The Campaign Spot

A Few Thoughts On Elections In My Old Neck of the Woods, Turkey

We interrupt coverage of the American elections for a couple of quick thoughts on the Turkish elections…

 

I’m moderately disappointed by the results of the Turkish elections, but far from a panic.

 

So AKP, the ruling party, will return to power. This was more or less expected.  They are described as “moderate Islamists” and depending on the issue, they live up to each part of the label. Comparisons to Hamas, etc., are overwrought. Still, I would have preferred that AKP, which will return to power with about , get taken down another peg or two.

 

I think a lot of casual Turkey-watchers make a mistake by seeing AKP as a monolithic bloc, when in fact they are made up of (at least) three major factions. The first are the real hard-core Islamists, who are bad guys, no doubt. They want to take Turkey in a direction that neither secular Turks nor most Americans would want to see.

 

But another major faction are what I would describe as red-state Turks. These folks are religious, mostly rural, and feel like their religious values have been mocked, ignored, and looked down upon by secular elites in the cities. (Sound familiar?) While I can see these folks as being potentially anti-Western, there’s nothing inherently hostile or antagonistic about these Turks. In fact, most issues that would interest the United States probably seem very far away for these voters. The cities of Turkey are modern, developed, and booming, but in the rural areas, life is… well, not terribly changed from a hundred years ago. There are a lot of very poor farmers whose primary focus is just making enough lira to get through the day. AKP says they care about them and will help development in the poor villages, and so they back them.

 

But the third group is kind of an odd fit in the AKP party, and kind of ended up there simply because they were looking for a vehicle for their aspirations – they’re entrerpreneurs, very big supporters of getting into the European Union, people who want to liberalize the economy. The traditional, Ataturk-inspired secular parties have always been more or less economically statist.

 

Keep in mind, the economy of Turkey has been booming for the past couple of years, and I’m sure AKP got the lion’s share of the credit. Looking at the vote region by region, AKP did a lot better on the coast and west than I would have figured – must be people happy with the economic growth.

 

Another thing – most Turks, and I think even most leading members of AKP, know that if they get too Islamist and turn into a country resembling Iran or Saudi Arabia, they’ll kill at least two geese laying golden eggs – tourism and foreign investment, which are two big driving engines of their economy. If I recall correctly, Istanbul is one of the world’s top ten cities for tourism. You don’t want to drive those dollars and Euros away by banning alcohol, mandating the headscarf, banning the Britney-Spearslike music videos, etc.

 

As for former foreign minister Abdullah Gul becoming President (a one-man supreme court-like position that is appointed by the Prime Minister and confirmed by Parliament), that’s what triggered this year’s early election. Gul is probably the most cosmopolitan of the AKP party leadership, but that isn’t the highest bar to clear. I’m already hearing and reading that AKP might look for an alternative, rather than dive right back into the same crisis. If Gul (or anyone seen as an AKP yes-man) gets into the presidency, then it will indeed mean that the party has removed one of the last checks and balances in the way of their agenda. And then the military might start rattling the saber loudly about a coup, the control-alt-delete of Turkish politics…

 

I’m neither as staunch an opponent of AKP as Michael Rubin, nor as laid back about the results as Claire Berlinski. I would have preferred to see the traditional secular parties do better; I’m reminded of the despair and cynicism of many secular Turks I encountered in Ankara. They loathed AKP, but didn’t have any faith in the alternatives, dismissing them as incompetent, corrupt, and consumed by petty agendas. It’s a good day for democracy in that Turkey had a free, fair, and violence-free election (as far as I’ve heard); but Turkish democracy would have been better served and a little healthier if one of the rival parties had presented a compelling and competitive alternative.

 

Can the U.S. work with AKP? Yes. They’re not our favorites, and there’s likely to be some big disagreements in coming years. But the Turkish people have spoken, and AKP won fair and square (as far as we know). And let’s not forget a majority (about 53 percent) of Turks still voted for another option. Prime Minister Erdogan and his party are going to keep pushing to give Islam a more dominant role in Turkish daily life; the secularists, in the cities and along the coast, will push back. That’s the way it’s been for the last five years or so, and that’s probably the way it will be for the next five years or so.

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