Turkey’s Existential Election

July 18, 2007
Prepared by:

The results of Turkey’s July 22 general elections don’t seem much in doubt, with polls strongly favoring (Angus Reid) the governing Justice and Development Party (AKP) to retain an edge over its main competitors. But in a Muslim country pointedly questioning the foundations of its secular constitution and considering an invasion of northern Iraq, the vote assumes a greater meaning.

The election stands as a verdict on the direction of Turkey’s leadership. AKP officials called for the early vote this spring, following massive protests (IHT) challenging the party’s push to install a moderate Islamist, Abdullah Gul, as Turkey’s president. For the better part of a century, Turkey’s government followed a strict secularist code imposed in 1923 by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, who eschewed traditional Islamic dress and called for societal “modernity” (FT). But some 60 percent of Turkish women still wear headscarves (Reuters), and the AKP’s efforts to loosen bans on covering up in government buildings and universities proved popular among many Turks. Yet they also provoked this spring’s protests, which were led by the country’s secularist military elite.

Well aware of Turkey’s drift from secularism, the military, a longstanding bastion of power in the country, now finds itself confronted with something of an existential crisis (Turkish Daily News). Molded from the modernist ideology of Ataturk, himself a soldier, the Turkish military traditionally fashioned itself as a revolutionary force for change. But the FT notes that the military “gradually began to lose influence, in part because, in an irony that Kemalists do not always appreciate, it was itself left unmodernized.” Rather, the secularist-dominated Republican People’s Party (CHP) clung to a “rigid interpretation” of secularism, undermining its relevance. Angus Reid, a polling agency, predicts a coalition between the CHP and the Democratic Left Party (DSP) will draw around 20 percent combined, while the AKP will attract about 38 percent.

Looming ominously above the civilian-military debate is the question of Turkish-Iraqi relations. Ankara accuses members of a Kurdish separatist group, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), of seeking shelter in northern Iraq, and Turkey has reportedly amassed over 200,000 troops (Reuters) on its Iraq border. In a new interview, CFR’s Stephen Cook points out that border operations remain “extremely dangerous” for Turkish troops. He says the PKK security threat sows discontent within Turkey, potentially boosting nationalists in the current elections. A recent report from the Center for Defense Information concludes that a Turkish invasion could significantly undermine the U.S. mission in Iraq.

More generally, some U.S. officials also worry about the rising influence of Islam in one of Washington’s primary Middle East allies, though Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice recently said she would support the AKP (TDN) if it gained power through a democratic process. A recent Wall Street Journal editorial cautions against criticizing the country’s moderate Islamists, saying the threat of militant secularism among nationalists could in fact pose a far greater risk.

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