parliament.

None of this is especially surprising to careful observers of the Kurds. Ever since giving up terrorism in Turkey years ago, they have been exemplary among the Middle East’s many warring tribes. Their Peshmerga fighters are able, respected and restrained, and their politics peaceful, moderate and often inspired. In Iran, Iraq and Turkey today, they form buffer zones protecting largely peaceful nations from the chaos wrought by external powers in Iraq and Syria.

The Kurds defend themselves well, but they don’t foment sectarian conflict. Nor do they still sponsor terrorism. Today they fight to live, not live to fight.

Some of this is by necessity. Because a putative Kurdistan would cross so many national boundaries, major powers have long balked at giving Kurds a modern air force and heavy weapons, for fear of offending local allies (including Turkey) and encouraging conflict. In the Kurds’ recent battles with the so-called “Islamic State,” this reticence nearly cost them Erbil. It did cost them Mosul, which they will have to win back at great cost and hardship. But the thin-stretched Peshmerga line did hold Erbil, and now Kurdish moderate politics and moderate Islam have won a democratic foothold in Turkey.

One cannot view this result without a deep sense of moral satisfaction. The most sympathetic ethnic group in the Middle East, and the least self-righteous, has triumphed at the ballot box. It has built a democratic coalition by rejecting, not promoting, tribalism and extremism. In so doing, it has put Turkey a big step closer to EU membership. Unlike the seismic ones to which Turkey is often prey, yesterday’s political earthquake was good for humanity.

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