Turkish Islamists Gearing Up for Power

By
Asla Aydintasbas

October 25, 2002 -- When Turkish voters go to the polls on November 3, they will do so to register a deep sense of despair over the country's economic mismanagement and their growing anger toward mainstream parties. The majority of the voters will be casting a "protest vote," in every sense of the word, and the likely outcome will be a victory for the Islamic-oriented Justice and Development Party (AKP).

Despite the political ban on the leader of AKP, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and uncertainties about the party's prime ministerial candidate, voters are likely to put AKP in the driver's seat of the Turkish government on election day – with an assortment of expectations such as more freedom of expression, economic relief, less corruption, and greater rights for the country's religious.

A strong showing by AKP may, in fact, mean a stable majority government in Ankara and an end to the tiresome decade of power-sharing and political fragmentation in Turkish politics. But, beyond that, whether the party can deliver on its promise to redefine "the political center" and create a new, unprecedented global model of democratic Muslim politics, much like an Islamic version of the Christian Democrats of Europe, ultimately depends on its ability to compromise and avoid confrontation with the country's powerful military.

A broad coalition of conservatives and Islamist moderates, AKP emerged last year from the reformist wing of the banned Virtue Party, the successor to the Welfare Party, an Islamist party that was also closed down. The Welfare Party ruled Turkey in 1996-1997 but was forced out of power by the country's secularist military. Unlike the Welfare Party and its other offshoots, AKP and its cadres represent a variety of Turkey's political traditions, with many of its younger leaders adhering to a contemporary model of political Islam with strong undercurrents of free-market ideology and Turkish nationalism. This contrasts with the more traditionalist Islamist worldview of the Welfare Party and its variants, a view that adheres to the concept of serving the ummah, the global Muslim nation.

Today, AKP refuses the label "Islamist," and its leaders, well versed in the discourse of democracy and human rights, say they are trying to forge a synthesis between liberal and conservative trends within Turkey around a new social contract, one that they hope would emulate the electoral power of Turkish Prime Minister Turgut Ozal in the early 1980s. Unlike Ozal's Motherland Party (ANAP), AKP still has to convince Turkey's skeptical political elite and middle classes that it does not pose a genuine threat to secularism and the democratic rights of the non-religious.

However, only a fraction of the more than 30 percent of the electorate that is expected to support AKP on election day comes from the traditional religious constituency. Opinion polls show that the party has been gaining support across the political spectrum, especially, but not exclusively, from the nationalist and conservative base in urban areas. Its success in government, therefore, will largely depend on whether or not it can balance the demands of its Islamist voters, such as the liberalization of headscarf restrictions in schools, and the expectations of its new supporters.

Conscious of the need to do this, AKP has not used religious themes in its election campaign and has adopted mainstream policies on issues such as European Union accession and Turkey's relations with the IMF. None of the party's 70-plus female candidates has been chosen among supporters who wear the headscarf. Party leaders such as Erdogan, whose wives wear the headscarf, have also said they would ask their spouses to avoid public functions. These are apparent gestures to the secular voter and Turkey's staunchly secularist military, indicating that the party will not follow the confrontational policies of previous Islamist parties on an issue very near and dear to the Turkish establishment. In addition, AKP leaders say they support Turkey's EU orientation and its close ties with the United States.

In fact, eager to please Turkey's elite and the international community by exhibiting its mainstream credentials, there is every reason to expect an AKP-led government to start out "more loyalist than the king," pursuing a path of non-confrontation with Turkey's military and adopting the viewpoints of the bureaucracy and the military in crucial social and foreign debates. If AKP can avoid stepping into confrontational areas in its first few months in government, it is likely that the military will respond favorably by following a similar attitude of compromise.

AKP's attitude toward Brussels and Washington will also likely be one of compromise, especially during the first few years of an AKP-led government. As an early sign of this, Erdogan has already broken away from other political leaders who openly oppose a war with Iraq, by saying that a U.S.-led operation against Turkey's southern neighbor "aimed at liberating the Iraqi people" may not be so bad after all, indicating that AKP is unlikely to voice dissent for such an operation or oppose Turkey's participation in it. AKP leaders have made it clear that they would let the Turkish military have the upper hand on decisions related to a war with Iraq. Concerning Cyprus and relations with Greece, an AKP-led government would not signal a break from Ankara's current policies of "cautious rapprochement."

AKP's lead in the run-up to the elections is closely linked to the popularity of Erdogan, the 48-year-old former mayor of Istanbul. His services while at the helm of Turkey's largest city, with 12 million inhabitants, brought the approval of large sections of Istanbul's residents, although often winning the scorn of Turkey's political elite and media. In 1998, Erdogan was convicted of "inciting religious hatred" on the basis of a speech he made in which he recited a poem, and he served jail time. Observers and pollsters note that Erdogan's brief imprisonment and the recent political ban legally barring him from running for office has only added to the popularity of AKP.

With Erdogan barred from politics, AKP remains a party in search of a leader and, if successful on the ballot, it will be in search of a prime minister. The party hopefuls aim for a strong showing at the polls that would allow AKP to negotiate or pass a constitutional amendment lifting Erdogan's ban. In the short run, if AKP emerges as the top vote-getter, it will have to appoint a new leader to form a government. Leading contenders for interim prime minister, until the ban is lifted, are Abdullah Gul, a prominent AKP member and former Welfare Party deputy, and Vecdi Gonul, another leading AKP figure who is Erdogan's favorite candidate.

If AKP fails to gain enough votes to form a majority government, it will have to pursue coalition alternatives with the center-left Republican People's Party (CHP), likely to emerge as second on election day, or former prime minister Tansu Ciller's True Path Party (DYP). It is uncertain whether the Motherland Party (ANAP) of Mesut Yilmaz, the newly-formed New Turkey Party (YTP) of Ismail Cem, the Democratic Left Party (DSP) of Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit, or the Nationalist Action Party (MHP) of Devlet Bahceli will pass the 10 percent threshold required for representation in parliament.

A power-sharing arrangement with a junior partner or a deeply secular party such as CHP would comfort Turkey's elite and its secular establishment, based on the idea that it would internalize a system of checks and balances inside the government and curb the potential excesses of AKP's more extreme Islamist wing. But, with the lack of harmony in Turkey's past coalition arrangements, various formulas for a political marriage may prove to be less stable and set the scene for more infighting over the economy, reform, and relations with Europe.

Still, with or without AKP, the greatest challenges for the new government after November 3 will be the economy and the critical foreign policy issues waiting to unfold over the next few months. The effects of last year's fiscal crisis on the Turkish banking industry have been devastating, and the austerity program under the guidance of the IMF remains enormously unpopular. Last year, the Turkish economy shrank by 9.4 percent, unemployment is currently at an all time high, real wages have fallen drastically, and many small- and medium-sized businesses – the real driving force behind the Turkish economy for decades – are rapidly disappearing.

With mounting domestic and foreign debt, Turkey's new government will need further IMF aid to stay afloat. Last year, Turkey borrowed $16 billion from the IMF. Despite its grievances and criticism of the IMF economic reform program, AKP has pledged that it will stay the course and swallow the Fund's bitter pill. But, if AKP emerges with a politically-strong showing, it will likely try to negotiate a policy of lower taxation within the existing IMF program.

The next few months will also be critical in determining the future course of Turkey's relationship with the European Union. Resigned to the fact that it may not get a date for the start of EU accession talks at the bloc's Copenhagen summit in December, Ankara is hoping for "a conditional date" that might open the door to a mid-way formula of specific EU-designated benchmarks that Turkey would have to meet to be given a formal date.

While AKP leaders say they support Turkey's European orientation, a failure to receive any promises in December concerning accession talks would likely unleash a wave of anti-European sentiment both within the government and among the Turkish public. Combined with a higher level of cooperation with the United States resulting from a possible war against Iraq, the EU's refusal to set a date for talks might gradually shift Turkey's pro-European orientation toward a stronger desire to seek a strategic alliance with Washington. Eager to win foreign backers and boost its domestic strength, this might emerge as an appealing card for an AKP leadership over the next few years.

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