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Will Turkey Turn Back Toward the West Next Year?

Turkey is lost under Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan and the Justice and Development Party (AKP). They are firmly in the camp of Iran despite their competition over the title of reigning anti-Israel champion. Israel has labeled the IHH — the group that tried to break the Gaza blockade with the Marvi Marmara — a terrorist group, which indirectly labels Turkey a state sponsor of terrorism because of the AKP and Erdogan’s close ties to the IHH. Luckily, this may only last for a year.

The AKP and Erdogan are still popular in Turkey, but the main opposition group, the Republican People’s Party (CHP), has chosen a new leader, Kemal Kilicdaroglu, who is being well-received. Assisted by Erdogan’s overreaching domestically and internationally, the CHP may ride a backlash that leads to defeat or clipped wings for AKP during the next general election scheduled for July 2011.

A new poll shows the CHP with a one percent lead over the AKP at a time when support for Erdogan is supposed to be high because of the confrontation with Israel. The opposition is already taking aim at Erdogan’s foreign policy. This means that they feel he is more vulnerable on this issue than the current wisdom suggests. (The current wisdom holds that his provocations are good political investments.)

“There is a crisis in trust with the West because of their [the AKP] politics and the AKP needs to repair it immediately. If they don’t, then we will see worse results in the next few months,” Kilicdaroglu said. He has clearly called for Turkey to reverse course, decrying “the shift in our axis.”

At the same time, a group of Turkish diplomats is going after Erdogan for having an “adventurous” foreign policy. They are accusing him of neo-Ottomanism. It is very encouraging that there has been such a quick reaction against Turkey’s latest moves against the West and against Israel. The Turkish public is still opposed to Western policy and the CHP has condemned Israel for the flotilla raid, but there is definite angst over the overall Islamist trend and aligning against the West.

The Turkish population is vehemently against terrorism. A poll in September found that only four percent support suicide bombings and only two percent expressed confidence in Osama bin Laden to “do the right thing regarding world affairs.”  Another poll from February found that Hezbollah is only looked favorably upon by three percent of the population and Hamas by five percent. Erdogan may well have overreached in his movement of Turkey’s foreign policy into the Islamist camp.

The AKP was originally careful with how it went about turning Turkey away from pro-Western secularism, because they understood that they won because their opponents were splintered. One of the keys to the AKP’s original 2002 electoral victory was the rule that parties failing to win 10 percent of the vote are not given a seat in parliament. If you look at the results, this excluded many anti-Islamist parties because their support was divided among voters, creating competition that ultimately doomed them all.

Daniel Pipes observes that the AKP won the 2002 election with 34.28 percent of the vote. The CHP won 19.4 percent. If you take the five anti-Islamist parties that failed to receive 10 percent and assumed they allied with the CHP, they’d have a majority of 55.7 percent of the seats. That means a defeat for the AKP and possible exclusion from the ruling bloc.

The AKP did not originally ride in on a tidal wave of pro-Islamist sentiment. The party did, however, expand their gains in July 2007, and that’s when they felt it was politically tenable to pursue a more Islamist course. The belief that this contributed to the AKP’s success is partially what’s motivating Erdogan to act so aggressively now as he faces domestic political troubles one year away from the next election. One top Israeli expert, Professor Efraim Inbar, said that the AKP’s popularity is declining and if the current dissatisfaction with them is preserved, “it is likely that Turkey will emerge with a new prime minister.”

The West should have two main goals now: contain Erdogan’s aggression and vindicate the opposition in the process. It is true that Erdogan is seeking confrontation for political gain, but it is this straining of ties that is being used by the CHP to hammer him. Standing firm so the problems he causes are apparent will add weight to the opposition’s condemnations of his foreign policy.

The West must also be on watch for potential aggression against Turkey’s pillars of democracy. The AKP is already trying to roll back freedom by attempting to outlaw adultery, taking over a huge portion of the media, arresting military officers on what may be trumped up charges, and moving to place the judiciary under the control of the AKP-dominated parliament. If the opposition is having trouble putting the AKP on the defensive for these actions, the West should release reports, and officials should make statements that will grab headlines by pointing out the dangers to Turkey’s democracy. The population may not be pro-American, but they are not anti-democracy.

In democracies, politics is usually cyclical. Once a party has been in power for an extended period of time, its opponents have a natural advantage. The AKP could still win the most votes, but even a significant loss of seats will be a major setback that will pressure them into moderating their actions. The AKP is in trouble but the secular opposition must unite. The CHP is talking about reforming the law keeping parties that win less than 10 percent out of parliament. If they can succeed, it will make it easier to contain the AKP and strengthen Turkey’s democracy.

Things are very bad with Turkey right now — but democracy, the process used by the AKP to come to power, may very well be its undoing next July.

This article was sponsored by Stand Up America.