Turkey: Politics Is The Art Of Problem Solving – OpEd


By Ihsan Bal

For the last few years, Turkey has been displaying the image of a country which is doomed to an endless scuffle with persistent troubles, wasting all its energy in the meantime as it is unable to get to the root of its underlying problems. Turkey’s human capital is not being properly utilized as the country’s institutional politics have been capable of providing neither a smart strategy nor a prudent approach that can help resolve the country’s various social, economic, legal, and – most importantly – security-related problems, especially since the Gezi Park Protests that broke out in mid-2013. Whereas politics can serve as an ultimate source of hope and excitement for the society only to the extent of its problem-solving capacity, dragging discussions on vital problems into a deadlock, setting the scene for dead-end discussions, and even leaning towards the selfish exploitation of chronic issues inevitably leads people to fix their sights on politicians and institutional politics as the ultimate bearers of responsibility for widespread pessimism. In a sense, everyone begins to look for a scapegoat.

Dark phases of recent history revisited?

Indeed, focusing on a solution to be reached by means of institutional politics rather than eagerly searching for a culprit will not only relieve an entire country which currently has difficulty breathing, but it will also yield a new wave of hope. However, in order to reach a sincere solution, one needs to exhibit a strong will that is guided by reason and molded by experience pursuant a strategic vision, while also conveying a meaningful and convincing story to tell the people. Before its recent deviation, Turkey used to be a country with solution-oriented stories to tell the rest of the world on a variety of subjects, from the Kurdish problem to the national economy, from the European Union accession process to the woes of the Middle East. However, at this stage it seems the tides have dramatically turned. Some of our country’s old habits, which we thought were left behind for good, once again emerged from the shadow of obscurity.

We are at the brink of a phase in which sharp, polarizing sentences underwritten by hatred and rage, and self-reaffirming approaches based on antagonism with the perceived “other” enjoy credit; everybody is shackled to the perceptual prison of their own narrow neighborhood and different versions of dark conspiracy theories are put into circulation. As a matter of fact, unsolved politically-motivated murders, assassinations that are left in the dark, insidious criminal plots, and vicious extrajudicial killings are not alien to the Turkish public eye. Events as such are reminiscent of those nightmarish days that our people have worked so hard to bury in the dusty pages of history. Until recently, those days were thought to be over. We hope the recent events signify no repetitive trend whatsoever, but instead only an unpleasant and ephemeral relapse of our subconscious memory. The most pressing issue that Turkish decision-makers need to mull over at this moment should concern the measures necessary for preventing a shady replica of the frightening domestic political environment that is commonly identified with the 1990s from being put on stage.

Political cunning, ‘countering’ terrorism, and ‘negotiation’

How Turkey ended up here, and as a result of what sort of mistakes it is currently mired in such a grim and fragile setting shine out as the most fundamental questions we need to ask ourselves. The correct answer to these crucial questions have to be sought in the cumulative mindset which, while narrowing down its own domain of action with each passing day, eventually granted a much larger radius of action to extra-political actors as a matter of course. It becomes impossible to acknowledge the rationality and virtues associated with politics should policy-makers handle risks and threats concerning national security with an utterly pragmatic and opportunistic attitude, rather than approaching such issues sincerely and constructively.

On the contrary, in such cases ‘political cunning’ comes into play to overshadow right-minded considerations. Mere ‘political cunning’ may prove useful in the case of short-sighted calculations made with the intention of saving the day; however, such a manner of political planning seems destined to inflict heavy losses upon an entire nation when viewed from a long-term perspective. That is because ‘political cunning’ is, by definition, centered on opportunism rather than resolution. It gradually narrows down the domain of politics through each deliberate move, until the moment comes when it is nearly impossible to escape the extremely restrictive confines to which any further effort at genuine policy-making is ultimately condemned.

Even a quick glance at the latest developments concerning the Kurdish issue gives significant clues as to the exact spot on which attention is currently fixed within the context of politics and solution-seeking in Turkey. Turkey has suddenly found itself in the midst of military funerals, martyrs, and tears resulting from terror attacks that claimed the lives of many innocent people. Fruitless discussions misdirected by the artificial cognitive dichotomy between ‘negotiation’ and ‘counter-terrorism’ have resurfaced. ‘Negotiation’ and ‘counter-terrorism’ are no substitutes for one another but rather two sides of the same coin.

No doubt, operational measures are an important component of defeating terrorism and extinguishing the cycle of violence it generates. Operations carried out on legal grounds are conducive to the achievement of strategic objectives to the extent that accurate intelligence is successfully harmonized with the capabilities of security forces. However, those who are interested in the subject would surely appreciate the necessity of dealing also with the political aspect of the underlying problem in tandem with continued operations against militants if terrorism is to be permanently eradicated.

The ideal method that needs to be employed for succeeding in the comprehensive struggle against the multi-faceted problem underlying terrorism should be ‘operational combat against the terrorists’ and ‘negotiation with the political party concerned’. This is especially the case if there is a terrorist organization on the one hand, and a legal political party supported by the sympathizers of the terrorist group in question by virtue of its social base on the other. If there is anything we must avoid under such specific circumstances, it is equating the political party which is trying to remain on the legitimate political stage with the terrorist organization. That is because this kind of approach broadens the domain of armed conflict while narrowing the political sphere.

Broadening the political sphere

The main strategy when faced with a terrorist threat which pushes for the expansion of the domain of armed conflict is the restriction of this domain as far as possible, while stretching the domain of politics. This is because any extension of the ‘field of activity’ in which terrorists can take the initiative corresponds to a shrinking of the political actor’s legitimacy in return. Therefore the ‘asymmetrical’ and ‘irregular’ warzone in which terrorist elements can easily manoeuver by setting the rules of the game at will has to be narrowed in order to broaden the political zone of influence where the root of the problem actually rests.

When we scan the vast literature on counter-terrorism and investigate the success of comprehensive efforts as such demonstrated by numerous case studies from the past, it is easy to discern that major counter-terrorist activities have primarily been carried out within the political sphere within modern history. For an ethnic Kurd to provide a self-convincing answer to the question of “why do I need to live in this country together with the rest?” may seem possible in the first place only to the extent we are able to keep the Kurdish issue within the jurisdiction of institutional politics rather than trying to handle it at the point of a bayonet. Otherwise, it won’t be feasible to generate widely-credible stories of ‘consensus’, ‘co-existence’, and ‘belonging’ in a bleak political environment in which the beating of war drums and sounds of gunshots suppress any alternative voices.

To emphasize once again, we aren’t talking about suspending the government’s right to use force within legal limits when extrapolating ‘the political domain of counter-terrorism’. According to the Weberian definition, what we commonly refer as ‘the state’ is indeed the sole entity that is vested with the legitimate monopoly of exercising physical violence within a given territory. However, the use of such authority in the most correct way, the most accurate situation, and only when deemed necessary is of vital importance. Therefore the state’s right to exercise violence is bound to a certain set of conditions. The state can maintain its reputation and secure popular support only by adhering to this principle, i.e. by ensuring that the people believe wholeheartedly in its firm intention and sufficient capacity to dispense justice and protect public law. The intensity of criticism directed at the government for using brute force will inevitably subside in proportion to the rise in the government’s respectability and popularity in the eyes of public. Recent developments in Turkey clearly indicate a severe erosion of such authority relations between the government and the society.

Unfortunately enough, we’ve already entered a process of political communication characterized by distrust, which became evident, above all, with the claims voiced by some political parties that top political elites who are legally vested with executive authority tend to abuse their power in order to realize certain goals with secret motivations, instead of paying attention to the resolution of the pressing problems that our country is currently confronted with.

In sum, this process which Turkey is currently going through should be assessed with regard to the methods it prefers to employ in dealing with immediate troubles rather than the gravity of the underlying problems. Despite all complications, the immense human capital our country is endowed with at present is beyond any comparison with the past. Therefore there is no reason to be sure that recent incidents reminiscent of the past are a precursor of Turkey’s future trajectory. Turkey will still be able to make a breakthrough in the forthcoming decade, which is deemed critical in every aspect, should the bottleneck in the problem-solving mentality of institutional politics be overcome. It is in our hands to not allow the pessimistic climate that currently looms over our country like a nightmare to usurp our future.


JTW - the Journal of Turkish Weekly - is a respected Turkish news source in English language on international politics. Established in 2004, JTW is published by Ankara-based Turkish think tank International Strategic Research Organization (USAK).

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