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Ankara’s Secret: Stupidity or Conspiracy?

[Originally published in Hurriyet Daily News, with readers’ comments] I am not the greatest fan of Charles Krauthammer, the neoconservative columnist of the Washington Post. But the man is undoubtedly smart, and one of his insights was a true gem. “In explaining any puzzling Washington phenomenon,” he advised in his column, “always choose stupidity over conspiracy, incompetence over cunning.” The opposite, he said, gives American politicians and bureaucrats “too much credit.”
I know there are huge differences between Washington and Ankara, but there might well be parallels as well. And the more I get to know the ways of the latter, and the details of the puzzling phenomena there, the more I tend to think like Krauthammer. Legal provocation? Just take a look at the most recent episode. Early this week, not just Ankara but the whole country was shaken by the unexpected veto of a dozen independent candidates for the upcoming elections in July by the Supreme Election Board. Seven of these candidates were supported by the pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party, or BDP, which is the political wing of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, a recognized terrorist group. So, everybody instantly realized that this was a very dangerous thing to do. No wonder the already-agitated supporters of the BDP hit the streets, starting riots and clashing with the police. A youngster got killed by a police bullet, and a policeman got seriously injured. From the first moment of the crisis, various political commentators interpreted this “provocation by the Supreme Election Board” as a conspiracy. Some accused the incumbent Justice and Development Party, or AKP, of working behind the scenes to weaken its Kurdish opponents. Others accused the “deep state,” for working behind the scenes to weaken the AKP, and the democratic system, by destabilizing the county. Yet it did not take too long to realize that “the conspiracy” was probably nothing more than problems with paperwork. The judges of the election board announced that the vetoed candidates had “missing documents,” which would free them from the legal burdens of their previous sentences. The candidates rushed to get the papers, and nine of them were able to get de-vetoed. Others, apparently, are really not eligible to be elected according to Turkish laws. This must be a case study, I believe, for those of us in Turkey who see a plot behind every oddity in Ankara. Instead of seeing a well-planned scheme behind every political phenomenon, we should consider that they might be the result of mere accidents, mistakes or stupidity. Yet this is not a popular way of thinking in Turkey. Here, people rather want to believe that the political powers that they oppose are always very smart, very cunning, and very powerful. Some of my liberal friends, for example, seem convinced that the “deep state” orchestrates almost every political evil around us. When the PKK attacks a military garrison in the east, and the General Staff seems not to have taken necessary measures to protect the soldiers there, this is explained as a plot to intentionally allow the PKK to hit Turkish targets and thus destabilize the county to pave the way for a military coup. Well, maybe. (Aspirations for a military coup are factual, I believe, not imaginary.) But maybe it is just because that our military can be dull, unprepared and incompetent. On the other side, there are the secularists who believe in a similarly all-powerful and all-heinous Islamic enemy – “The Imam’s Army,” as jailed journalist Ahmet Şık provocatively put it. In this worldview, everything that the AKP or Islamic communities such as the Gülen Movement do is a well-crafted effort to take over the state. Their confrontations with the secular establishment are not hasty acts of self-defense, but well-crafted tactics of ultimate conquest. The elders of Mecca, if you will, are behind every policeman, every non-Kemalist prosecutor, every stone. More lenses to see I am not denying the fact that politics in this country is extremely confrontational, and opposing actors do their best to maximize their power. I am also aware that the state machinery is much less transparent, and much nastier, than in any democratic country. In other words, neither the deep state, nor the social forces which combat with it, is imaginary. But if this political war is all that we have in mind, and the only lens through we see the world, then we will most likely neglect other realities, such as the stupidity factor Krauthammer finds so pervasive in Washington. There are probably other factors as well, such as mundane interests and mere emotions. The reason that the AKP appoints like-minded people to bureaucracy, for example, might be not "Islamist infiltration," as the secularist believes, but just good-old patrimonial Turkish politics. Yet Turkey's political camps love to see each other as more powerful, more cunning and more ill-willed than what they really are. Hence our internal, nationwide "clash of civilizations" persists. And that's why we need a "dialogue of civilizations" at home, at first.
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