The celebrations will be short for Turkey’s Justice and Development Party (AKP), the winner of the Nov. 3 parliamentary elections. Not only does the AKP inherit an anemic economy, weakened by corruption, but its Islamic roots raise fears of military intervention in national politics. AKP leaders have tried to assuage concerns that their party is a threat to Turkey’s secular history, but the doubts themselves complicate the already difficult task of governing.
The AKP capitalized on disgust at the government’s ineptitude. Turkey is experiencing its worst economic crisis since the end of World War II. The economy shrank 9.4 percent last year and 2 million people lost their jobs. Voters responded by handing the AKP 363 seats in the 550-member Parliament — the first one-party majority in 15 years — and sending Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit’s party into political oblivion.
The AKP’s leader, Mr. Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the popular former mayor of Istanbul, would normally be slated to become prime minister. But the constitution mandates that the prime minister be a member of Parliament, and Mr. Erdogan was barred from the assembly after being convicted in 1998 of inciting religious hatred. His crime was reading a poem to Islamist businessmen that declared, “The minarets are our bayonets, the domes our helmets and the mosques our barracks.”
The AKP is only a few votes short of the two-thirds majority needed to amend the constitution, and let Mr. Erdogan either run for office or serve as a nondeputy. While the main opposition party has hinted that it too might support amendments, Turkey’s mainstream political leaders, Mr. Ecevit among them, warned that such a move could trigger political instability, possibly inviting military intervention.
That is no mere threat. The military has mounted three coups in the past. Most recently, it forced Turkey’s first Islamist government from power after a year in a nonviolent campaign aimed at “fine-tuning democracy.” The establishment, which consists of the state security establishment, the bureaucracy and the judiciary, has promised to keep a close eye on the AKP to ensure that it respects Turkey’s secular traditions. Thus far, the military has pledged to respect the popular will.
It would be hard to deny. The election results decimated Turkey’s political establishment. Not only was the AKP given a majority, but the other mainstream parties were booted from Parliament. The constitution imposes a 10-percent threshold for representation and only the center-left Republican People’s Party crossed that barrier, giving Turkey its first two-party parliament in four decades.
Nonetheless, Mr. Erdogan knows he has little latitude. To dispel concerns, he has insisted that the AKP is merely a conservative party and has no intention of turning Turkey into an Islamic state, promising that it will “remain in the framework set by the constitution.” He also said that the party would maintain the outgoing government’s position on Iraq, and would support U.S. action against Iraq only with U.N. approval.
The AKP has enough challenges without taking on its own military. The public’s expectations are quite a burden for an inexperienced party founded only a year whose leader is legally banned from taking up a government post. In addition, the party is something of a coalition, combining political secularists with an Islamic minority that would welcome a more militant position. Despite Mr. Erdogan’s reassurances, markets are looking for any hint of a deviation from a $16 billion IMF-led rescue pact that staved off the financial crisis last year. There is hope that the two-party Parliament and the AKP majority could provide much-needed consistency to government policy.
Mr. Erdogan apparently understands the risks. He knows that success depends on embedding his country in a broader framework. Accordingly he has said the AKP’s priority is to bring Turkey into the European Union. Unfortunately, the EU has complicated that task, sending mixed signals in recent days about its willingness to accept Turkey as a member. After former French President Valery Giscard d’Estaing flatly ruled out such a possibility, Danish Foreign Minister Per Stig Moeller, whose country holds the rotating EU presidency, said Turkey can join based on “the same criteria as the other candidate countries.” EU leaders will decide at a Dec. 12-13 summit in Copenhagen whether to give Turkey a date to start talks on its union entry.
Setting a date for those talks would be a huge victory for the AKP — and for Turkey. It would end the divisive debate over Turkey’s place in Europe and allow the country to focus its energies on recovery and developing the model of secular Islam that the world so desperately needs.
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