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Why The Kemalists Hate Privatization

[Originally published in Hurriyet Daily News] Last weekend, Oktay Ekşi, a legendary name in the Turkish media, said farewell to his readers. That was big news, for since the late 1970s, Mr. Ekşi had been the “chief columnist” of daily Hürriyet and a chief advocate of Kemalist principles. In the past eight years, he had also been a strong critic of the Justice and Development Party, or AKP, government, which is really not a Kemalist favorite. But Mr. Ekşi had been criticizing the AKP freely – until the storm caused by his Oct. 28 column. There he was bashing the government for allowing private companies to build new hydroelectric dams in various parts of Turkey. This amounted to, according to Mr. Ekşi, not just the “raping of the environment,” but also the “selling of the country’s assets.” To further emphasize the latter point, Mr. Ekşi also wrote the AKP people have such a mindset that they would even “sell their own mothers.” And, wow, that was a most shocking thing to say. At the expense of being blunt, I must explain what the idiom implies: a pimp who employs his own mother as a prostitute. And to accuse someone for that is one of the most outrageous insults in the Turkish culture. So, protests arose instantly. And Ekşi, just two days after his column, had to declare his resignation, which was a good decision. Some have said that he should have stayed enjoying the protection of “free speech,” which was a senseless argument. The principle of free speech implies that you should not be legally prosecuted for what you say. But you can well be morally and professionally judged if what you say is unacceptably offensive. What I find more curious in this episode is what made Mr. Ekşi – normally a polite man by all accounts – so angry: the idea that the government is “selling the country” to private business. This is a big source of anger against the AKP that I hear from dedicated Kemalists all the time. Just a week ago, a columnist from the arch-Kemalist daily Cumhuriyet that I discussed on TV was making this very case. “They sold the Kuşadası Harbor to foreigners,” she fumingly said, “now that land is not a part of our homeland.” She then listed all other state enterprises that were sold to “capitalists,” some of which were, to further antagonize her, non-Turks. (The term she used for sale was “peşkeş çekmek,” which implies not just a normal sale, but something which is done treacherously for excessive personal gain. It is perhaps telling that such dirty words exist in Turkish, but not English, for commercial activity.) Since I am a believer in classical liberalism, which includes free trade and investment, I am encouraged, and not shocked at all, by all these “sales” in Turkey. And since it takes a very long argument to tell people about the benefits of laissez-faire economics, I often invite them to contrast North and South Korea as a case study. The former has a state-dominated economy that is perfectly protected from “foreign capitalists” and their looting, exploitation, and blah blah. The latter has a free-market economy that has opened its borders wide to all the investors in the world. The result: North Korea is collectively starving, while the South is a prosperous country that creates world brands. The Korean analogy is particularly relevant for Turkey, because our hard-line Kemalism has interesting parallels with the official ideology of North Korea, which is called Juche. The term means “independent stand” or “spirit of self-reliance,” and it refers to the effort to create a “self-sufficient” economy. It defines the outside world as corrupt and exploitative, and sees “protection” from that as the only way out. According to Juche, the economy should not be just protected but also be state-dominated. Kemalism is of course softer than that since it allows private enterprises. But its principle of “statism” ensures that private enterprises should be balanced by official ones, and allow the state hold its grip on society. (Kemalism and Juche also have parallelisms in the respective cults of personalities created around their founders – something you can see in the strikingly similar official ceremonies in Ankara and Pyongyang.) Given this ideological background, it is not a big surprise that hardline Kemalists have been dedicated opponents of economic liberalism, which began in Turkey in the early 1980s under the leadership of Turgut Özal. When he began privatization, declaring, “the state should be smaller,” many Kemalists got very angry and accused him of being a “traitor” who wants to make Turkey weaker. They just cannot believe a limited government can be the way for a greater society. Today, the AKP is in the footsteps of Turgut Özal. It welcomes and promotes all investors – Turkish or foreign, Arab or Jewish. And it indeed further privatizes state properties, creating an economic boom unparalleled in both Europe and the Middle East. I am really not expecting the Juche-minded Turks to acknowledge the wisdom behind this policy. I am just hoping for the day that they will oppose it less aggressively – and less rudely.
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