Turkey Turns over a Blank Leaf

Turkey Turns over a Blank Leaf

In national elections held this past Sunday (November 3), approximately 35 percent of Turkish voters cast ballots for the Islamic-based Justice and Development Party (AKP), giving it the absolute majority within parliament.

In national elections held this past Sunday (November 3), approximately 35 percent of Turkish voters cast ballots for the Islamic-based Justice and Development Party (AKP), giving it the absolute majority within parliament. Tayyip Erdogan, a former mayor of Istanbul who has Islamist roots, heads the AKP, a new party that formed last year. In fact, he is banned temporarily from serving in office due to charges (dating back to 1997) of inciting religious hatred. The Republican People's Party (CHP) came in a distant second, with only 19.6 percent of the votes. (The CHP was the party of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the founder of the modern republic, and is a staunchly secular center-left party.) All of the other 16 parties, including the current coalition partners comprised of the Democratic Left (DSP), Homeland (ANAP) and the Nationalist Movement (MHP) fell short of the 10 percent of the votes needed in order to be seated in the parliament.

The outcome of the Turkish elections is notable for several reasons. For the first time since 1947, only two parties will be represented in the parliament. According to Turkey's election laws, the votes of the parties, which did not pass the threshold, are distributed among the winners. This means that the AKP, while receiving only 35 percent of the votes, will control 70 percent of the seats in the parliament, with 364 representatives. The CHP will take 169; and the remaining 7 will be occupied by independents. This will enable the AKP to form the first non-coalition government Turkey has had since the 1987 elections. Turkey might see its most stable government in years, for better or worse.

The elections are also significant in that all of the parties from the current term were voted out of office. Current Prime Minister Bülent Ecevit's party (DSP) received only 1.5 percent of the vote. In fact, only 69 (out of a total of 550) seats in the parliament will be retained by incumbents. The message is clear: the Turkish populace is fed up with career politicians who have been around for decades, leaving a trail of corruption and inefficient governance in their wake. Turkey wants to see fresh faces in power.

The desire to start anew was the main motivation for most of the voters who flocked to the AKP. The last few years have been especially hard on the Turkish populace, with the country only recently starting to recover from its worst economic crisis in decades. It is clear from the distribution of votes that the majority of the population blames the current coalition partners for the crisis. Thus, this election was decided on economic issues, not religion.

This does not mean religion is not an issue. Western observers, the secular media in Turkey and the Turkish army have all been wary of Erdogan's past. A former protégé of Necmettin Erbakan, who was the leader of the Islamist movement in Turkey, Erdogan made his political career within the Islamic wing of Turkish politics. Yet, both before and after the elections, he has been at pains to emphasize his political reformation. Once against Turkey's membership in the EU, he now reaffirms his commitment to a pro-EU and pro-American stance. He has declared numerous times that he will go along with the IMF reform package currently in place. He has also praised secularism as the only guarantee for religious freedom. As a result, none of the panic that accompanied Erbakan's Islamist party's plurality-victory in 1993 is visible in Turkey today.

Is Erdogan sincere? Assuming he has a radically Islamist agenda, Erdogan has good reasons to hide it, given the role of the army in Turkish politics. The last time an election placed an openly Islamist party in the government, they were ousted from power after only a year because of army pressure, regardless of the fact that they were not pursuing any substantively Islamist policies. Erdogan has to be careful not to antagonize the Turkish army, who view themselves as the defenders of secularism and westernization in Turkey. However, it is also quite likely that Erdogan has undergone a political transformation. A self-made man, who had to sell lemonade as a child to support his family, Erdogan possesses enough pragmatism to keep an open mind when it comes to politics. He knows that the votes he received on Sunday are as much, if not more, a vote against the corrupt establishment parties, as they are votes for him. Sustaining support will depend on pursuing a moderate course of action. After all, his former, and much more Islamist party, received only 2 percent of the votes.

There are two possible scenarios developing out of these election results. The worst-case scenario arises from the following set of possibilities: If Erdogan is not sincere in his commitment to secularism and a pro-Western stance, or if he is unable or unwilling to control the more radical elements in his party, it is unlikely that the army will stay on the sidelines for very long. Coupled with the likelihood of American intervention in Iraq, such a confrontation between the elected government and the military could send the country into a period of instability, and could have adverse effects on the entire region. The best-case scenario assumes that Erdogan is sincere in his moderate declarations, and is willing to cooperate with the opposition-especially on economic issues. If that turns out to be the case, Erdogan's party could be the first Islamist party to approximate the secular "religious" parties of the West (such as the Christian Democrats of Germany or Italy). That would be a welcomed development for both Turkey and the future of democracy within the Islamic world in general.

Finally, it is important not to interpret the outcome of Sunday's elections as a protest vote against the European Union. This past summer the Turkish parliament passed a package of reforms in accordance with EU demands. Since all the parties who voted for these reforms fell below the 10 percent threshold, it might be tempting to conclude that the majority of the population disapproved of the reforms. That would be an erroneous conclusion. The only party to vehemently oppose the reforms, the MHP, also fell short of the threshold. A poll taken only a few months ago indicated that over 80percent of Turks favor joining the EU. Given the 18 percent vote the three nationalist parties garnered all together, most of Erdogan's supporters must also want Turkey to join the EU. It is unlikely that will happen anytime soon, but Turkey's friends in the West can rest easy knowing that Turkey, even with an "Islamist" party at the helm, is still facing West.

Ayse Zarakol is a Ph.D. candidate in the Political Science Department at the University of Wisconsin at Madison where she is researching ethnic conflict and ethnic group formation.