The Evolution of Turkey's Amiable Islamists
From the July 25, 2007 Globe and Mail (Toronto)
July 25, 2007
by John O'Sullivan
Istanbul--Any experienced election observer who had spent time in Turkey over the last ten days would have expected a clear victory for the governing AKP which is, according to taste, either a sinister Islamist conspiracy or the Muslim equivalent of European Christian Democrats. Whatever, as Bob Dole might say, the sense of momentum behind the party was unmistakable. Though all parties had their colored flags strung across navigable streets--reflecting a general enthusiasm that generated an election turnout of more than 80 per cent--the AKP's symbol of a switched-on light bulb dominated the others even in secularist strongholds like Istanbul. Minibuses trundling supporters to rallies across Anatolia always seemed to have AKP slogans painted on their sides. English-speaking cab-drivers expressed various loyalties, but a common (and surely significant) opinion ran: "Look, I'm no fanatic, but this is the most honest government we've had since Ataturk." Polls confirmed this anecdotal evidence.
Yet when the election results emerged on Sunday, the AKP's victory was still surprising. In part this was because the party won a massive 47 per cent of the popular vote. As Canadians can readily grasp, this amounts to a landslide in a multi-party system in which three other parties won representation in parliament. In a two-party system the AKP would probably have won something above sixty per cent of the national total. So the AKP can now reasonably claim to be the Grits--the natural governing party--of the secular Turkish Republic established by Kemal Ataturk.
What makes this result even more dramatic is that the the AKP was in effect mounting a challenge to what has been until recently Turkey's political establishment--a de facto coalition of Kemalist political parties (notably the CHP), the constitutional court, and the Turkish armed forces. All three regard themselves as guardians of Ataturk's secular legacy. The Armed Forces have overthrown several previous Islamist governments they regarded as undermining secularism. And to an extent not always appreciated in the West, Turkish public opinion has accepted such interventions as legitimate--think of the Turkish generals as Beverly Maclachan with tanks.
But the election results are a sign that this acceptance may be changing.
The election itself was provoked, after all, by the joint attempt of the political establishment to block the AKP's selection of its own Foreign Minister, Abdullah Gul, as Turkey's new president. The Kemalist CHP walked out of parliament in order to deny a quorum for the vote; the Armed Forces posted a notice on their website warning of a threat to Kemalist secularism; and the consitutional court, emboldened by these acts (and by massive secularist rallies in Istanbul, Izmir, and elsewhere), declared Gul's election unconstitutional. Whereupon the AKP prime minister, Recep Tayyit Erdogan, called an early election, notionally to propose a new system of choosing the President by direct popular election, in reality to strengthen his hand against the Kemalist political establishment.
He has certainly achieved the latter aim. The Kemalist CHP received a miserable 20 per cent in the election. That understates its natural support, but it deservedly reflects both its recent opportunism--e.g., its parliamentary vote against the Iraq intervention for the sole purpose of embarrassing the AKP--and its failure to bring any fresh ideas to developing a Kemalism suited to modern Turkey. The constitutional court will not wish to challenge AKP policies seemingly endorsed by an election. And the Armed Forces, aware that Turkish public opinion would strongly oppose a coup against an election result, will wait to see how the re-elected AKP governs, keeping their powder dry for the day when it commits a truly Islamist (and unpopular) offense.
In these favorable circumstances, Erdogan could certainly claim justification either for electing Gul president or for following through on his manifesto promise of a presidency chosen by popular vote. He would be wise to do neither and instead to offer a sensible compromise: namely, the election of a generally respected conservative Muslim figure, a constitutional lawyer say, from outside the ranks of the AKP. Such a president should calm Kemalist fears of a creeping Islamist coup while reflecting the evolution of Turkish politics from Ataturk's strict secularism to a more mixed system that will allow greater expression of Islam in public life.
This evolution is the single most important explanation of Sunday's election. To be sure, the AKP in the last four years has presided over a fast-growing economy on a financially stable basis established by its own (and the IMF's) reforms. In addition, as the taxi-drivers argue, it has benefited from a reputation for honesty or at least for being less corrupt than the other parties. But the underlying reason for the AKP's rise is that it represents the interests and values of provincial Muslim small businessmen who were excluded from national politics until recently by the Kemalist establishment but who have grown in wealth and influence as the Turkish economy has grown. They are "no fanatics," like my taxi-driver, but they resent the strict exclusion of Islamic symbolism from political life that Kemalism has enforced. They would like to see at least some Islamic bunting in the public square.
It should not be impossible in theory to walk a middle course between the extremes of banning headscarves in public buildings and imposing sharia law. The AKP government has done so to date. The distribution of parliamentary seats should encourage it to stick to this middle way. Its victory fell short of the two-thirds majority needed to pass constitutional reforms. So the backing of other parties--unlikely to be forthcoming--would be needed if it sought to overturn secularism. Still, some well-informed observers fear a creeping anti-secular coup and cite the appointment of Islamists to judicial and military positions. Such appointments are surely reasonable in a society divided almost evenly between the AKP and its opponents. They are outweighed by evidence of the AKP's own creeping secularism, above all its commitment to join the European Union which would constitute a permanent block on any Islamist coup, however subtle. The very modesty of the supposed Islamist threat is a sign of the widespread acceptance of Turkey's secularism. All that most Turks, including most AKP supporters, ask is that secularism should be administered with moderation, commonsense, and respect for the religious sentiments of the ninety-nine per cent of Turks who are Muslim.
Prime Minister Erdogan, who thus far has shown himself to be a very shrewd operator, knows that he won forty-seven percent of the vote only because he gave explicit guarantees that he would not undermine Ataturk's secular legacy. If he were to break that pledge, the young women in short skirts and bare heads who were celebrating his victory at AKP headquarters would be among the first into the streets to demonstrate--and vote--against him.
John O'Sullivan was a Senior Fellow at Hudson Institute and editor-at-large of National Review.
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