Next Step : Turkey’s Season of Discontent : Born-again democrats are disappointed with new Prime Minister Tansu Ciller, corruption and the army’s grip on government.
If everyone had not been so well-dressed and polite, the meeting would certainly have been deemed subversive. Even an old Marxist saying boomed down from loudspeakers around the stage of the elegant concert hall, the adage about the people having nothing to lose but their chains.
But the speaker was loosening no more than the smart executive tie around his unbuttoned collar. Cem Boyner is one of Turkey’s richest textile manufacturers, doing business with Italy’s Benetton and Levi-Strauss in the United States. Yet he is fast becoming the best known of Turkey’s born-again democrats.
“Turkey needs a revolution in mentality. The mega-state is bankrupt. Turkey has to make a choice between enlightened democracy and an oppressive dictatorship,” Boyner told his audience, launching a frontal assault on the taboos of a 70-year-old republic long-dominated by strait-laced military and civilian bureaucracies.
He hit the spot. Applause swelled from the audience of a thousand of the best and brightest in Turkey’s thirty-something generation, who are fed up with corrupt politicians and an ideologically and financially bankrupt system of government.
“Everyone talks like this between themselves. At last somebody is saying it out loud,” said ship Capt. Alev Tunc, 36. The friend who had brought him to the meeting, educational counselor Ayse Buyukdora, agreed. “It’s like a dream,” she said. “We are gathering around an idea. Everything is very new, very different, against the system. The public is ready for these things. The movement will grow very quickly.”
Boyner, 39, is one of a number of new Young Turks trying to shake their country awake before it is drowned by the ethnic and religious conflicts that have overwhelmed the regions all around them: the Balkans, the Caucasus and the Middle East. In many ways, Boyner, whose listeners had gathered to hear him promote the New Democracy Movement of which he is spokesman, fills a void left by last year’s sudden death of Turkish leader Turgut Ozal.
The New Democracy Movement is one of dozens of such groups and networks that have sprung up in Turkey over the past year: Forty have been counted in Istanbul alone. “The Wave From the Deep” and “Civilians Rise Up” are just a few of the series on the phenomenon that have been run by Turkish newspapers. They track groups interested in everything from human rights to Istanbul’s dwindling water supply.
Some are led by open-minded retired generals, others by angry young members of the Greens. “I think of my movement as a cross between free-masonry and an Islamic brotherhood,” said Tinaz Titiz, Ozal’s long-serving minister of tourism whose White Point Assn. aims to educate, enlighten and bring probity to all aspects of Turkish life.
In an Istanbul suburb of half-finished concrete buildings, messy back alleys and hectic street life, the headquarters of Boyner’s New Democracy Movement gives little clue to its fast-rising profile. But with more than 6,000 members gathered in just a few months, mainly from the young elite of business, academia and professional life, it is now probably the biggest of the new groups.
The same groundswell for change was discerned last year when traditionally conservative politicians from Anatolia chose the dashing Tansu Ciller to be Turkey’s first woman prime minister.
But Ciller has since disappointed many Turks with her headstrong style and reliance for support on the powerful Turkish army. Her True Path party could muster only 21% support in nationwide local elections in March, and that was the biggest share of the vote, showing what a splintered mess the Turkish political system is in.
Left-wing parties that traditionally see themselves as progressive have collapsed. And fed by wide-reaching political debate on private television stations, the sense of ferment is unprecedented. An idea of the sense of national disgust with the system came when the newspaper Milliyet last month reported that 69% of Turks thought the government was unsuccessful, 58% thought the opposition was useless, and 70% did not trust Ciller.
Ironically, the first to profit in elections has been the Welfare Party, which has been organizing the Islamic vote under various names since the 1970s. With a strong local organization and alleged backing from conservative Arab states, it is determined to bring Turkey’s 60 million people closer to their Islamic roots.
The Islamics’ share of the vote rose to a record 19% in the March elections, not only because their candidates were seen as honest and hard-working, but also because their party offered an alternative with the slogan “a new system.”
But the Islamics’ “new system” remains undefined. Author Rusen Cakir described the enigma in the title of his book, “Neither Democracy nor Islamic Sharia Law.” Turkey’s secular majority became increasingly suspicious that it would have an intolerant Iranian-style Islamic regime forced upon it.
Car window stickers have told the story of a society divided: Those declaring “Peace of mind is in Islam” or “Islam rules” vied with others saying “O Father, we follow in your steps,” referring to the uncompromising secularism of the early 20th-Century nationalist Mustafa Kemal, called Ataturk, which means Father of the Turks.
The upper classes, increasingly closeted behind the walls of their luxury compounds, were worried by the conflict. The secularism drummed into young Turks’ heads by the school system were no longer enough to keep society on an even keel. And many modern-minded women were frightened by the Islamics’ rising fortunes; at meetings of the New Democracy Movement, half the audience is female.
“The elections showed that our rose garden was surrounded by sewage,” said a woman bank official. “I wanted to do something. I don’t want to have to wear a head scarf. The trouble is, I have a bank to run. I don’t have time to get out door-stepping the suburbs, while the Islamic women can get out there.”
Most of the new groups do not want to form regular parties, and the idea is controversial even in the New Democracy Movement. But Boyner and his wife, Umit, have moved off the society pages of glossy magazines and are determined to unite the political center.
The New Democracy Movement is trying to collect and synthesize different political tendencies under one party roof--a feat not pulled off since Ozal’s heyday in the 1980s--and to attract strong leaders. It is also trying to be a common home to all the ethnic groups of Anatolia, the vast Turkish heartland.
Crisscrossing the poor towns of Anatolia, the Boyners and the movement’s other leaders have already visited more than half of Turkey’s provinces on trips that are usually organized by groups of young businessmen and women. Sometimes the talk of commerce goes a little too far: Boyner tends to talk about gaps in the market, and complex, computer-generated overhead projections make them seem like a sales staff trying to peddle a new soap powder.
But the movement’s agenda is clear--and similar to that of other democratic groups: political reforms to end the bloody conflicts between the Turkish army and the Kurds in the eastern provinces; privatization and sale of state lands; a more democratic constitution; compromise with moderate Islamic groups and freedom of religion for all faiths.
“We want to turn the whole thing upside-down,” Boyner told reporters. Paradoxically, he believes that some of his most important help may come from people inside the system like himself. “There are many people in the army, police and the Establishment who also want to change.”