Here’s a good way to explain the Turkish parliamentary elections of July 22: if there’s no change at all, it will be an earthquake.
Sound strange? Here’s why.
The last elections, five years ago, represented a total reversal pretty much of 80 years of Turkish history, during which Kemal Ataturk created a secular republic and his successors sustained it. The result was a country that did rather well at both development and preserving a democracy, a record matched by no other Muslim majority country.
There were some problems, of course. In the last half-century the army has staged a coup four times to restore representative government, each time quickly returning power to the civilians.
But Turkey was a real success story, especially compared to other Muslim majority countries.
Along came some significant social change. A lot of small businesses in the country’s center-called the Anatolian Tigers–made money, creating a new middle class of rather traditionalist people. And a lot of peasants migrated from villages to the big cities.
The more socially conservative, relatively religious group began to feel its power and Islam returned as a political factor. At the same time, the establishment politicians grew increasingly corrupt, bickering, and incompetent.
This paved the way for what happened five years ago, when an Islamic – some say Islamist – movement, in the form of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) won a landslide in Turkey’s elections. Due to the country’s electoral law (a party must get 10 percent to win any seats) all but one of the AKP’s rivals failed to obtain any place in parliament. That meant that with only 34 percent of the votes, the AKP got two-thirds of the seats.
Ever since then, the AKP has ruled Turkey.
When I asked a Turkish professor friend in Istanbul about one prime minister, Tansu Ciller, who had been much praised abroad, he pulled me to a cliff overlooking the Bosphorus-that river-like body of water that flows from the Black Sea to the Mediterranean and divided Europe from Asia. He pointed across to a green hill the Asian side and said, “Do you see any apartment buildings there?”
“No,” I replied, worrying that if I guessed wrong he might push me over the cliff.
“Exactly,” he said, “and that’s where our prime minister and her husband were promising to build housing when they took our money.”
And my favorite moment, when after the last round of elections, a losing center-right political leader was asked on television why his party lost. Without hesitating he said, “Because the voters are stupid.”
Imagine your country was being taken over by an Islamic, possibly Islamist, party which seemingly threatened your whole way of life. You’d try to stop that from happening, right? Yet despite impending catastrophe, the two center-right parties still found it impossible to unite in the previous round of elections, and all sorts of splinter groups divided the anti-AKP vote.
It should be understood that the AKP is quite different from the Islamists in Iran or the Arab world. They are far more cautious and accept a lot more Westernization and modernization. The AKP has been clever in not pushing too far, too fast. It benefited from the fact that Turkey was coming out of a bad economic crisis. It also took advantage of a rising tide of anti-Americanism fueled more by nationalism than by Islam.
And it pursued membership in the European Union, the Holy Grail of Turkish politics, the much-desired certificate that Turkey has arrived socially and economically to receive membership in the town’s most elite country club. Unfortunately, this prize seems to be repeatedly pulled away by the Europeans for one reason or another. Still, while the Turks are starting to get tired of the chase, they haven’t given up on it yet. The AKP also made some long-needed reforms in a system where the government is doing its citizens a favor when it provides services to them.
True, the AKP had some bad moments. After its government lifted the speed limit on trains and there was a terrible accident with lots of fatalities, an AKP minister said that train accidents were acts of God. The prime minister called for the criminalization of adultery, an idea that was greatly ridiculed.
For Turkish secularists and status quo advocates-who would enjoy majority support in the country if they could only ever unite-the AKP was just pretending to be moderate. It was a group of fundamentalists in sheep’s clothing. Many of them felt something like Senator Ted Kennedy would feel, at the prospect of the late Jerry Falwell becoming president of the United States.
During the last few months, just when the AKP seemed to be settling down for a long term as the country’s governing party, a crisis occurred. It was sort of a peaceful rebellion among the secularists, fueled by the prospect of the AKP choosing the country’s president. The president names the chief of the armed forces and has influence over the courts as well as other institutions. Once AKP had the presidency, the secularists pictured them on a straight, irreversible, run to total and permanent power.
There were other signs and portents. Many Turkish journalists and television stations began to get scared. If the AKP was going to be in power forever, it might take revenge against critics.
Self-censorship became a powerful force. A Turkish newspaper dropped my column, I was told, under real or perceived threats.
The next to last bulwark against this slide is an incumbent president who is a much respected judge with impeccable secularist credentials. When the AKP’s leader was proposed as president, the minority party in parliament boycotted the vote, preventing a two-thirds’ majority.
Massive anti-AKP demonstrations were held regularly. It seemed like a political miracle was about to happen and the AKP would be kicked out.
Then the usual political mess set in. The AKP ran a good campaign. The two socialist left-wing parties united into one list; the two center-right parties splintered and fought each other. Predictions are that the AKP will win, perhaps with a reduced majority and maybe even having to take in a coalition partner, possibly an extreme nationalist party which could make for a combination even more hostile to the West. And so if the election that was supposed to reverse the course of Islamization fails to change anything that will be the real earthquake.
There is one more bulwark against the AKP driving, slowly or more briskly, down the road to a more Islamic, socially conservative society and a foreign policy more attuned to Iran and Syria than to the United States. That is the Turkish army.
But with European pressure to end its political role, the military seems likely to intervene, unless the AKP goes too far. And, aware of this situation, the AKP is likely to be cautious. Aside from that fact, there are a lot of leaders in the party who would prefer to be a Muslim version of European Christian Democratic parties.
At the same time, though, there are also many members who would feel comfortable with an approach like that of the Arab Muslim Brotherhood groups.
Is there, however, a point of no return for Turkish democracy, secularism, and relative Westernism? It hasn’t happened yet. But the election seems unlikely to reverse the country’s course, or even to slow the pace of change.
Barry Rubin is Director of the Global Research in International Affairs Center(GLORIA) Center, at the Interdisciplinary Center (IDC) in Herzilia, Israel. His latest book is %%AMAZON=1403982732 The Truth About Syria%%