(photo credit: )
Turkey, the world's prime example of a mainly Muslim country as a secular democratic state, may be losing that status. For the first time, a member of an Islamic party stands poised to win the presidency. And the upcoming parliamentary elections are likely to result in yet another victory for the Islamic-oriented government.
The ruling Justice and Development Party, led by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has selected the party's No. 2 leader, Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul, as its candidate for the presidency. Secularists fear this may be the beginning of the end for the secular nature of the republic, as established by president Mustafa Kemal Ataturk more than 80 years ago.
While Turkey has twice had a prime minister from an Islamic party, the president is looked on as a bulwark of the secular system. The president plays an important role in Turkey. He appoints the prime minister, the military's chief of staff, university rectors, and members of the country's highest court.
The other institution safeguarding the status quo is the Turkish army, which has brought down governments on several occasions.
True, Gul has promised to maintain the state's values of secularism and democracy, as well as to keep up Turkey's good relations with the United States and Israel, and its pursuit of membership in the European Union. But some of his past actions worry secularists, including Gul's meeting with Hamas leader Khalad Mashaal at the Justice and Development Party headquarters in Ankara in 2006. And Erdogan advocated a law to make adultery a crime, in 2004.
As a result, many secularists, including the chief of staff, Gen. Yasar Buyukanit, argue that Gul and Erdogan are merely paying lip service to secularism. They vividly recall Erdogan saying before he was premier, "Thank God, I am a servant of the Shari'a," or Islamic law, and, "We will turn all our schools" into Islamic ones.
The growth of the Justice and Development Party's political power is a result in part of social and economic changes. To encourage modernization and development, Ataturk made Turkey a highly centralized state. As a result, the ruling center often discriminated against the country's Anatolian periphery, including small and medium business owners, many of whom are pious Muslims.
During the 1980s, economic reform focusing on free trade and privatization has benefited this group, many of whom support the current regime.
Large-scale immigration from these peripheral
villages into the big cities has also boosted support for JDP and its more extremist predecessor, the Welfare Party.
Additional factors helped bring an Islamic party to power: a big recession; corruption, incompetence and divisions among secular party leaders; and a new generation of Islamic politicians who know how to portray themselves as modern as well as honest.
The effort to elect Gul raises the specter that either the Constitutional Court, another fortress of secularism, or the military might force the government out and call new elections. Yet such elections would be unlikely to change much, as the half-dozen secular parties on the left and the center-right simply cannot work together or find charismatic leaders to counter those presently ruling the country. Moreover, if such intervention originated from the army, it could sound the death knell for Turkey's attempt to join the EU, which could only hurt the army's standing with the public.
Whatever happens in the near-term, the Turkey that the world has known for 83 years -and considered a success - is passing through the most perilous times it has known for many generations.
Linda Michaud-Emin is a research fellow at the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center at the IDC, Herzliya.