The Turkish elections - 'Demo-Islam'?

A successful conclusion to the controversy over the presidency could signal a modus vivendi among Turkey's political factions.

turkey election 298.88 (photo credit: AP)
turkey election 298.88
(photo credit: AP)
The center-right Justice and Development Party (AKP), which is rooted in political Islam, won a landslide electoral victory on July 22 in a highly contested campaign which saw an 80 percent voter turnout. Led by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the AKP mustered roughly 46.5 percent of the vote, 12 percent more than in 2002. The AKP will hold 341 seats (out of 550), which would enable it to rule again without coalition partners. However, the opposition's showing means that because of the peculiarities of the Turkish electoral system, the AKP will have less seats in parliament. Significantly, it did not get the two-thirds majority in parliament needed to be able to amend the constitution and pick a president without opposition support. The secularist center-left opposition, the Republican People's Party (CHP), kept its place as the main opposition party in parliament with 20.9 percent of the vote and will have an estimated 112 seats. The right-wing Nationalist Action Party (MHP) received 14.3 percent, securing 71 seats. In addition, 27 independent candidates, including Kurds, entered the Turkish Parliament. The CHP, which was beleaguered by poor leadership, represents the declining Kemalist secular statist tradition. The MHP succeeded this time in crossing the 10 percent electoral threshold. It advocates an independent foreign policy less enamored with accession to the European Union (EU), and a tougher stand on the Kurdish issue. Significantly, the MHP's platform is very similar to the Turkish military's. THE RESULTS have been greeted with dismay by the opposition parties, who had been encouraged by the mass rallies protesting the AKP's attempt to nominate one of their members to the presidency just before the elections. The secularist camp in Turkey failed to realize that the AKP's ascendance in Turkish politics is not temporary, but reflects deep changes within society. The AKP also reaped the results of its wise policies. Foremost, the Turkish economy has done very well since the AKP took over in November 2002. During its term in office, inflation has decreased and the economy experienced sustained growth of an average 7.3 percent annually. The standard of living has increased, exports are soaring, and the stock market is blooming. Second, Erdogan succeeded in performing delicate political footwork to avoid overt intervention by the military, which has accused the party of being a threat to secular institutions. Moreover, before the electoral campaign, Erdogan steered the party closer to the political center, by removing from the party ticket former religious Right parliament members, and by including new faces who were more attractive to a broader political spectrum. DESPITE THE clear-cut AKP victory and the probable continuity in government policies, stability for the Turkish political system is not assured. Several domestic and foreign policy issues have the potential to rock the boat. The incoming parliament will have to elect a new president acceptable to the AKP, to the opposition parties and to the secularist military. The failure to do so earlier this year led to a constitutional crisis, prompting early elections. The AKP might accept a secular president with curtailed prerogatives and increased powers for the prime minister. A successful conclusion to the controversy over the presidency could signal a modus vivendi among the various political forces in Turkey. In contrast, a protracted political stalemate would be a bad omen for the future. The new AKP government will also have to address the terror campaign waged by Kurdish separatists based in southeastern Turkey and northern Iraq. Recently, Turkish officials have warned about a possible invasion of northern Iraq to root out the Kurdish irredentists. The Kurdish issue is not purely domestic, but has international implications. The way Ankara deals with Kurdish irredentists could strain ties with the US and the EU. The EU accession talks, the future of northern Cyprus, the approach to the nuclear Iran challenge and energy politics in the Caspian Basin are additional important foreign policy issues that will increasingly demand the attention of the Turkish government because of their potential domestic repercussions. ABOVE ALL, the struggle over identity in Turkey has not ended. While the current mix of Islamists, ultra-nationalists and strident secularists in the new parliament hardly reflects all hues of Ankara's highly fragmented polity, it is enough to create tension, particularly if the AKP pushes ahead with an Islamic agenda. The new AKP government may well find itself adamantly opposed by the CHP and MHP, with covert backing from the Turkish military. In more optimistic vein, the AKP victory could become an indication that Demo-Islam, a synthesis between Islam and modern Western democracy, is achievable. In that sense, the outcome of the Turkish elections portends great significance for the Muslim world and the international community as a whole. Only time will tell if the AKP is a danger to Turkish democracy. So far, it has played by the rules and won two consecutive elections - a unique achievement in Turkish political history. The author is professor of political science at Bar-Ilan University and Director of the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies.