What do Nawaz Sharif and Recep Tayyip Erdoğan have in common?

Published: May 10, 2016
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Pakistan's Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif (L) and Turkish Prime Minister. PHOTO: AFP

It has been reported that our embattled Prime Minister, Mian Muhammad Nawaz Sharif, is looking increasingly towards President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey for inspiration in how to establish civilian supremacy in Pakistan and to face off challenges from the powerful military as well as political opponents.   

If this is true, then one can only hope that Mian Sahib emulates Erdogan in his earlier avatar as a committed democrat and not in his most recent reincarnation as an unabashed autocrat.

It is hard to believe now but there was a time when Erdogan was the great hope for a truly inclusive democratic transition in Turkey. In a state with a long history of secular authoritarianism, Erdogan and his party, Justice and Development Party (AKP), held out the prospect of a Turkey more in line with the secular democratic traditions of Europe which was not at odds with its rich Islamic past. While some saw Erdogan’s rise as a challenge to established ideology of Kemalism, the more optimistic observers of Turkey believed that this was the culmination of Kemalist project which would see the Republic of Turkey fulfil its potential as modern secular democratic state in the European tradition.

They believed it would be a Turkey for all and would include, not exclude, from its ranks the ethnic minorities such as the Kurds. The cornerstone of AKP’s policy was good economic management, which saw Turkey rise from financial ruin in 2001 to an annual growth rate of nine per cent in 2010. Grand infrastructure projects such as airports, railroads and highways were launched to rejuvenate the country, making it a first rate economic powerhouse and the 17th largest economy in the world.

Nothing talks quite like success.

AKP’s economic miracle was as real as it could get and it enriched the party’s support base, the rising rural and suburban middle class. It was this economic prosperity that made Erdogan indispensable to Turkey and empowered him to take on Turkey’s powerful military. In 2007, Prime Minister Erdogan took the military head on over the AKP’s choice of Abdullah Gul as the President of Republic. Yaşar Büyükanıt, the Chief of Turkish General Staff, had posted an e-memorandum on Turkish military’s website criticising AKP’s choice because Gul’s wife wore a headscarf and the military feared that it would amount to undermining Mustafa Kemal Ataturk’s legacy in the country. Erdogan did not blink and ultimately Gul was elected President.

Yaşar Büyükanıt’s actions were roundly criticised both domestically and internationally. Even the Republican People’s Party or the CHP as it is called came out against it. Internationally the European Union came out strongly warning against military intervention. The military junta was isolated and were unable to act. Emboldened, Erdogan waited another three years to move against the military, this time accusing a number of key officers of planning military coups against the AKP in 2003 and 2004.

If Mian Sahib wants to emulate this phase of Erdogan’s political career, it would not necessarily be a bad thing. However, one must point out that Erdogan was able to do what he did because he delivered on his economic promises and because he had played the role of an indispensable international leader who was valued by the global community. There was also a sense that Erdogan was personally incorruptible and was someone who did not want to concentrate power in his own hands. The world hailed his overtures to the Kurds and his apparent tolerance for press and media. Mian Sahib must consider if either the world or the people of Pakistan view him as such.

Unlike Mian Sahib, Erdogan did not have Panama Leaks hanging over his head. Caesar’s wife was above suspicion.

One fears though that Mian Sahib is more enamoured with the Erdogan we see today, a leader who has remained far too long in power and for whom the adage “absolute power corrupts absolutely” is most fittingly applied. Having gotten himself elected president in 2014, Erdogan today is on a quest to consolidate power by hook or by crook. Press freedoms are abysmal now and journalists and activists are routinely rounded up on charges of “insulting” the president. It is business as usual with the Kurds with the inclusive People’s Democratic Party, the HDP, greatly reduced in November 2015 elections.

Even the most optimistic supporters of the Turkish president, now fear that Erdogan fancies himself a modern day Ottoman Sultan. Plans are underway for a new Turkish Constitution with a powerful executive presidency. Even Erdogan’s closest ally, Ahmet Davutoğlu, the Prime Minister, has announced his decision to step down.

The problem is that Mian Sahib already tried doing that with the 15th Constitutional Amendment in 1999. Those who do not remember, this was the amendment that tried to vest in the Federal Government (read “Prime Minister”) the power to impose Shariah as the Supreme Law in the country transforming the office of prime minister effectively into a kind of Ameerul Momineen. Thankfully the amendment never passed in the Senate and was forever buried, or else Pakistan would have become a full blown theocracy.

There are no two opinions that Pakistan, being a democratic state, should be run by an elected civilian leader. Yet Pakistan’s peculiar history tells us that there are still many a slip between the cup and the lip. Instead of alarming the military with Erdogan’s example, which the foregoing discussion shows to be a Pandora’s Box, Mian Sahib would be better advised to put his head down and try to complete his term as the prime minister by adopting a non-confrontational attitude towards the military. When, and if, the people of Pakistan choose to give him another term to serve them, Mian Sahib might find himself in a position to stamp the civilian authority irrevocably and irreversibly. Then, one hopes, he would also have the good sense to avoid the perilous path Erdogan is leading Turkey on today.

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Yasser Latif Hamdani

Yasser Latif Hamdani

The writer is a lawyer based in Lahore and the author of the book Mr Jinnah: Myth and Reality. He tweets as @theRealYLH (twitter.com/therealylh)

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.