From Atatürk to Allah?

Tomorrow is election day in Turkey and it’s coming down to the home stretch! The Justice and Development Party (AKP) is likely to win about 30 percent of the vote, which would make them the senior partner in any coalition government, assuming they don’t win outright. The Republican People’s Party (CHP), founded by Turkey’s founder Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, is polling at 15 to 20 percent. However, Atatürk’s party is avowedly secular, so it’s unlikely the two would partner up.
The situation is making the military and other secular Turks very, very nervous. In 1997, the AKP’s predecessor, the Welfare Party, was eased out by the military in what many have called a “soft coup.” But that option isn’t available now. With the European Union still dangling the carrot of membership, the Turkish military can’t risk stepping in and mucking about with elections and democracy. But the powers that be in Turkey also worry that a government headed by an Islamist party wouldn’t be attractive to Europe either, so Turkey is kind of caught in a bind.
Further complicating the situation, Milliyet reported last week that Turkey’s top state prosecutor, Sabih Kanadoglu, has filed for the closure of the AKP, citing defiance by the party’s leader, former Istanbul mayor Recep Tayyip Erdogan, to give up his party post. Erdogan was banned from participating in politics after he read a poem “inciting religious hatred” in a mosque in 1997 and served four months in jail. Though the case won’t be decided for months, if the party eventually is shut down its supporters would see their votes wasted. All this legal maneuvering has been an attempt by the military and secular leadership to depress the vote on AKP, and as I was told when I was in Ankara, “Turkey is the graveyard of political parties.”
(For what it’s worth Sabah reported that U.S. State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said the United States is opposed to banning political parties. “The US supports democracy and broad political participation in Turkey and elsewhere,” he is quoted as saying. “We oppose the banning of political parties that are expressing their views in a peaceful and democratic manner.”)
Though Erdogan is banned by law from serving in a governmental post — such as, oh, prime minister for example — the suspicion is that he will work behind the scenes running the country, probably through a weak prime minister. There is also concern that his commitment to moderation and democracy is only skin deep. He was elected mayor of Istanbul in 1994 and promptly banned alcohol in the city’s restaurants. He has close ties with former Welfare Party prime minister Erbakan, who dined with terrorists and talked of pulling out of NATO. Perhaps most ominously, “You cannot be secular and a Muslim at the same time,” Erdogan said in 1995.
But he’s been crafty in how he has answered questions on how he would liberalize laws concerning the public expression of religion. For example, it is currently illegal for women to wear headscarves in universities, schools and government buildings or at government functions. This is a highly emotional issue in Turkey, with headscarves being a potent symbol of political Islam. Erdogan has been careful to not identify the AKP with this kind of controversy. Would his wife, an observant Muslim, wear a headscarf at government functions? “I wouldn’t bring her,” he has said, neatly not answering the question or assuaging Turkish women’s fears.
So what are the scenarios? Near as I can tell, they are as follows:

  • The AKP wins decisively with enough seats in Parliament to form a government without resorting to a partner. The military might intervene or it might not. If it doesn’t, look for the AKP to be kept on a short leash.
  • The AKP wins a majority, but cannot form a government, in which case they will partner up with — possibly — Deniz Baykal’s Devlet Bahceli’s Nationalist Action Party (MHP). I think a coalition between the nationalists and Islamists could be one of the worst combinations. “The result will definitely be another coalition, an anomaly of very contradictory views,” said Prof. Deniz Ilgaz of Bogazi�i University when I emailed her about all of this.
  • The myriad secular parties in Parliament band together in a broad-based coalition together to keep the AKP out of power. The resulting government would be weak and ineffectual, and would pretty much cement the status quo. None of the problems of Turkey would be addressed, and the military would remain the de facto ruler of the country.

So what will happen and how might this affect the United States’ determination to open up some precision guided whoop-ass on Iraq, a fellow Muslim country and formerly a major trading partner to Turkey? We’ll have the outlines in a day. But one thing is certain is that the political landscape is about to change in unpredictable ways.