Global Economics

Islamic Pragmatists Triumph in Turkey


The ruling AKP party's landslide win confirms support for its agenda of democratic reform, economic growth, and EU membership

Turkey has handed its government of chastened Islamists an overwhelming election victory -- a reward for leading the country out of one of its worst crises and presiding over an impressive economic boom since it came to power in 2002.

The landslide result of almost 47 percent in Sunday's election, up 13 points from 2002, is a unique triumph for the former fundamentalists who have transformed themselves into conservative pragmatists. No governing party had been confirmed in office so convincingly since the 1950s, astounded Turkish TV commentators announced.

It wasn't just headscarf-clad women and devout moustached men who voted for the Justice and Development Party (AKP), as cliché would have it. Polling analysts said more than half its support came from people with a secular background who wanted Turkey to keep on reforming, to remain business-friendly and to continue to open itself up to Europe -- goals shared by many religious voters as well. Erdogan's AKP has done more in this regard than any of its predecessor governments, however secular.

The opposition secular left-wing CHP, which seems more nationalistic than social democratic, had tried to exploit fears of creeping Islamic fundamentalism. "Do you see the danger lurking in the ballot box?" wrote nationalist newspaper Cumhurriyet on its front page alongside a picture of a pair of eyes under a black veil. It appears to have failed to catch the mood of the population.

AKP's election success proves it has been able to convince more people of its own transformation than the demonstrations by strict secularists had suggested in the spring. It seems that only a minority of Turks fear that the AKP will turn Turkey into a second Iran.

AKP Victory Shows How Turkish Society Has Changed

AKP's victory underscores the extent to which Turkey has changed. Studies show the country has become more religious, but fewer people now support the notion of a political Islam. At the same time religious, rural classes have risen to join an elite that used to be the exclusive domain of the Kemalist urban upper class. The newcomers now want their share of power.

During the election campaign the AKP didn't even promise to lift the strict ban on wearing headscarves in schools, universities and the civil service. The secret of Erdogan's success was his middle-of-the-road strategy, for which he even appointed liberals and social democrats as candidates for his party. He had no competition on the center-right, where the former governing parties of Süleyman Demirel and Turgut Özal have shrunken to insignificance.

As far as the West is concerned, Turkey has emerged from this election as a reliable partner. A change of government would have spelled instability, especially if there had been a coalition of the CHP and the radical nationalists in the National Movement Party (MHP), which won 14 percent. That would have sent out alarm signals about a rise of Turkish neo-nationalism. Such a coalition would have meant a "long-term crisis," the Greens warned in the European Parliament.

Even Turkey-skeptic politicians in Chancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democrats had secretly hoped for an AKP victory.

But this vote was also about personality. Erdogan, who held 55 campaign speeches in 15 days, confirmed his image: credible, hard-working and charismatic. His supporters are already likening him to the popular economic reformer Özal -- and to Atatürk. "You're the greatest prime minister," they chanted when Erdogan appeared on election night.

They're also celebrating him as a man who worked his way up to the top from a modest background. Who visited an Islamic school but was passionate about football at the same time. "Imam Beckenbauer," they used to call him, referring to the German football legend. But at the moment of victory he was modest, and emphasized the need for national unity: "One flag, one republic."

A Message to the Generals

Was it a message to the generals? The army will now play a decisive role in determining whether or not Turkey succeeds, with this clear result, in overcoming the political crisis prompted by the failed presidential election. Will the military now accept an AKP candidate against whom they intervened with a memorandum in April? The memo, posted on the Internet, was widely perceived to be the threat of an army coup against Erdogan if his foreign minister Abdullah Gül were to become president. Sunday's election can also be viewed as a message from voters to the military that it should stop meddling in politics.

The parliamentary vote for president will be the first major test for Erdogan. Will he interpret Sunday's victory as a referendum on Gül and attempt once more to get him elected president? On Sunday evening in Ankara he appeared demonstratively with the devoutly religious foreign minister at his side -- flanked by their wives, who were wearing strict Islamic headscarves. Despite the party's success, however, preliminary results showed that it had failed again to secure a two-thirds majority. That means it will again need the votes of the opposition in parliament to elect a president.

It would be wise to avoid further irritating Turkey's strictly secular forces, for example by firing up another headscarf debate. And for its part, the CHP should avoid a repeat scenario of April, when it boycotted the presidential vote and then sued in the country's highest court to declare the election invalid, thus sparking Turkey's biggest political crisis in a decade. AKP officials are convinced their party got more votes Sunday because voters sympathized with Gül, whose election as president had been thwarted by the CHP.

The two-thirds majority would also have been necessary in order for the AKP to keep its promise of changing the constitution. The party has also announced other important reforms that Brussels is eagerly awaiting after the AKP's European ambitions waned over the past year.

A further stumbling block: Erdogan will soon have to decide whether or not to invade northern Iraq under pressure from the military. The army wants to fight Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) fighters who have infiltrated the region, but by doing so, Erdogan would be risking a further escalation of the conflict in war-torn Iraq. The West has been following these developments with great concern.

How forcefully Turkey now continues on its path towards Europe now depends on Europe too. How long can Turkey be strung along when it is becoming increasingly clear that, at the end of the day, Europe doesn't want it to join the European Union? After all, Turkey's real dilemma has far more to do with its path to Europe than it does with the debate over headscarves and mini-skirts.


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