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23 July 2007

Turkey and the challenges ahead

Simon Hooper reports from Ankara on the outcome of key Turkish elections and analyses some of the ch

By Simon Hooper

As someone who has covered the high drama and hysteria of elections in Bolivia and Venezuela, Sunday’s Turkish elections in Ankara proved to be a surprisingly sedate affair with none of the mass euphoria, street parties, music and colour I associate with votes in South America.

Having spent the previous day racing around the nearby countryside with a 200 car-strong rolling carnival of AKP (Justice and Development Party) supporters decorated in the party’s orange and blue colours, tossing flags, flyers and other party-themed paraphenalia out of the window at excited villagers, it all seemed particularly anti-climactic.

But Turkey’s strict election laws forbid campaigning on the day of the vote itself. Cars still carrying party colours were stopped by police and ordered to remove them, the vans with campaign songs blaring from roof-mounted loudspeakers were noticeable for their absence and even the bunting strung between every available lamppost had been pulled down overnight, leaving Ankara looking like a house that had been zealously tidied the morning after a party.

Perhaps the heat – 36 degrees on Sunday – also helped stifle political passions. On the other hand, it may be a sign of the growing maturity of Turkey’s young democracy that one of the most important votes in the country’s history was conducted with a minimum of fuss in a quiet, orderly fashion.

On the face of it, Sunday’s result appears to be a straightforward success for AKP leader and ruling prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who had been forced to call elections months ahead of schedule after falling out with the country’s political establishment in a row over his administration’s supposed Islamist-leanings.

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Erdogan was not only re-elected but re-elected emphatically as his party’s share of the overall vote surged to 46.7 percent from just 34.3 percent five years ago.

First and foremost then, Erdogan has secured a massive democratic endorsement from a broad cross-section of Turkish society for his party’s pick-and-mix populist programme of liberalising economic reforms, welfarist tendencies and cultural conservatism.

But the AKP still faces a delicate political situation. It must now once again return to the unresolved task of choosing the country’s next president – the issue that prompted secularist outcry back in April over the government’s nomination of foreign minister Abdullah Gul due to the fact that Gul’s wife, like Erdogan’s, wears a headscarf.

Erdogan has also pledged constitutional reforms including a referendum on whether future presidents should be elected directly by popular vote and shifting more of the presidency’s executive powers to parliament.

Yet even his comfortable majority falls short of the two-thirds necessary for any major tinkering with Turkey’s well-entrenched system of checks and balances and it is hard to see either the opposition Republican Party (CHP) – traditional defenders of the secularist legacy of modern Turkey’s founder, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk – or the resurgent far right Nationalist Party (MHP) coming to his aid.

It also remains to be seen for how long Turkey’s secularist institutions – particularly the army – will be prepared to respect and accept Sunday’s result as the ‘will of the people’.

Turkey’s military leaders have long made a habit of interfering in politics, overthrowing three governments directly since 1960, and undermining a fourth – which included Erdogan and Gul – by more subtle means in 1997.

While coups may no longer be as fashionable or as accomplishable as they once were, the Turkish military’s influence in Ankara’s corridors of power still runs deep.

In April, it was an army statement – published on the internet – threatening to intervene against the election of a non-secular presidential candidate, that did most to trigger the political crisis leading to Sunday’s election.

“They used to send tanks onto the street. Officers would take over TV stations,” says Ibrahim Kalin, a columnist for the Zaman newspaper.

“Now they just send an e-mail. You can think of the army as Turkey’s perennial government – they are always in power.”

Already Erdogan is under pressure to sanction an escalation of the army’s campaign against the PKK following a recent wave of attacks by the Kurdish separatists, including operations into Kurdish-controlled Northern Iraq.

Many moderate Turks fear such a move would only stoke the Iraqi cauldron, incite further PKK violence and damage the country’s faltering relations with the US, yet sanctioning a cross-border campaign may well be a price Erdogan – who has already vowed to do “whatever is necessary” – is forced to pay in return for an uneasy truce with his deeply distrustful generals over his domestic agenda.

Ultimately however, as the only party trying to occupy the political centre ground, the biggest challenge facing Erdogan and the AKP is likely to be holding together its broad support base in a country still coming to terms with its own complexities.

Turkey is an essentially contradictory place where aspirational westernised lifestyles and a traditional Islamic identity collide, sometimes jarringly, every day. My personal favourite example of this came at a magazine stand in Ankara where I spotted copies of Turkish FHM advertising “SEKS: KARMA SUTRA!” while a muezzin from a nearby mosque wailed in the background.

Beyond the recognisably European major cities, however, Turkey remains a conservative Islamic country in which socialising is largely segregated by sex, the majority of women wear headscarves and alcohol consumpion is rare.

Yet there is also a keen appreciation of the benefits and challenges of globalisation on the Turkish economy, an openness to new ways of doing things, and a progressive attitude to education. Many traditional Turkish families nowadays chose to send their daughters onto futher education in Austria or Germany to bypass the dogmatic secularism that forbids headscarves in university classrooms.

More than any other party, AKP has set about addressing those contradictions in a way that fits the reality of Turkish life beyond the delusional world inhabited by the country’s secular elite.

“The secularists have an image of Turkey that is fully western in outlook, in lifestyle, and the fact that a Turkish president could have a wife who wears a headscarf shatters that image,” says Suat Kiniklioglu, a newly-elected AKP representative for Cankiri province.

“Turkey is a country with many variations of grey and you cannot describe it in black or white. It’s impossible.”

Turkey, then, has many paths from which to choose and one election is unlikely to go a long way towards deciding determining its future. But the fact that Turks voted so emphatically against the authoritarian tendencies of the traditional establishment suggests that at least the tone of that debate will be democratic.

“We’ve come a long way to embracing democracy in a genuine sense,” says Kalin. “But democracy becomes powerfully influential in terms of social justice, equality and fairness if the society is strengthened, not the state. It doesn’t work if the state sees itself as this patrimonial boss, saying ‘I am here to fix your mistakes.’ If we can change that balance, Turkish democracy can grow even stronger.”

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