Pakistan and Turkey: heading in the same direction?

Direction in which the two countries travel will no doubt be watched in the politically-underdeveloped Muslim world

Shahid Javed Burki May 20, 2019
The writer is a former caretaker finance minister and served as vice-president of the World Bank

Ever since the founding of the modern state of Turkey by Mustafa Kamal Ataturk, the country has ridden a political rollercoaster. Its problems are not different from those faced by Pakistan – another Muslim-majority country that is looking for a way to move towards political modernity. Like Pakistan, the role of the military in politics remains undefined although President Recep Tayyip Erdogan seems to have succeeded – at least for the moment – in pushing the armed forces to the background. There is also the issue of the role of Islam in politics and in governance. The founders of both the countries – Ataturk in Turkey and Muhammad Ali Jinnah in Pakistan – wanted their nations to be modern political entities in which the will of the people would prevail and there will be tolerance for those who followed faiths different from those of the majority population. For the Turkish leader that meant getting religion out of the way. The military helped in that endeavour.

In Pakistan it was the military, led by General Ziaul Haq, that took Pakistan towards Islamisation. While the military in Turkey assigned itself the role of the protector of the national ideology, that was not the case in Pakistan. This is for the simple reason that Pakistan had not found an ideology to defend. As in Turkey, the military in Pakistan claimed a significant share in the government’s budget to protect the country’s borders. Then a new development happened which was not of Pakistan’s making. It occurred because the Americans not wanting the Soviet Union to stay in Afghanistan after it had invaded it in 1979 encouraged the formation of religious militias. These were put into battle against the occupying Soviet forces and they succeeded in pushing the invading forces out of Afghanistan. However, when Moscow left, the Islamic militias did not disband. They found other wars to fight, some of them inside the country. The Pakistani military agreeing with the politicians who were in power decided to fight the militias but the war is not quite yet won. The Turkish military has had to do the same and fight the Kurdish militias in the eastern part of the country and also across the border in Syria.

However, Ataturk and his successors went too far in giving up Turkish culture and religion. This resulted in a reaction inspired by Erdogan and his political party, the Justice and Development Party, the AKP. The Turkish military opted for secularism more firmly and resolutely than its Pakistani counterpart. There is also the unresolved question of the appropriate distribution of political power. In Pakistan, federalism as a principle of governance is more firmly established than in Turkey. Especially after the adoption of the 18th Amendment in Pakistan’s Constitution, the country’s four provinces wield more power than ever before. In Turkey, large municipalities such as Ankara and Istanbul wield political influence if not political power. Their importance in the evolving political system is the source of the current political crisis in Turkey.

The defeat of the AKP in the local elections of March 31, 2019 was seen as the limit to which an important segment of the population was prepared to go to accept the still-evolving political system favoured by Erdogan. Those who opposed the president tried the traditional Turkish way – a military coup – but failed. They then turned to the ballot box. In the election for the mayor of Istanbul, a city of 15 million people, Ekrem Imamoglu, the Republican Party’s candidate, led Binali Yildirim, the candidate of Erdogan’s AKP by 13,000 votes. Imamoglu entered the mayoral office on April 6 but the AKP did not accept the result. Declaring that the election had been stolen, the AKP applied to the High Election Council (HEC) for a recount. Eleven judges sat on the board of the HEC, elected by the judges of the Supreme Court and the State Council. In a news briefing,  Yildirim compared the vote to “rotten meat”. On May 6, the HEC by a vote of seven to four ordered a new election in the city. The new contest is scheduled for June 23. The opposition is left with the difficult decision of whether to take part in a new election or to boycott it. It has chosen to fight, encouraged by the decision by several smaller parties to withdraw from the race. That could tip the balance in a race that was decided the first time by a razor-thin margin of less than 0.2 per cent of the total vote. The parties that pulled out took a combined 2.6 per cent of the vote and their decision not to contest could make a difference. “The stakes are high. The odds are against Erdogan. This is a question about whether Erdogan is willing to pay a long-term political price to take Istanbul,” said Ozgur Unluhisarcikli, the director of the German Marshal Fund in Ankara, a policy institution.

In an interview with Carlotta Gall of The New York Times, Imamoglu described that his 17 days in office as Istanbul’s mayor before the election that put him in office stood annulled. There were dozens of cars at his disposal, millions budgeted for officials’ homes and a city sinking in debt. The situation was not much different from the one Imran Khan found when he took office in Islamabad. It was the politics surrounding a contested election result that contributed to Khan’s political rise; the same may happen in the case of Imamoglu.

Another similarity between the two countries is the source of political power. Before the arrival of Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) on the political stage, non-military leaders drew their power from established political parties. This was also the case in Turkey where Ataturk’s Republican Party held sway for a long time. In Pakistan, dynastic politics combined with deep political roots landed power in the laps of the Bhutto and Sharif families. Erdogan in Turkey and Imran Khan in Pakistan broke this tradition. Both owe their political ascent to the support received from the urban youth. Erdogan rose because of the work he did as the mayor of Istanbul. Imran Khan’s distinguished cricketing career won him the devotion of the young in the large cities of Pakistan, particularly in Lahore. The direction in which the two countries travel will no doubt be watched in the politically-underdeveloped Muslim world.

Published in The Express Tribune, May 20th, 2019.

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