In what may be Turkey's most important political event since the republic was founded in the 1920's, the Justice and Development Party (AKP) has won a landslide parliamentary election victory, with around 47% of the vote. Only two other parties - the Republican People's Party (CHP) with 21% and the National Movement Party (MHP) with 14% – surpassed the 10% threshold for representation in parliament. A number of independents will complete the legislative roster.
What makes the result so complex is that the ruling AKP got far more votes – up 13 percentage points from 2002 – but fewer seats than it had before. The party will be able to form a government by itself, but will lack the two-thirds majority needed to bring about some of the big changes that it seeks. Still, the AKP can be satisfied that after five years in office its popular support has climbed, while the opposition has been shown to be incapable of challenging it seriously.
The AKP's resounding victory means that the Turkish republic originally shaped as a secular state by Kemal Ataturk in the 1920's is dead. However, this does not necessarily mean that Turkey will become an Islamic, much less an Islamist, country.
Ataturk viewed Islam as a major factor holding back Turkey's progress. He sought to banish Islam as a political and social force from the public sphere, though of course the vast majority of the population remained Muslim by religion. For Ataturk, Westernization and modernization went hand in hand. And, indeed, Turkey achieved great success – arguably more than any other Muslim-majority state in the world – in building democracy and moving forward economically.
This period came to an end for several reasons. A key factor was the increasing prominence and power of more traditional sections of the population from central Anatolia, where many small businesses grew big, enriching a more Islamic-oriented middle class. At the same time, millions of people emigrated from villages to cities, becoming mobilized and politicized as a result. The end of the Cold War – in which Turkey was a frontline state – and the growth of political Islam elsewhere also contributed to a rebirth of Islam in the public arena.
Equally significant was the development in the old Islamic party of talented leaders that wanted to break with its backward-looking ways and extremist image. They successfully reconciled Islamic politics with the Turkish lifestyle and modernity in general. Cleverly, they positioned the party as conservative rather than Islamist - a process aided by the corruption, bickering, and incompetence of the existing parties.
Indeed, while the socialist left survived by uniting around the CHP, the conservative parties that largely dominated Turkish politics for a quarter-century fell apart. Unwilling to change or work together, and unable to devise ways of appealing to voters, these once-powerful groups simply disappeared, leaving the AKP largely in control of the conservative electoral base.
There are two sets of questions that now need to be answered. First, what does the AKP want? Is it a conservative party of good government that seeks equality for Islam in the public sphere, as its leaders usually suggest, or an Islamist wolf in moderate sheep's clothing, as its enemies fear? These alternatives are not necessarily contradictory. The AKP contains people with both views. Moreover, it might be that the party will push as far as it can until it is stopped by fear of a military coup or a rejection of its program by the voters.
That leads to the second question: how far can the AKP go in changing Turkish society?
The problem is that unless there is a viable opposition, the only check on the AKP will be its own conscience and a crackdown by the still secular-oriented armed forces. But, as part of its seemingly endless effort to get into the European Union – an aspiration that seems all but doomed at present – Turkey implemented reforms that undercut the military's political role.
Also at the top of the AKP's agenda is choosing a president in tune with its worldview. The president names the head of the armed forces, a power that could potentially turn the military into a servant of the government. Given that the government can change laws, name judges, and staff the state administration, Turkey's slide to another political model could reach a point of no return. But what precisely would that model be? If such a model means a Turkey that is more willing to embrace its traditional and religious heritage, the outcome would be relatively benign for most of its citizens as well as its strategic alliances. But if it means a more anti-Western Turkey increasingly oriented toward Iran, Syria, and radical Islamist movements, a major shift in international politics would be accompanied by mounting domestic instability.
(Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center, Interdisciplinary University, and editor of Turkish Studies. His latest book is The Truth About Syria.)
Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2007.
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