TURKEY: Secularism, incursion in Iraq are key issues in election
Thomas Cromwell

Parliamentary elections are looming on July 22 in Turkey as 140,000 Turkish troops mass along the border with Iraq. In a recent interview with DiplomaticTraffic.com Turkey’s ambassador to Washington, Nabi Sensoy, said that invading Iraq to pursue PKK terrorists is one of the key issues for the upcoming elections.

The main opposition party, the Republican People’s Party, is calling for action now, which is what Turkey’s military leadership wants. However, the ruling Justice and Development (AK) Party also believes in the need for an incursion in Iraq, but has so far bowed to pressure from Washington and Brussels and stayed out of Iraq.

But the need for the AK Party to demonstrate its intentions for Iraq, at least to the Turkish electorate at this time, might explain all those troops massing on the border, demonstrating that this government is as serious about tackling the terror threat as is the opposition.

The point is, no mainstream political party in Turkey today can appear to be weak on the PKK threat, something that has hung over Turkey for decades. The Kurdistan Workers Party stopped most militant activity when Abdullah Ocalan, its long-time leader, was captured in 1999 by the Turkish government and imprisoned for life. But slowly the organization has ratcheted up its activities, enraging the government and the Turkish public.

The ambassador pointed out that over 35,000 people have been killed by the PKK over the past 23 years, including some 5,000 soldiers, making the PKK one of the most deadly terror groups in the world. He said his government would like to see Washington more aggressive in supporting Turkey against the PKK, and “The military believes it is time to intervene militarily in northern Iraq,” where PKK terrorists seek refuge.

And since the army has long had a major say in Turkish politics, no government can lightly ignore its wishes. That might be more the case for the ruling AK Party, since it has been pushing the boundaries of openly religious expression, such as in matters of dress for women, against resistance from the military, which has traditionally been the main force defending secularism in Turkey.

And, indeed, secularism versus a more Islamic society is another key issue in the upcoming election, the ambassador said. That the secularist opposition supports the military over the issue of an Iraq incursion is no surprise, since the two would appear to be natural allies in this. However, the AK Party cannot afford to antagonize the military, which has twice in recent decades (1960 and 1980) stepped into unstable political situations, removing elected governments to secure Kemalism (the Turkish variety of secularism as established by Turkey’s modern founder, Kemal Ataturk).

Ambassador Sensoy explained that the rise of pro-Muslim political parties over the past few decades in Turkey has been essentially a reaction to the unsatisfactory performance of secular governments, whether of the right (often led by Suleyman Demirel, with support rooted in rural Turkey, and later by Turgut Ozal and other leaders of Motherland, a broader-based political group) or the left (often led by the late Bulent Ecevit).

“Sometimes votes for the AK Party are a protest against traditional parties,” the ambassador said.

In the 2004 municipal elections, the AK Party increased its support by 8 percent over the 2002 general election results, and all indications are that it will continue to dominate the political scene in Turkey for some time.

One major reason for this is its economic success. “Our economy is robust. We are doing very well,” the ambassador said.

He pointed to a GDP growth of 34 percent over the past four years, and a rate of 6.7 percent GDP growth for the first quarter of this year.

“All macroeconomic indicators are very good,” he said.

Just a few years ago the economy tanked. Foreign direct investment was only $1 billion a year. Last year it was $19.8 billion. A few years ago total trade was $85 billion. Last year, exports alone were $100 billion and total trade was $232 billion, the ambassador said.

The ambassador put this in perspective. “Turkey is a regional power, and its geopolitical priorities will not change, whether we are in or out of the European Union.”

In fact, the ambassador said, there are arguments for Turkey to remain out of the EU, simply because this will give it the freedom to pursue its own policies and priorities without having to first conform to those of the EU. “If Turkey is a member of the EU, its influence could only be like that of Spain or Italy,” he said.

Nevertheless, Turkey is still headed towards EU membership, albeit with cooled enthusiasm, that the ambassador said is attributable to Turkey’s sense that it has not been treated fairly in the accession process. “The Turkish public has lost its enthusiasm” for EU membership, he said.

Nevertheless, “Turkey is on the right course to achieve the EU standards,” the ambassador said. What’s more, for the past 12 years, a customs union with the EU has shown that Turkish companies can compete successfully with European companies, he said.

The ambassador said that despite the greater religious orientation of the government, that Turkey will not radically change its policies. “I think an extreme change of orientation will never happen,” he said. “I don’t think Turkey is going to look for another world.”

The ambassador said that Ankara is hoping for greater understanding of its position vis a vis Iraq from the United States and Europe: “People in Turkey ask what would America do if it was in our position, with a terrorist group harbored across its border?” After all, “The United States went half way around the world to protect its own safety,” he said.

He said, “So far we have shown absolute constraint in not intervening in Iraq.”

And, of course, Turkey has several times in the past conducted military raids into northern Iraq to attack PKK bases there. He said the Turkish people and leaders understand that the Kurdish region of Iraq is the most developed in Iraq today, “but can’t condone it offering support to the PKK.”

The ambassador also said that his country believes more could be done by the US and Europe to cut support now going to the PKK, especially financial assistance.

Deputy Undersecretary at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Turkey

Name and Surname       : Nabi Şensoy
Place and date of birth  : Istanbul, 5.25.1945
Marital Status                : Single
Education                       :Graduate of the Faculty of Political Sciences - University of Ankara  - 1968
Foreign Languages       : English  
Previous Assignments:
Ministry of Foreign Affairs                                                      9.30.1970-12.26.1972
Department of Research                                                                    
Candidate Career Diplomat
Third Secretary
Second Secretary
Turkish Consulate General in New York                                 12.26.1972-8.25.1975
Vice Consul 
Turkish Embassy in Caracas                                                   8.25.1975-10.31.1977
First Secretary
Ministry of Foreign Affairs                                                      10.31.1977-7.31.1979
Department of Bilateral Political Affairs                                                          
for Western Europe
Head of Section
Turkish Embassy in Havana                                                    7.31.1979-10.31.1980
Turkish Embassy in Washington, DC                                       10.31.1980-9.1.1983 
Advisor to the Prime Minister                                                  9.1.1983-9.30.1985
Consul General in London                                                       9.30.1985-5.28.1988 
Chief of Staff to the President                                                  5.28.1988-12.7.1990
Ambassador to Madrid                                                           12.7.1990-6.1.1995
Ministry of Foreign Affairs                                                       6.1.1995-11.3.1997
Department of Policy Planning
Ambassador, Director General
Ambassador, Deputy Undersecretary                                      11.3.1997-4.19.1998
(Political Affairs – European Union)
Ambassador to Moscow                                                         4.19.1998-7.1.2002
Ministry of Foreign Affairs                                                       7.1.2002- 31.12.2006            
Ambassador, Deputy Undersecretary
(General Political Affairs)