A mechanical engineer who began his career at Henkel as a production manager in 1970, he retired from the company as the chief executive officer in 2004 when he founded B.O.Y. Consulting in İstanbul. Paker, who also studied sociology during his university years, became prominent for his involvement in civil society projects. He is the chairman of the board of directors of both the Turkish Economic and Social Studies Foundation (TESEV), one of the country’s leading think tanks, and the İstanbul-based Open Society Foundation of Turkey. He also serves in the Turkish Industrialists and Businessmen’s Association (TÜSİAD) and has been on the board of trustees of Sabancı University since 1998.
Turkey and its people are changing in a positive way and one that could not have been imagined before. Therefore, obstacles such as the “deep state,” which have been seen as being barriers to the country’s democratic development, have been losing their effect, this week’s guest for Monday Talk has said.
“What is important is what I call the ‘deep nation,’ not the ‘deep state.’ … Look what’s happened to the deep state: the Ergenekon probe, the suspects, some members of the military who are suspects,” said Can Paker, chairman of the board of directors of the Turkish Economic and Social Studies Foundation (TESEV), in reference to the Ergenekon indictment, which has revealed the existence of a deep-state network that uses all sorts of people and groups from different ideological backgrounds to achieve its goal of destabilizing the country, and the Ergenekon hearings that started in October 2008.
“Look at the Supreme Election Board [YSK] — I don’t say the YSK is part of the deep state, but would it have been easy to react to the actions of a state institution in such a severe way before? This is happening now,” Paker said, referring to the decision of Turkey’s highest and most powerful election body last week to bar 12 independent nominees from running in the June 12 general elections because of the candidates’ past convictions for terrorism-related crimes.
However, the mounting criticism worked, and the YSK reversed its decision on Thursday, allowing seven of the candidates — six of whom are backed by the pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) — to run in the elections. YSK rulings are closed to further judicial review and are considered final.
“Can anyone say those BDP nominees for Parliament should not enter the election? No, because society has changed in a positive way,” Paker added.
According to Paker, Turkish political parties should make changing Turkey’s current Constitution, which is a product of the Sept. 12, 1980 junta regime, a priority because if they do not, society will react harshly at the ballot box in future elections.
In an attempt to emphasize the need for Turkey to have a new constitution with a new set of principles to enforce a more democratic system in the country, TESEV released its constitutional report last week, highlighting restrictions on the state and emphasizing the protection of individual rights and freedoms as opposed to the philosophy of the current Constitution.
Answering our questions, Paker talked about this issue and more.
- A number of civil society organizations have been trying to keep the issue of the need for a completely new constitution on the agenda, and one of those organizations is TESEV. Can you tell us about the importance of this effort?
The issue is not only about changing the Constitution. In Turkey, civil society faces obstacles while trying to influence politics. One obstacle is with regard to financial problems. Some civil society organizations that seemed to be too critical faced more obstacles and more financial difficulties than others because we touched on issues considered taboos. For example, we talked about democratic civilian control of the military, we talked about minority rights, we talked about the relationship between religion and society, and what Kurds want, etc. In short, we created a lot of debate about Turkey’s contentious issues. Therefore, the private sector can hardly support our challenging reports. As society becomes more open to individual freedoms and rights, those attitudes will change, but today civil society has such difficulties and cannot be as vocal as it should be.
- I’m sure you distribute your reports to people from the government and the opposition. Is your voice heard? Do they get back to you?
It would be wonderful if they got back to us, but if they don’t, I don’t bother [to pursue them]. The important thing for us is to have an influence on political parties and this can only be done by having an influence on the public. Civil society organizations should first convince the public about problems. If the public is convinced, it is impossible for political parties to remain indifferent to the desires and demands of the public; this is akin to an industrialist’s sensitivity to the demands of his customers. But civil society organizations should be aware of the fact that when they open up a debate on a taboo issue most people will be against them, even though this attitude will eventually change.
‘Political parties have to prioritize changing Constitution’
- You place great emphasis on changing the Constitution. Do you think the next government — which according to the polls is likely to be the ruling Justice and Development Party [AK Party] unless things change drastically — will be able to bring the issue to the new Parliament after the June 12 general elections?
We first have to see some realities objectively in order to avoid discussions about what political party or which politician can successfully make this attempt to change the Constitution. No matter the government or opposition, political parties need to give priority to four issues that will have serious political effects:
- Making a constitution that will protect and strengthen the individual;
- Solving the Kurdish problem or taking very serious steps to solve it;
- Continuing the stalled process of accession to the European Union — considering that about 60 percent of the population supports Turkey’s entry into the EU;
- And taking steps to mitigate hard feelings regarding lifestyles of different segments of the society, especially in regards to secular versus conservative lifestyles.
Any government that does not take steps to solve those problems will see the results of its actions from the electorate in the next election in an unfavorable way. And if an opposition party shows resistance to taking those steps, it will lose a big part of its support. The question is whether the AK Party is going to do it.
- Is it?
Before last year’s Sept. 12 referendum, the AK Party was preparing for a comprehensive constitutional change, but the [main opposition] Republican People’s Party [CHP] rejected it by saying that they also want to change the Constitution, though not in the way the AK Party envisages it. It’s been four years. If several more years pass by like that, do you think society will stay put without any reactions? I don’t know how much political parties can compromise, but society expects a constitution that will allow more individual rights and freedoms and a constitution that will strengthen civil society.
- And society also expects a compromise among political parties, don’t you think?
Whether they compromise or not, society expects change. Can you imagine the reaction of society if any political party continues to put obstacles in front of a solution to the Kurdish problem?
‘It’s hard to overcome 85 years of official ideology’
- The Kurdish political movement is very dynamic; however, the legitimacy of Kurdish political activity is still questioned in society…
The society is not homogenous with regard to this issue. Imagine what would have happened five years ago if some issues that we are talking about regarding the Kurdish issue were mentioned then. … Some segments of society even denied [the existence of] Kurds then, but we are now talking about the details of the rights to be granted to the Kurdish community. It is of course hard to overcome the official ideology, which goes back 85 years. It cannot be overcome all of a sudden. That said, the Turks, and especially the entrepreneurs of Anatolia, do not want the country to spend its energy and finances on this issue. There are no winners in that war. Not only Turkey, no country in the world has been able to win such a war. And the Kurdish problem has components — ethnic and cultural issues regarding their identity — beyond economic problems. If we had taken the steps that we’re taking today 15 years ago, would the Kurdish problem have grown like this?
- Are you saying there is a risk of civil turmoil if the Kurdish issue is not solved? That the repercussions of not solving the Kurdish issue might go beyond negative results at the polls?
Of course. In my view, though the majority of people will show their reaction at the ballot box, it is very likely that we will see turmoil in the process if the Kurdish problem remains unsolved.
- What about arguments that the “deep state” would not allow a permanent solution to the Kurdish problem?
I don’t take those arguments seriously. The important thing is the sociological change in the country and the direction it goes in. What is important is what I call the “deep nation,” not the “deep state.” … Look what’s happened to the deep state: the Ergenekon probe, the suspects, some military members who are suspects. … Look at the YSK — I don’t say the YSK is part of the deep state, but would it have been easy to react to the actions of a state institution in such a severe way before? This is happening now. Can anyone say that BDP nominees for Parliament should not enter elections? No, because the society has changed in a positive way.
‘60 percent of society supports Turkey’s entry into EU’
- You also attach great importance to Turkey’s entry into the EU.
The main obstacle in that regard is the Cyprus issue, but this is not going to be an issue in these elections. However, if Turkey does not go forward with regard to its entry into the EU, that inaction will not be taken lightly by society. As I mentioned, 60 percent of society supports Turkey’s entry into the EU. Politicians have to envisage the reaction of the people if steps are not taken toward Turkey’s entry into the union. This is not an issue that belongs to the last 10 or 15 years in Turkey. The issue of Westernization is centuries old in this land; it goes back to the times of Mahmud II of the Ottoman period. It is in the DNA of Turkish society. Moreover, we had a report on the support given to Turkey by Middle Eastern countries, which support Turkey’s entry into the EU. It is important for them, too.
- Yes, TESEV conducted research in the Middle East regarding perceptions of Turkey. What were your findings?
“Perceptions of Turkey in the Middle East 2010” found that people in eight Middle Eastern countries view Turkey quite favorably and positive feelings about Turkey have increased compared to the 2009 survey, with Turkey ranking first after 85 percent of respondents said they have very favorable or favorable views of it. In the survey, respondents in the Middle Eastern countries thought Turkey had become more influential in regional politics and that Turkey’s European Union membership was important for them.
‘Municipalities should serve both secularists and conservatives’
- When it comes to policies with regard to bridging the divide over lifestyle differences here, what would you suggest? Could you give us some examples?
There are simple solutions that can be implemented. Let’s think about a few of them. In İstanbul, there are no restaurants operated by the greater municipality offering alcoholic beverages. Now I ask: Are there any restaurants in İzmir that are operated by the greater municipality and that do not offer alcoholic beverages? The answer is no. They all offer alcoholic beverages in İzmir.
Evaluating the situation objectively, it should be taken into consideration that if some people have a right to drink alcoholic beverages in restaurants, other people who do not want to be in a place where alcoholic beverages are served have rights, too. Finding a democratic solution in this case is not so hard.
Municipalities should offer both types of restaurants — some serving alcoholic beverages and others not in order to serve the public. Offering that service might seem like a small step, but it is indeed an important one. We’ve had another study that links the headscarf ban to the downturn in women’s employment.
- Yes, it was conducted by Dilek Cindoğlu from Bilkent University. “Headscarved Women in Professional Jobs: Revisiting Discrimination in 2010 Turkey.”
In that study we saw that women who wear headscarves are greatly discriminated against both in the public sector and the private sector which considers itself secular. Even if they find employment in the private sector that considers itself conservative, they are paid half as much because their employers say women who wear headscarves are not allowed in public institutions and are therefore bound to office jobs, used less and therefore should be paid less! There can be a solution for this problem: What would be wrong with the employment of these women in all public institutions, except maybe in courts as judges and in schools as teachers?
‘Unchangeable articles not needed in Constitution’
Paker says their proposal for a new constitution involves changing some unchangeable articles of the current Constitution, which is the legacy of the bloody Sept. 12, 1980 coup d’etat.
TESEV’s proposal retains the article defining Turkey as a republic. In the current Constitution, the first three articles of the Constitution define Turkey as a republic that is democratic, secular and a welfare state governed by the rule of law. The articles also define Turkish as the official language in Turkey and Ankara as its capital. The first three articles are irrevocable, and amendments to them cannot even be suggested, according to the current Constitution.
“A constitution is a contract in a nation between its people in order to agree on a set of rules. It reflects the society. If societies can change, constitution can change, too. Yes, constitutions are not usually changed as fast as laws change because a constitution is a framework agreement. It’s sociologically wrong to insert irrevocable articles in a constitution. There should be no reason to insert unchangeable articles in a constitution. If there are such unchangeable articles, then this means the makers of that constitution have no trust in their public. TESEV’s suggestions for a new constitution refer only to the democratic Republic of Turkey as its unchangeable characteristic for two reasons: One is a reference to the foundation of the Turkish Republic, and the other is to emphasize Turkey’s democratic rule because ‘republic’ essentially means people’s control of the government,” Paker says.