The Corner

Where Is Turkey Heading?


Istanbul — Turkey is holding its elections this Sunday, and everybody here seems sure that the winner, again, will be the Justice and Development Party (AKP) of Tayyip Erdogan. The only question is how big the AKP will win, and how well the opposition will fare.

There are understandable reasons for the AKP’s continuing success since 2002, when it surprisingly came to power as a one-year-old party, after a decade-long period of political instability and economic disaster. Since the first day of the AKP’s rule, both the Turkish elite and global observers have focused on the level of Islamism in the party’s ranks, although the more visible impact of the party has been the “development” ideal that is in its very name: Over the past eight years, the Turkish economy boomed, and Turkey became a much wealthier country with more highways, airports, banks, shopping malls, industries, and exports.

“If the AKP has an ideology,” argues Michael Thumann, the Istanbul representative of the German weekly Die Zeit, “then that is, first and foremost, capitalism.” But this is a capitalism combined with a high dose of religiosity — a curious mix that which led a German institute named the European Stability Initiative to define the AKP’s base as “Islamic Calvinists.”

This economic success is the number one reason a very high number of Turks (ranging between 40 and 50 percent, according to the latest polls) will probably vote for the AKP. The foreign-policy issues that rank high in the American media, such as the rift between Turkey and Israel that began in 2008 with Erdogan’s outburst against Israel’s Operation Cast Lead in Gaza, have played a little role in this election campaign. And when they have done, it was through a filter of Turkish nationalism: Many Turks who like the AKP’s foreign policy like it mainly for making Turkey a more significant country in the world.

On the opposition side, the most significant actor is the People’s Republican Party (CHP), which has been the standard-bearer of the legacy of Turkey’s secularist founder, Kemal Atatürk. Since the AKP came to power, the CHP had focused on defending Turkey’s self-styled secularism — which is stricter than even that of France — and did so by acting as almost the political arm of Turkey’s zealously secular military. But the political power of the military gradually declined over the years — thanks to reforms supported by the European Union, and controversial legal cases on alleged coup attempts, which put some senior generals in prison. Ultimately, the CHP realized that it needed to fight the AKP on political grounds, and do so not by obsessing about secularism, but by promising policies that will make sense to the average voter.

That’s why, since the advent of its new leader, Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, about a year ago, the CHP has claimed to be “the new CHP,” and talks more about economic and good-government issues. As for the economy, they actually promise nothing wiser then creating a huge welfare state that will distribute state funds irresponsibly. On the good-government issues, though, they point to some real problems, such as the nepotism in the AKP’s ranks and Erdogan’s growing intolerance to criticism, which is evidenced by his efforts to manipulate or punish unfriendly media.

And that is indeed the main reason to be concerned about the AKP. Over the years, it turned out that the party — although religiously conservative on social issues, and sometimes emotionally Islamic on foreign-policy matters — is not the Taliban-in-sheep’s-clothing that will introduce sharia law and make Turkey an “Islamic Republic.” Such fears were overblown. But it is true that Erdogan is an aggressive and power-hungry politician, and the famous rule of Lord Acton — that power corrupts — works for him perfectly.

That’s why a strong and reasonable opposition, which will balance the AKP, is a must for Turkey. So it might be good news that the CHP is expected to have a significant increase in its votes, which, according to the polls, fluctuate now between 25 and 30 percent. Besides that, both Turkish and Kurdish nationalists, with their contrasting parties, are expected to enter the parliament.

Whether the parliament will really be that balanced will be the most important question of this Sunday night. The likeliest result is that the AKP will win a clear majority, but won’t be able to grab 330 of the 550 seats in parliament, a number that would give them the power to amend the constitution unilaterally. Without that many seats, the AKP would have to seek consensus with the opposition, especially the CHP, in order to draft a whole new constitution — which seems to be a must, for almost everyone is fed up with the current constitution, which was imposed in 1982 by a military junta.

Despite all these concerns and complexities, Turkey continues to be a functioning democracy, in a region where authoritarianism is the rule. When I drive in the streets of Istanbul, I see huge election posters of not just Erdogan, but also all his political opponents — a stark contrast to countries like Syria, in which you see only the smiling face of Bashar al-Assad, who is busy with killing his own people these days.

The more democracy deepens in Turkey, the more it will inspire democrats in such other Muslim countries. The Turkey of the past century, which symbolized only an oppressive secularism under an oppressive military, did not have that chance. The Turkey of today does.

— Mustafa Akyol is a Turkish journalist, and the author of the forthcoming Islam without Extremes: A Muslim Case for Liberty.

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