Which Secularism? The Race for Presidency in Turkey
June 2007
In 1995, Turkish Prime Minister Necmettin Erbakan, the leader of Islamist Welfare Party, visited Pakistan. In his honour, the then Turkish ambassador to Pakistan Candan Azer hosted a reception in Islamabad, where a group of Turkish Airlines air-hostesses wearing Western outfits was also present. Delegates accompanying Erbakan objected to their presence due to “improper” dressing and forced them to leave the reception. Among the delegates was Abdullah Gul, Foreign Minister in the present Turkish government of the Justice and Development Party (AK Party), which is a successor to Welfare Party.

In the current political crisis in Turkey, it is essentially Abdullah Gul’s Islamist past that has come to haunt him, insofar as AK Party’s two parliamentary bids of April 27 and May 6 for electing him as Turkey’s next President are concerned. Millions of nationalist, secular Turks who have marched on the streets of Ankara, Izmir and Istanbul in the last month and a half essentially perceive a threat to secularism—the founding principle of Turkish Republic as established by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk—in the capture of Presidency by an AK Party leader with Islamist past. So does the powerful Turkish military, which considers itself as a “guardian of secularism” as well as the country’s bureaucracy and judiciary, which remain predominantly secular-oriented.

Suspect in the eyes of Secularists

Before Gul, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan was a candidate for Presidency, since the seven-year term of current President Ahmet Necdet Sezer was ending on May 16. For months after the AK Party won the November 2002 elections, Erdogan remained in jail for reciting an Islamist poem. Gul acted as premier until Erdogan’s release and consequent victory in a bi-election in 2003. The first mass rally by secular-nationalists Turks was brought out on April 14 against Erdogan’s bid for presidency. It was in this backdrop that Gul was nominated for Presidency on April 27.

The Republican People’s Party (CHP), the main opposition party, responded to Gul’s nomination by boycotting the parliament’s first round of balloting for president held on April 27 and challenging the legality of the vote in the Constitutional Court. Just a few hours after the balloting occurred, the Turkish General Staff issued a communiqué on its website, warning “It should not be forgotten that the Turkish armed forces are a side in this debate and are a staunch defender of secularism. When necessary, it will display its attitudes and actions very clearly. No one should doubt that.” On May 1, the Constitutional Court annulled the first round ballot on the grounds that less than the required two-thirds of parliamentarians were present at the time of the vote.

Against the backdrop of the high court’s ruling and failure to secure victory in a second round on May 6, Gul withdrew his candidacy. Facing a standoff with the secular establishment, Prime Minister Erdogan sought and obtained from parliament approval to call early elections, which are scheduled for July 22. He also secured parliamentary approval for a package of constitutional changes that included direct elections for president. President Sezer has vetoed the reforms bill, taking the plea that the changes could threaten Turkey's democratic system as a president elected by popular vote could further challenge parliament, which is also directly elected.

President Sezer will hold office until a new President is elected by a new Parliament after July 22 elections.

Is it Islamism versus Secularism?

The struggle for power between Turkey’s secular, nationalist establishment and the ruling Islamist AK Party, each with considerable public support, is not yet over. Does the ongoing political contest between the two rival ideological forces in Turkey really represent a rift between Islamism and secularism? The answer could be yes, if we turn the clock back to 1997, when Prime Minister Erbakan was booted out of premiership by powerful Turkish army, which did not like his Islamist ambition at the expense of the country’s long-cherished desire of becoming a part of secular, modern European continent.

Back in 1995, I was present at the Turkish reception in Islamabad as a diplomatic corresponded for a national daily, and I remember how angry my friend ambassador Azer, who represented Turkey’s secular, nationalist establishment, was with the Islamist leaning delegates accompanying Erbakan. Having spent over half a decade in the Turkish world as a university teacher, I am aware of numerous instances where tensions between Islamist leaning and secular-oriented forces were quite visible. The current political turmoil in Turkey is basically an outcome of these tensions.

But neither Prime Minister Erdogan nor Foreign Minister Gul is Erbakan. Even, for that matter, Erbakan was not a Qazi Hussain Ahmad type Islamist. I met him a couple of times. Erbakan would always wear a yellow tie. But, by Turkish standards, he was much more rigid in his religious outlook. No doubt, the AK Party is a successor to Welfare Party. But, unlike Erbakan, its leaders have pushed for Turkey’s accession into the EU. The Party also has democratic roots, as its landslide victory in 2002 elections proved. Both Erdogan and Gul remain publicly committed to Ataturk’s founding ideal of secularism. Then what is the real cause of Turkey’s current political turmoil?

Secular Ideal and Religious Freedom

It is not that the AK Party wishes to establish a Sharia regime in Turkey. What it may be aiming at is a liberal realisation of secularism, as against the stricter enforcement of secularism by the country’s nationalist, secular establishment and its political supporters. The real contest, therefore, is over which form of secularism should prevail in Turkey—a contest that has come to the fore on the occasion of presidential election, and for the right reason: The Turkish President is the Chief of the Armed Forces. He appoints the General Staff and chairs the monthly meeting of the National Security Council, the highest decision making body. There is also a symbolic problem. The wives of Erdogan and Gul wear headscarf. The idea of a “covered woman” in the Presidential Palace at Cankaya in Ankara is seen by secularists as an unacceptable symbol.

The AK Party regime can no doubt claim many successes in the past five years of its rule, including the reduction of public debt and inflation; the increase in foreign direct investment and GDP growth; and the implementation of reforms aimed at gaining EU membership ranging from the expansion of cultural autonomy for Kurds to the elimination of capital punishment.

However, many of its statements and actions make it a suspect in the eyes of secular-nationalist sections of the Turkish society, including proposals, later abandoned, to create alcohol-free zones and to criminalize adultery, the growth of the Islamic business sector, especially the infusion of “green money” from abroad into the economy, calls by AK Party hardliners for gender segregation. The possibility that the AK Party might win the presidency touches a raw nerve partly because of suspicion that its leaders are determined to challenge the country’s strict separation between religion and politics.

July 22 and Its Aftermath

The outcome of July 22 polls will determine who wins the battle for secularism in Turkey. The secular parties have started to forge electoral alliances. On the centre-left, the CHP has allied with the Democratic Left Party. On the centre-right, the True Path Party and Motherland Party have joined forces under the umbrella of the new Democrat Party. If these parties break the 10 percent threshold for garnering seats in parliament, they may force the AK Party into a coalition government and prevent its presidential bid.

If the AK Party was able to win a two-third majority in parliament, then it will be in a position to win Presidency. In the secular-nationalist reaction to its decision to nominate a “suspect” candidate for the post of President, the Party may have seen the limits of what it can do within the existing system. The challenge for Erdogan will, thus, be to exercise restraint—to avoid the temptation to regard that status as a license to govern Turkey as though it were a one-party state.

While the AK Party bears a major burden in providing a convincing reaffirmation of its irrevocable commitment to Turkish secularism, its secular-nationalist opponents have an equally important responsibility in acknowledging that the AK Party and its supporters need to be confronted only through the democratic process.

The country’s powerful army—which has already intervened in the political process four times prior to April 27’s “e-coup”—will, likewise, be constrained from intervening openly in the political process by Turkish people who generally dislike military intervention as well as the EU which treats civilian supremacy as a precondition to Turkey’s EU accession.

If wisdom were to ultimately prevail among the AK Party, its secular political opponents and the army through the achievement of a new understanding, it would not only help to assure the future of Turkish democracy but also demonstrate the compatibility of observant Islam with secularism. Turkey is a role model in the Muslim world, a secular country with a majority The AK Party will commit a historic blunder by mixing religion with politics. Its leadership has to learn from the experience of countries like Iran and Pakistan, where religion’s association with politics and state has played havoc with public life.

Learning from Turkish Experience

We, in Pakistan, need to understand that the Turks are essentially competing for two different versions of secularism: the AK Party has a populist but conservative base, and wants greater religious freedoms for the people, including the right to wear headscarf everywhere. The secularists, whose support base is not necessarily grounded in elites alone—as recent million marches suggest—believe in the strict separation of religion from politics, treating headscarf as a political symbol.

Unlike Pakistan, where the word “secularism” is yet to enter the debate on the role of Islam in politics and the contest remains between the proponents and opponents of a Sharia rule, the Turks are fighting over what can aptly be termed as a positivist national agenda.

Another lesson of the recent political events in Turkey for us in Pakistan is that the contest for presidency between conservative and secular democrats there is occurring predominantly within the parliamentary and constitutional parameters. The Turkish General Staff’s “e-coup” may be an aberration here, but neither Turkish people nor the EU will endorse any direct military intervention in politics. Unfortunately, in Pakistan, for addressing volatile national issues such as the role of religion in politics, the ethno-nationalist fissures, the subjugation of judiciary and the destruction of civilian political forces, the basic parliamentary and constitutional framework remains missing.