One can call Turkey the swing state of the Mideast. A nation of Muslims, it is nevertheless a secular, democratic state, a member of NATO, and an applicant for membership in the EU. It’s led by a “moderate Islamist” party (whatever that is), which has just won a smashing electoral victory.
Prof. Barry Rubin is the director of Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center in Herzliya, Israel. His latest book is The Truth about Syria, published by Palgrave-Macmillan in May 2007. We’re very pleased to have his permission to publish this article. More of Rubin’s columns can be read online here.
In Turkey, no one knows what will happen
By Barry Rubin
Answer A: In political terms, the Justice and Development (AK) party which won 47 percent of the votes in Turkey’s July 22 elections and will have almost two-thirds of the parliament seats is a pragmatic, conservative, business-oriented moderate party despite its roots as an Islamic-oriented one.
Answer B: In societal terms, the Justice and Development (AK) party is probably transforming Turkey from a secular into a more Islamic society, with a big effect on the status of women, the situation of minorities, and Turkey’s foreign policy.
Both statements are true. And this is the point many observers are missing in the great change signaled by the election results.
The outcome was a surprise. Sure, everyone knew AK would win but hardly anyone thought it would get almost half the votes. Even the party’s leaders didn’t expect this to happen. Part of the reason was the brilliance of the AK party’s leadership. They usually knew exactly how far to go so as not to alienate people. After all, only 7 to 12 percent of Turks want an Islamist state. The AK party convinced many others that it is not seeking such an outcome, successfully positioning itself as safely centrist.
I am not saying that this is all a con game. The party got rid of some of its hardliners and brought in a lot of non-Islamic conservatives and technocrats. It has gone slowly and carefully on making any changes regarding secularism while the economy has improved under its rule (though this probably would have happened any way). Among a lot of intellectuals, it has now become fashionable to embrace the party, ridiculing fears about its intentions.
A number of other factors played a role in the AK landslide:
- The incompetence of the opposition. The other parties did not unite, except for the two on the left, and carried out old-fashioned rather than mobilizing, grass roots’-oriented campaigns. The “left” nationalist CHP focused on western Turkey and did little in much of the country. The party was led by the much-reviled Denis Baykal who now insists he will not resign his post after the election defeat.
- The collapse of the traditional conservative or center-right parties. For many years the Motherland and True Path parties were big vote-getters. They have vanished leaving the AK party as their heir. It was their tradition-oriented but hardly Islamist voters who gave the AK its big support.
- The lack of any popular liberal, Western-style party. In parliament there are now three parties: the Islam-rooted AK, the “left” nationalist CHP, and the right-wing nationalist MHP. Given this line-up, AK voters are less anti-American and more pro-European Union membership than the so-called anti-Islamic parties.
Why, then, did this article open with an apparent contradiction? Is the AK party trying to make Turkey Islamist or not? Let’s be clear, first and foremost, Turks simply don’t know the answer to that question. There is lots of evidence that the AK is moderate and democratic, both in terms of its behavior and composition. The party’s leader, Tacip Erdogan, made a very conciliatory speech after the election, hitting all the right notes to calm any concerns Turks might have about his intentions.
Yet the fact remains that while Turks hope this is true they don’t know what the party will do if it stays in power for many years. In conversations with intellectuals who start out stressing their comfort with the AK victory, after a while some misgivings creep into their sentiments. About one-third of Turks say today that they wouldn’t mind seeing a military coup to throw out AK. That partly arises from anger at losing but it also results from real fear.
There will be two fairly quick tests of the party’s short-term intentions. First, will AK pick a presidential candidate from its own ranks–someone identified with an Islamic orientation at least in the past—or someone widely acceptable? If the former it will be a danger sign. Second, when the armed forces make their annual promotions, will the party object to the purging of pro-Islamic officers, something the army does every year?
Even ruling out any conspiratorial intent on the AK party’s part, there are three very important points to keep in mind:
- The party’s moderation has been ensured by its feeling outside pressure from voters, rival parties, the army, the economy, and the EU. Being cautious brings it votes, investment, progress on EU membership, more votes, and non-intervention by the army. Yet what if at some point the party gets more confident, even arrogant? Erdogan seems too smart for that but it could happen.
The EU’s negotiators, at least, find AK easy to deal with. After all, being less nationalist, it is more willing to make concessions over the Cyprus and other issues than its rivals. It is happy to go along with EU demands to weaken the political power of the army, which makes it harder for the military to intervene to protect Turkey’s secularism. And it is eager to meet the standards required for membership since success would solidify its popularity at home and give it a certificate of moderation.
Yet are countries like France and Germany going to be more eager to have in the EU a country where half the voters support a party that is so Islamic-oriented? No. Remember that the goal is not to advance the membership process but to attain membership. I have made up a joke that makes Turks laugh, in the form of a new blessing: “May you live long enough to see Turkey as an EU member,” in other words may you live a very long time.
- The social factor. This is extremely important and almost all foreign observers miss it. Suppose the AK party is a model democratic government. Nevertheless, what is the long-term effect of its success? Employees in government offices know that if your wife wears a headscarf you are more likely to get promoted. Businesspeople know that if you want a government contract it is better to be seen as a pious Muslim and party supporter.
And what about women? Polling shows that more women support AK than men. Nevertheless, this does not mean that the increasing numbers of women wearing headscarves are all enthusiastically pious Muslims. If you live in a neighborhood or city where more women are dressing “modestly” not to do so is to stand out, perhaps to be accused of being a prostitute. There are also a small but increasing number of women wearing chadors or even Afghan-style burqas. So the situation of women is likely to change steadily in eastern and central Turkey especially, even if AK passes no laws and launches no repression.
Or take education. It is arguably unfair that graduates of state-sanctioned Islamic high schools cannot take college entrance tests. These schools are supposedly meant to train prayer leaders but they have really emerged as a whole alternative system. Some say that these schools can be as good as secular schools; secularists charge they are inferior and train people to follow authority rather than to function as democratic individuals. If there is a change to raise their status, hundreds of thousands of students could enter this system, indoctrinating them into an Islamist-style approach.
- Foreign policy. In the context of advancing radical Islamist forces in the Middle East and even Europe, the AK victory is seen as another step forward toward inevitable victory. This is not good.
Feeling alone and surrounded by unfriendly countries is a common feature of Turkish nationalist thinking, especially in the army as well as in the two opposition parties. In this world view, The Arabs are uncivilized, the Iranians are crazy, the Israelis are aggressive, the Greeks are untrustworthy, the Russians are expansionists, the French support the Armenians, and the Americans support the Kurds. This attitude meshes in many ways with an Islamist one, though the latter of course are more positive about fellow Muslims.
An AK-led government may not form an alliance with Iran but it is also not going to join the United States in combating Iran’s ambitions. Even though the two countries enjoy normal, even good, relations, it is simply not realistic to consider Turkey under the present government as a U.S. ally.
As for Turkey-Israel relations, these should stay the same. The government wants to keep the army happy, which favors them. But there can be no doubt that the AK party government would prefer to have no relations with Israel at all.
Of course, there are lots of possibilities. The AK party could split, there might be a scandal, the economy could decline and in a few years 47 percent of the voters could be backing an opposition party. Or AK could be in power for 20 years and transform Turkey.