Turkey’s Deputy Prime Minister Bülent Arınç is co-founder of the ruling AK Parti and known as one of its ‘wise men’. As he prepares to stand down from Parliament due to restrictions on serving a fourth consecutive term, he discusses the political identity of his party, the forthcoming elections, Turkey’s European credentials, the Kurdish peace process and his own political legacy.
Many outside observers struggle to put an accurate label on the AK Parti. Islamist, Islamist-leaning, Religious Conservatives… there are many narrowly defined descriptions in the West of the party that has been in power for 13 years, with some saying the party has become more overtly religious in its policies since 2011. As one of its founding fathers, how would you define identity of the AK Parti?
This is an important point for us, as there used to be political polarisation in Turkey before the 1980s. Some of the parties were rightist while some were leftist. This lasted for a long period of time and ended with the military coup in 1980. However, when the Motherland Party came to power in 1983, the concepts of ‘rightist’ and ‘leftist’ began to erode. Some of the parties defined themselves as ‘central parties’, some as ‘social democrats’ and some as ‘nationalist’.
Then, when the AK Parti was established, we defined our party as a ‘conservative democrat’ party in our founding regulations. We did not consider ourselves either leftist or rightist. In our definition, ‘conservative’ means protecting and respecting the values of the society and ‘democrat’ means fulfilling the democratic criteria and ensuring that democracy endures, as desired by everybody.
I believe that defining our identity in such way was also appreciated by the Turkish public, as everybody found this definition suitable. Most of our people respect our cultural and religious values, our language, our country, and our national and family values. Concepts such as ethics and honour are important for Turkish society.
I think that the concept of conservative covers all these. Observing that we protect these values, the Turkish public elected us. Democracy is the common ground of us.
Some people, both in Turkey and the West, define us incorrectly. We are not a religious or Islamist party. People make such claims by taking some religious people at the top of the party as examples. We believe that religious people may be involved in politics in any party.
Moving forward, the Government has set forth an ambitious Vision 2023 that would see the country become a top 10 economy by 2023, among many other ambitious targets. What kind of Turkey can the world expect to emerge over the next 8-10 years if the AK Parti remains in power?
The 2023 objectives should be evaluated based on a financial plan in general. For example, we have achieved important successes in exports over the past 12 years. Our exports, which were valued at 22 billion dollars in 2002, have increased to 160 billion dollars now. Despite the global economic crisis, our exports have increased consistently. We are aiming to increase this figure up to 500 billion dollars by 2023. Thus, we design a financial plan, accordingly.
In 2002, the average national income in Turkey was about 2,000 dollars. Now it is nearly 11,500 dollars and we aim to increase it up to 25,000 dollars. Moreover, we plan to increase the gross national income of Turkey above 1 trillion dollars. In other words, our objective is based on increasing the welfare of Turkey significantly. We are certain we will achieve our objectives. We are convinced because we took over the government when the economy was in a very bad condition and we brought the economy to its present success. Now we are in a very good position and we believe we will take it further.
Unemployment is also important. For the first time in many years, Turkey has witnessed single digit unemployment rates. Today, the rate is about 9.5%. We aim to decrease this to 5% or less by 2023.
Turkey is gearing up for another election in June. If the AK Parti wins another big victory, the political system could be transformed into a new Presidential democracy with Tayyip Erdogan’s powers as head of state considerably enhanced. How would you perceive such a change?
Our President wants that system and states this at every occasion. Therefore, it is not necessary to make any further comment. If the Turkish public votes for us and elects higher numbers of deputies in our party, we will fulfil our promise: a new, contemporary, civil and democratic constitution.
In drafting the new constitution, we will examine the best system for Turkey. We want to prepare the constitution in the Parliament based on reconciliation. In fact, in 2014, for the first time in Turkey, the president was elected directly by the public. Although the President was elected by the people in the first round, he currently has the same rights and authorities as the previous president elected by Parliament. We are not responsible for this contradiction. We need a new arrangement to eliminate these contradictions. We will make an arrangement under the new constitution about this.
The European Commission endorses Turkey-EU negotiations, but it recommends that Turkey pay particular attention to the respect of fundamental rights, both in law and in practice. What would you say to European observers who say that Turkey under the AK Parti is incompatible with European values and ideals?
This has always been a matter of debate. We have often heard critics question whether the values of the new Turkey comply with the European Union. This is the claim of those who are not desirous of Turkey’s EU membership.
They used to tell us: “You are Muslims and this is a club for the Christians, so why are you here?” and we answer this question with: “We know that you believe in democracy and the rule of law. You are aware of the fact that differences can exist together and that democratic values should be maintained.” That’s why we would like to participate in the EU. If these things are not valid, what was the real objective in forming the EU?
There are just a handful of countries which have reservations about Turkey’s full membership to the EU, such as Germany, France and the Greek Cypriot Administration of Southern Cyprus. All of their objections are related with politics and their internal policies.
We are all aware of the situation in Greece. Iceland has recently withdrawn its candidate status. Norway and Switzerland are not member states. The EU has important internal problems to contend with. We tell them: “Turkey will not be a burden for the EU; we will share the burden of the EU”.
Since 2005, we have been engaged in negotiations with the EU. However, they are constantly putting obstacles before Turkey. As a result, the number of those supporting EU membership has decreased within our country. We know that the European Union is a legal and democratic standard-bearer and Turkey aims to reach this standard. But the EU should be fair. If this standard is not attainable in the EU, then Turkey will come to the conclusion that the EU is prejudiced.
You have spoken repeatedly about democratic ideals. If we look beyond Turkey, the Arab Spring has so far not resulted in the peaceful transition to democracy that was hoped for, with neighbouring Syria in particular remaining in chaos. Do you think the model of governance practised in Turkey since 2002 appeals to ordinary citizens in Arab countries and, if so, why has it not been more widely replicated?
It is certain that Turkey is a democratic and secular state, with a mostly Muslim population, and we believe we have a good model. We would be pleased if this model were appreciated. However, we do not intend to export it although some countries may make reforms and adopt such a model.
We are a good model, our country is being ruled well and we are successful. We will one day become an EU member. Moreover, most of the Islamic countries take Turkey as a model and a representative for themselves.
The Arab Spring or other events observed abroad pertain to the countries where they are taking place. They are related with their social structure or their regime. Whether they have succeeded or not should be considered in terms of their own societies. These events are not similar to events in Turkey and our country is neutral to these incidences. In other words, whether these countries have become successful or not is related to their internal structures. It is not related to us.
We put democracy first and foremost and we do not support any model other than this. I would like to give an example. I have served in four parties as a politician which have been disbanded. However, the AK Parti advanced on our path and came to power with the votes of our people. We could not approve of obtaining power by any means other than elections. We have never considered violence or forcibly imposing our ideas on the people.
We have one direction and this is democracy, which involves the national will and a sense of participation. Thanks to this, we have continued as a strong ruling party for 13 years.
You are one of the government figures driving forward the “solution process” that officially began in 2013 in an effort to bring about an end to the decades-old conflict with the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). HDP co-chair Selahattin Demirtaş accused the government recently of delaying the process so you can announce developments closer to the election. Demirtaş said: “We don’t trust the AKP and this drives them crazy… This government is incapable of bringing permanent peace to this country. Their mentality won’t allow it.” Why should the people of Turkey – including the Kurds – trust the capabilities of the AKP to deliver lasting peace to the country?
The statements of Demirtaş are quite wrong and I have criticised them. If we collaborate in the reconciliation process, then we must trust each other. If you state that you do not trust the government, then it means you are cheating us. However, I must believe in HDP. If we are to collaborate in this process, we have no other option.
Secondly, we are a party that has received 50% of the votes. That is, one in two voters trusts us, which has laid a big burden on us. Only the AK Parti can resolve this chronic problem for Turkey. Both the Turkish and the Kurdish people believe in this since our achievements for 12 years are like miracle for Turkey. Moreover, if the terror is eradicated, Turkey will become more powerful; national solidarity and brotherhood will grow stronger.
AK Parti places first in the regions with dense Kurdish populations. There are no other successful parties except AK Parti and HDP. The CHP or MHP do not win votes there. The Kurdish people trust us much more than the HDP. Furthermore, we have always been the leading party in the regions with smaller Kurdish populations.
Therefore, our people believe that our actions are right and this chronic problem of Turkey will be resolved under our leadership. This process will be finalised in a positive manner, regardless of the HDP.
Kurdish people trust us because their very existence used to be rejected in Turkey, before our government came to power. It was forbidden to speak Kurdish, or write books, sing or make an album in Kurdish. Even mothers were not allowed to speak Kurdish with their children in prison. We can give many more examples. Our government recognized Kurdish people and their language. During our term, they have been allowed to speak and write in their language. We respect the Kurdish language; we have opened TV channels, educational courses and enabled training courses in Kurdish. We ensured the protection of all rights stated in the Constitution. We consider all these under human rights.
We amended the constitution and introduced new laws. The administrative decisions of our government have improved the daily lives of Kurdish people and ensured peace. We have kept all our promises. We issued six democratization packages. I repeat: we fulfilled all our promises. Therefore, Kurdish people know that we are more sincere, honest and faithful to our promises than the HDP.
Your final term in Parliament is coming to an end and you will soon step down as Deputy Prime Minister. As we have mentioned, you are one of the founding fathers of the ruling party and you are often referred to as one of its ‘wise men’. How would you like to be remembered as a politician?
We politicians are happy if we have a good reputation and we leave behind good memories. I have been involved in politics for more than 40 years. I have been in Parliament for 20 years. I have served in many positions in Parliament. I have been a group leader, group vice chairman, commissioner and an MP. There is not any position I have not served in. I acted as a Speaker for 5 years and I have been a member of the government for 6 years. I have always maintained my principles and tried to conduct honest politics.
I stand behind my every speech. I have always talked and done what I believe or trust in. When I leave I would be happy to hear people saying: “he was an honest, good person. He did not gain unearned income or favour others unfairly”. I want to be remembered in such a way. I have never aimed to gain fortune or derive a profit from politics. I do not have any additional income other than my pension. My most important legacy will probably be my reputation as a ‘principled, brave, determined and honest politician’.