Turkey leads toward democracy

The AKP has managed to become solidly mainstream in Turkish politics.

turkey election 298.88 (photo credit: AP)
turkey election 298.88
(photo credit: AP)
We were both in Turkey before and after Sunday, July 22, the day of the intensely debated parliamentary elections. Given the large-scale, contentious demonstrations and the post-modernist military intervention - via the Internet - over the issue of secularism, there were hundreds of eager international observers expecting something spectacular to happen. But to their dismay, and to the dismay of many others, balloting was calm and orderly. No violence or irregularities were reported. It was one of the highest voter turnouts in the history of Turkey's democratic elections (84.4 percent). The highly debated role of the religiously-affiliated Islamic Justice and Development Party (AKP) was put to the test for the second time in five years; it passed with flying colors. The Turkish political community had anticipated the outcome. The few surprises had to do only with margins of performance of the various actors. Though the AKP was poised to win a majority, it did far better than even it expected with 46.7 percent of votes, 12.4 points higher than its 2002 victory. Among the losers was the Turkish military, which has never hidden its deep misgivings vis-à-vis the ascendance of the AKP in the country's sociopolitical space. It is widely believed that the military blessed the pro-secular demonstration earlier in the spring as well as the unification of centre-right and center-left parties. Though clearly rebuffed by the voters, the military seems to be learning to manage such public adversities, at least for the time being. AKP leader Recep Tayyib Erdogan went out of his way in his victory speech later on the night of 22 July to allay the fears of AKP detractors. He assured all concerned of his solemn commitment to the secular principle of the Turkish Republic. He equally reiterated his drive to join the European Union; and proudly pledged to maintain the high rate of Turkey's economic growth. THE WHOLE world was watching Turkey that day: some admiringly, some cynically, looking for any mishaps to justify keeping Turkey out of the European Club; and yet others watched nervously, for fear of a success that would put pressure on them to follow its model. Among the latter were Arab autocrats, to whose reactions we now turn. While Arab opposition parties, civil society and democracy activists cheered the news from Turkey, there was official silence from Arab governments, as if the elections had occurred on another planet. Unlike the front-page headlines in independent media, the state-controlled media in many Arab countries either ignored, delayed or relegated the Turkish elections' story to internal pages or the tail-end of their regular news. By the third or fourth day, these media pundits went out of their way to tell their respective audiences how different the situation in Turkey was from that of Arab countries. Some played up the chronic Kurdish, Armenian and Cypriot problems as if to dampen any Arab joy for their northern neighbor. In some ways, this was reminiscent of cool or even hostile reactions by the same Arab autocratic regimes to Mauritania's giant step in transitioning to democracy. Libya's Gaddafi, already well into his 38th year of dictatorial rule, had dismissed Mauritania's experience as an exercise "in backward tribalism." None of the Arab heads of state cared to attend the April 2006 inaugural celebration of the democratically elected Mauritanian President. It is abundantly clear that when such developments occur in Arab or Muslim-majority countries, it proves doubly embarrassing. This may also explain - at least in part - why many of these regimes are reported to be undermining efforts to democratize Iraq. The triumphant AKP is again victorious today in the election of the mostly ceremonial President of the Republic, an event which became controversial a few months earlier over the headscarf of the would-be First Lady. Yet a challenge for the AKP in the short-run is the army's request to use military means to crush the Kurdish rebels in the southeast. Erdogan has resisted so far in search of non-violent alternatives and support from regional and domestic players. In the medium and the longer term, the AKP has managed not only to become solidly mainstream in Turkish politics but also, through its own example, paved the way for other Muslim Democrats, in a manner akin to Christian Democrats in the West. As a matter of fact, a Moroccan Islamic party bearing the same name in Arabic (French PJD) is already a major contender in the parliamentary elections being held the beginning of September. Beyond the Middle East, the latest democratic election in Turkey, coupled with the success of other religiously-affiliated parties in recent years in other countries, from Indonesia to Mauritania, may be putting to rest the suspect proposition of "Muslim Exceptionalism." If countries like Turkey can survive as democratic regimes with Muslim-majority populations, why can't others? Ibrahim is a human rights activist and founder of the Ibn Khaldun Center for Development Studies in Cairo, Egypt. Akgun is the program director for the foreign policy department at TESEV, an independent think-tank in Istanbul, Turkey. www.commongroundnews.org