Turkey's Elections on Sunday: We Have a Dog in the Fight

When the Bush family and Texas friends wish to convey that they don't care much about something, they have been known to say: "I don't have a dog in that fight." There's a fight happening next Sunday in Turkey that we do have a dog in and have heard precious little about in the U.S. media. Do we need reminding that the U.S. position in Iraq and Afghanistan has been unraveling and that Turkey is a crucial Islamic ally?

I was in Istanbul twice this year, first in a cool, gray week in February, then in a warm week in May, when on the 19th everyone was celebrating the anniversary of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk's blueprint for the Turkish Republic. Huge pictures of the great Ataturk abounded, along with the country's red flags with crescent and star. While 99 percent of the 70 million Turks say they are Islamic, Ataturk's secular state is a strongly held value for many Turks and survives thanks in part to the Turkish army's taking action when the constitution has been threatened, and (far more impressively) relinquishing power when constitutional order was restored.

America's dog in the fight is Turkey's remaining a secular and democratic ally. As centrist-conservative Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan stumps for his party in advance of the parliamentary elections this Sunday, July 22, the war in Iraq is an issue. Erdogan was elected in November 2002 and in March 2003 requested Turkey's unicameral Parliament to accede to a U.S. request to transport troops through Turkey to Iraq. The Parliament voted no, even though Erdogan's Justice and Development Party (AKP) won 363 of 550 votes in the previous election.

Our State Department says this vote was a "low point" for us in U.S.-Turkish relations. But for many Turks the low point was later that year, on July 4, when U.S. forces dissed the Turkish army by leading away in hoods captured Turkish soldiers and civilians for interrogation. Turkey protested, the soldiers were freed and a U.S.-Turkish commission expressed regret. But nationalist rancor lingers in Turkey as evidenced by the huge success of the anti-American movie, based on a TV series, "Valley of the Wolves Iraq." Erdogan continues providing a U.S. base for trans-shipment of three-fourths of U.S. air cargo to Iraq, has given advance clearance for military overflights, and has purged some of his own 2003 rebels. But the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) has picked up support from this as well as from fears engendered by the activities of the Kurdish separatists (PKK).

Secularists, including the army, are on guard because of Erdogan's Islamist origins. But Erdogan has been pushing his party toward the center. His investment in infrastructure and his Europe-friendly policies have helped his country grow about 7.5 percent a year since he came to office, a pace that the State Department calls "one of the highest sustained rates of growth in the world." Foreign investment in Turkey is strong and so are exports. Erdogan's reforms have put him in a good position relative to mainstream Turks. The current worry is possible growth of the threat from the right.

The secularists on the left are relatively quiet because of Turkey's economic strength. One powerhouse is Turkey's textiles and apparel industry, which accounts for about 10 percent of GDP and more than one-third of Turkey's exports, generating upwards of $14 billion a year. Its two largest markets for textile exports are the EU (roughly 60 percent of total Turkish textile and apparel exports) and the United States. Turkish clothing manufacturers are organized as TCMA (a member of the International Apparel Federation) and a variety of textile and garment exporters are under the umbrella of ITKIB. Members of both organizations seek to maintain sales to Europe and America in the face of competition from Asia.

Western apparel buyers have spooked some developing countries with their search for evidence that the factories are sweatshop-free. Others respond with a positive attitude, viewing good working conditions as a competitive advantage. Turkish factories have been responding with claims that their work conditions are better than those in poorer countries like Egypt and China, and a small but significant number of them have implemented world-class working conditions, leading to their becoming certified according to the labor standard SA8000.

During my two visits to Istanbul this year, I listened to many labor and management representatives talk about these challenges. I will follow this blog with another on these interviews.