If the results of Sunday’s Turkish election had been designed by a committee consisting of Henry Kissinger, Bernard Lewis, and Dick Morris, they could scarcely have come up with a better or more calming outcome. It gives the ruling party — the moderate Islamic AKP — a clear parliamentary majority, but one that falls short of the two thirds required to alter the secularist Turkish constitution.
That balance reflects both the reality of Turkish opinion and the need to ensure that constitutional and political reforms have the support of other parties and sections of society. It should calm some of the paranoia that Kemalist politicans, losing their previous dominance, have sold to outsiders about the AKP. But the results undoubtedly show that a slow evolution of Turkish politics away from Kemalism is under way.
The AKP’s victory was substantial. It won 47 percent of the popular vote in a turnout of more than 80 percent. In a multiparty system such as Turkey’s, this amounts to a landslide. In an American de facto two-party system, the AKP would probably have won about 60 percent. At the same time, because three other parties — the Kemalist CHP, the hard-nationalist MHP, and an ethnic Kurdish grouping — passed the threshold for entry into parliament, the AKP lost ground in seats. Hence it has a democratic mandate for moderate change, but it needs allies for any major constitutional revisions.
The AKP’s victory was also deserved. The economy has performed well after years of instability; as a government the AKP carried out a series of sensible reforms; and as a party the AKP championed the interests of a class of provincial (and often Muslim) entrepreneurs who felt excluded from political life. Its victory thus confirms the “broadening” of Turkish democracy that has been gradually happening outside the Kemalist establishment since the death of Turgut Ozal.
But Recep Tayyip Erdogan, prime minister and AKP leader, knows that he won less than 50 percent of the total vote — and that he would have won substantially less than that if he had not reassured the electorate that the AKP would safeguard Turkey’s secular tradition. Some observers, including some National Review Online friends and contributors, fear that Erdogan is mounting a silent coup by quietly appointing Islamists to key legal, educational, and military positions. We don’t dismiss their fears as absurd. But when an Islamic conservative party wins almost half of the popular vote, it is hard to argue that its supporters should be excluded from other branches of government. And the evidence that Erdogan has moved the AKP away from Islamism towards a Muslim version of social conservatism — notably his push for Turkish membership in the European Union — is rather stronger than signs of creeping Islamism.
The underlying reality of Turkish politics, reflected in these results, is that there would be massive voter opposition to anything that smacked of hard-line Islamism, let alone the replacement of secular law with sharia. Such a move would give the kiss of life to the ailing Kemalist CHP (which scored a wretched 20 percent in the elections) and enable the Turkish armed forces to mount a coup with popular support and perhaps court backing. It would therefore be wise if the three main political players — the rising Muslim AKP, the floundering Kemalist establishment, and the highly respected armed forces — were to reach a compromise on the issue that provoked these elections, namely the election of a new president. They might, for instance, agree on a socially conservative Muslim figure from outside the AKP.
Such a compromise would nonetheless reflect the gradual evolution of Turkey’s political system away from strict Kemalist secularism to a more mixed system that will allow greater expression of religion, obviously Islam, in public life. Given that Turkey is 99-percent Muslim, that evolution is almost certainly inevitable as Turkey deepens its democracy. It will need to be carefully managed and skeptically watched to ensure that the legitimate claims of secularism are protected. If it succeeds, however, it would be a useful demonstration to the entire Muslim world that democracy and Islam are not such odd bedfellows.