Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Turkish update

Back at the end of April/beginning of May, I posted on the political tensions in Turkey arising from the drive of the ruling AK Party to get parliament to move Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul into the office of president.

Gul, who calls himself a former Islamist, is viewed suspiciously by Turkish secularists facing an Islamist-rooted government; they don't trust his insistence that he is now a conservative democrat. The suspicion is great enough that that the General Staff of the Turkish Army, who regard themselves as the guarantor of secularism, declared that the armed forces "are watching ... with concern" the parliamentary maneuvering.

The feeling ran especially deep because Gul's ascension to the presidency would put all key state institutions in the hands of the AK Party, which opponents fear would be followed by an erosion of the wall between politics and religion that has kept Turkey a majority-Muslim but officially-secular nation, often cited as the example to prove the two are not incompatible.

Secularists in parliament succeeded in derailing Gul's nomination by boycotting the sessions and convincing the nation's highest court that the parliamentary vote in favor of Gul was invalid because their absence had denied the body the 2/3 of members that must be present to have a quorum.

In response, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan called for early elections for parliament, which took place on July 22. Contrary to the hopes of the secularists, the Christian Science Monitor reported on Monday,
[i]n parliamentary elections, Gul was handed an unprecedented mandate with almost 1 in every 2 Turks voting for his Islam-rooted Justice and Development (AK) Party.

"This is a new period in Turkish history, definitely," says Huseyin Bagci at Middle East Technical University in Ankara, adding that the military has been "shocked" by the outcome. The president is also commander in chief of the armed forces.

In his first public reaction since the vote, last week the head of Turkey's military, Gen. Yasar Buyukanit, would not discuss the military's past objections to Gul. "All has been said," according to the general, adding that the new president should "adhere in earnest and not just in words to the ideal of a secular state."
AKP's 47% of the vote is a dramatic increase over the 34% it got when it came to power in 2002. Despite Erdogan's pledges of "compromise," it was enough to prompt Gul to relaunch his bid to be president, claiming he is recognizing "support seen from the masses" and "keeping a promise made to the people." Of course, it's all about "the people."

This time, Gul will all but undoubtedly succeed.
If Gul is not elected in the first two rounds that require two-thirds support, he will almost certainly win on the third round, which requires only a simple majority – a low hurdle for the AKP, which holds 341 seats in the 550-seat house.
(Which means, interestingly enough, it obtained 62% of the seats with 47% of the vote - which indicates either an odd electoral setup or that there is a geographical as well as a political division between Islamists and secularists.)

Personally, I don't find the assurances that the AKP will not, as charged by the main opposition Republican People's Party (CHP), hasten the "degeneration of Turkey into a theocratic state" very convincing. Renominating Gul, knowing the deep suspicion with which he is viewed both by secularists and the military, seems like just trying to rub the opposition's face in it and that does not bode well for a future either of cooperation or moderation.

And the fact is, the conflicts will not be quieted by Gul's nomination or approval. The CHP not only plans to boycott the presidential vote, it has said it will boycott the presidential palace. And CSM reported on
flag-waving nationalists who vowed at their spring rallies that Gul's presence in the Cankaya presidential palace would prompt street violence and even a march on Cankaya to unseat him.
What's more, Bagci said that the military "got a strong slap on their faces and it's better for them now to keep silent [or the negative] reaction will be much stronger by the people," which to the extent it can be taken as the position of Gul's supporters could easily be taken as a threat.

There is one way in which this will not lead to on-going and perhaps deeper conflict and a deeper, sharper division between the religious and the secular parts of Turkish society: If Gul was telling the truth when he vowed to "protect" secularism despite his Islamist past. I don't have high hopes along those lines, but I certainly have been wrong before. In any event, what Gul is really about remains to be - and soon will be - seen.

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