Fateful Times for the Turks
Weekly Pulse
July 27-August 3, 2007
These are testing times for the Turks, not just in the mainland Turkey but also in the Turkish part of Cyprus. July 20th election did result in a landslide victory for the ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Party), but the electoral outcome does not solve the secular-Islamist divide the country faces.

In the election, the AK Party , led by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and known for its strong Islamic leanings, took almost half the total vote, improving upon its 2002 performance by slightly over 12 percentage points. But if the vote left the old-guard secularists of the Republican People's Party (CHP) with even less political clout, it is far from certain that the results will resolve the tensions that precipated the early election.

Those tensions surfaced in April 2007, when the AK Party attempted to elect its Foreign Minister, Abdullah Gul, to the presidency—as the term of President Ahmet Necdet Sezer was to end in early May. Earlier, Erdogan had intended to contest the post of presidency. Due to their Islamist past, both AK Party leaders were perceived by secular-nationalist Turks as having a hidden agenda: that of eventually turning a republic founded on Mustafa Kemal Ataturk’s secular ideas. Consequently, they took out million marches in the cities of Ankara, Izmir and Istanbul.

Although Abdullah Gul won the majority of parliamentary votes in the first round (but not the two thirds necessary for immediate selection), the Turkish Constitutional Court annulled the results after a CHP challenge and a threat of intervention from the military's staunchly secular General Staff. As a counter move in May, the AK Party called for a general parliamentary election five months ahead of the scheduled date and proposed a package of constitutional reforms, including direct election for the post of the President.

Economic Performance

The election took place essentially in this backdrop, and, as its outcome indicates, the Turkish electorate voted not so much on the basis of the perceived public threat to secularism from the AK Party but on its economic performance in the past four years. The Turkish GNP doubled during this period, the Turkish Lira emerged as a stable currency with the rate of inflation at all times low, and Turkey made significant strides in its membership quest for the European Union.

That is why the AK Party increased its votes from 34.4 to 46.6 since 2002. The CHP retained its position as the main opposition, receiving 21 percent of votes, despite a merger with the Democrat Left Party (DSP) that many had thought would boost its fortunes. The far-right Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), meanwhile, received 14.3 percent of votes. The two parties received 111 and 71 seats in Parliament respectively. The pro-Kurdish Democratic Society Party (DTP) will be able to form a group in parliament as their 25 candidates were elected individually.

Ironically, even though it won more popular votes than in 2002, the AK Party actually ends up with fewer seats because more opposition parties were able to meet the 10 percent threshold to be represented in the legislature. Its share in the number of parliamentry seats declined from 367 to 340 in a 550-seat Parliament.This means that the AK Party will be even further from the two-thirds majority needed for either the first-round election of a president or the passing of a constitutional amendment.

Having said that, it iss clear that Turkey's electorate has signaled its confidence in the AK Party as the party of responsible leadership, economic prosperity, and moderate religiosity. But the office of the presidency, while largely symbolic, has powers of appointment in those very areas that are considered the bastions of Turkey's secular democracy: the general staff of the military, the high court judges, and the upper tiers of the state bureaucracy.

One of the newly elected parliament's first jobs will be to elect a president. After the election, Mr Erdogan still insists that Gul remains a candidate for the presidency. The AK Pary may first pursue president election inside the parliament in alliance with the independent lawmakers in order to obtain the 367 seats required to elect a president. In case the said attempt fails, the party may seek to elect the next president through referendum.

In a sense, therefore, Sunday's election outcome is of paramount importance in determining the balance between Islam and secularism in the secular Muslim country with a population of over 70 million. The AK Party leadership believes that most Turks are ready to tolerate some religious symbolism in the public sphere, most notably the wearing of head scarves in schools and government offices.

Religious Symbilism

To hard-core secularists, even those symbolic changes pose a threat. Moves such as criminaliosing adultry have furthered alarmed the secularists, who strongly believe that if the AK Party got hold of the Presidency, it will start to show its real Islamist face. And that is why this important election leaves the biggest question unresolved: No one can say what will happen if the AKP presses ahead to capture the presidency and meets with the same resistance from the secular-nationalist civil-military buraucratic elite as it faced in May in the form of the Constitutional Court’s decision annulling parliamentary nomination of Gul as President and the so-called e-coup, whereby the Turkish General Staff posted a website wearning for taking unspecified action if the secular foundations of the state were endangered by the pro-Islamist ruling party. How any of those bastions will respond if the AKP captures the presidency—or even moves toward doing so—remains the crucial question of the hour.

In the post-election period, unless Erdogan decides to play down the tensions, go slow and reconcile with the secularist opposition and the AK Party-wary military on the choice of the new president, tensions in Tukey may climb to very dangerous levels.

On the other hand, the landslide victory that the pro-Islamist party has received in the polls may limit the area of maneuvering for the secularist establishment, particularly the military. It would look awkward after this overwhelming victory to talk about a possible anti-democratic interference in the governance of the country. Turkey’s recent history testifies to the fact that almost all military interventions were a product of the failure by civilian politicians to go to elections when polls were badly needed. Now, it would be difficult to explain to the Turkish nation an intervention against a government that has just come out of elections and which has increased its share of votes to almost 50 percent.

In short, it would be interesting to watch the Turkish political scene in the weeks and months ahead, as the unfolding events will essentially tell us which way this great predominantly Muslim nation heads. There is no doubt that, since the AK Party victory in 2002, Turkey has achived progress in economic and political spheres—acknlwledged duly by the Eurapean Union in particular and Turkey’s Western allies, especially the United States, in general.

But if the GNP has doubled during the period, the external debt has likewise doubled, and if the exports have doubled, the imports, mostly from EU countries, have also doubled. The critics of the government, in fact, point out that in the 80 years of secular republic, the total extrenal debt was around US$ 200 billion, and, in the last four years alone, it has doubled to US$ 400 billion. They also point out that the AK Party claims of GNP doubling in value are also misleading, as this has occurred primarily due to reckless privatisation of national institutions and industries such as the Turkish refinery and state Tele-Communication Department. They have been sold, according to the critics, at throw away prices to foreign private business concerns.

Secular-Religious Divide

However, much more important than econmic issues is the religious factor. The economic progress has benefitted the middle class, which tends to be conservative. The AK Party may have moved from religious right to political center, but its votebank are still the conservative segment of the population. The urban population has a significant portion of Westernised secular masses, who are hell bent upon preserving Ataturk’s secular creed—as the million marches from March to May 2007 indicated. Now with ultra-nationalist MHP in parliament for the first time in decades, and the secular-nationalist civil-military bureaucracy showing no sign of compromising on Ataturk’s secular legacy, the stage may be set for confronational politics in the country—unless, of course, the AK Party shows the required pragmatism not to field a candidate for presidency such as Abdullah Gul, for whom the Islamist past from the days of the Islamist Welfare Party of Necmettin Erbakan in the 1990s continues to haunt.

The AK Party has to learn from countries like Pakistan and Egypt, where politics of religion happen to be one of the biggest obstacles to economic prosperity and political freedom. The problem of religion in politics is that once you have a bit of role of religion in collectivist public or political life, then it opens up the avenues for even greater role of religion in public life. One of the lessons for Turkey—and, for that matter—all the Muslim countries from the Western world is that the first step to modernity is separation of religion from the state.So far Turkey has gorwn and emerged as a role model for the Muslim world as a secular country by taking this first step. Any bid by the AK Party to reverse this first step will not only harm Turkey’s future, it will also add to the prevalant notion in the Western world about Islam’s inherent incompatibility with democrcay and freedom.