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The real meaning of
Turkey's elections

Richard Falk, TFF Associate


September 1, 2007

            The Euro-American obsession with Islam has blocked perceptions of the real meaning of the AK Party victory in the July 22nd elections. It has produced a string of commentary in the mainstream Western media that interprets the election as casting a dark shadow of political Islam over the future of Turkey. Such commentary needlessly complicates foreign relations for Turkey, especially with the European Union and the United States, as well as aggravating internal tensions. A more perceptive reading of political trends in Turkey would celebrate what happened on July 22 as the most decisive indication to date that the Turkish public enthusiastically embraces Ankara’s moves in recent years to deepen and widen constitutional democracy without ever challenging the fundamental integrity of the secular character of the Turkish state. Although hedging its assessment by giving some patronizing advice to the Erdogan government, The Economist, helpfully countered the standard European reaction by calling the AK Party victory ‘an excellent result.’

            Without such hedges, I would also call the victory an excellent result for the following major reasons. To begin with it was a resounding endorsement of the leadership of the AK Party, including Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who as prime minister has effectively promoted a vital policy agenda at home and abroad: robust private sector economic development, eventual membership in the European Union, and a broad program of democratic reform. Beyond this these pivotal elections represented the rise of a new Turkish political consciousness that would extend the reach of democratic values to the entire citizenry, shift the locus of responsibility for sustaining constitutional integrity from military to civilian control, and reconcile Turkish nationalism with a far less restrictive approach to freedom of thought and expression. The outcome was also welcome because these electoral results clearly underscored the growing marginality of the old Turkish establishment that had succeeded for decades in defining ‘secularism’ in such a narrow way as to safeguard the outmoded and repressive anti-democratic features of the Turkish state.

            Despite this favorable assessment, moving forward will not be easy, nor should it be taken for granted. The old Turkish establishment, although repudiated by the citizenry, has by no means given up. It can be expected to struggle to retain its old privileged hold on the country by every means at its disposal. Some indication of how this political drama will unfold surrounds the selection of the president of the republic. Only months ago when the Turkish Parliament proposed the widely respected Foreign Minister, Abdullah Gul, for the presidency, the old forces mobilized their main instruments of opposition. Massive demonstrations were organized in several Turkish cities during April, absurdly insisting that making Gul president would be the death knell of Turkish ‘secularism.’ Why? The objection to Gul is most basically related to the insistence by the old secularists that the mere act of wearing a headscarf is an assault upon Kemalist ideals, and is properly prohibited in any governmental arena, including those associated with public education.

            Here the objection is advanced in an attenuated guilt by association form, allegedly disqualifying Gul because of his wife’s perfectly constitutional manner of asserting her identity. Because this sounds so unreasonable on its face, it is backed up by vague contentions that Gul is hiding his affinities with political Islam, but here the evidence is lacking and contradicts his views as expressed and acted upon in recent years. The further disingenuous claim is being made by critics that the president must be a consensus figure that stands above and beyond party politics. It is disingenuous because two of Turkey’s most renowned presidential figures, Süleyman Demirel and Turgut Ozal, came to the post from as career party politicians, and were elected without objection.

            More serious than these organized partisan displays in the streets last May was the reinforcing threat by the army to intervene to protect the secular order, insisting on its prerogative to prevent such a president from ever holding office.
Ominously, the army chief-of-staff, General Yasar Büyükent, made a speech a few days ago in which he declared that the views of the Turkish Armed Forces ‘do not change from day to day.’ And further, ‘[w]e are fully behind what we said on April 12..We said what we said with conviction,’ a narrowly veiled indication of a willingness to overrule the electoral mandate and the constitutional process for the selection of the president in Turkey. The main opposition party, The Republican Peoples’ Party, has also reiterated its refusal to assent to the selection of Mr. Gul.

            The issue seems likely to be joined in the weeks ahead. The AK Party has the votes to nominate Gul, and has informally declared its intention to do so. Either the military leadership will have to bite its tongue, which seems uncharacteristic, or Turkey faces a renewed period of heightened tension, if not crisis. It would be both dangerous and tragic if the military were to intervene directly, even if only in the form of an ultimatum to withdraw the nomination. The irony present here is that by way of experience and stature there is little dissent from the view that Gul is highly qualified to be the president of Turkey, and most probably, the most likely person to bring distinction to the position. The issue has been seized upon for symbolic, not substantive, reasons.

            But what is mainly at stake in this selection process is the quality and trajectory of Turkish democracy in the early 21st century, especially the viability of the AK Party challenge directed at the structures and practices of exclusionary democracy, and the related containment of the unelected and unaccountable deep state. By restricting access of those wearing headscarves to positions of prominence, power and influence are retained that could not be sustained by the more inclusionary democratic procedures of free and fair elections. The crux of the political debate in Turkey is whether the democratic mandate will be extended to those adhering in a traditional manner to the forms and practices of Islam, and secondarily, whether this mandate will be made available to ethnic and religious minorities, especially the Kurds. In turn, this issue also indirectly raises the crucial question as to whether the checks and balances of Turkish constitutionalism will in the future be entrusted to the civilian institutions of government, including elections, or be based on the red lines drawn by the Turkish Armed Forces. 

            In these respects, what remains uncertain in Turkey after the elections is the nature and future of Turkish democracy, whether its discriminatory and repressive characteristics will be removed by stages or on the contrary will be now reinforced by a harsh and unpopular renewal of military activism. Such a renewal would be extremely unpopular with the public that supports the policy agenda of the AK Party. It would also almost certainly send the Turkish stock market into a tailspin, scare away foreign investors, and likely cause the decline of the lira and the return of high inflation. These latter circumstances may inhibit reliance on extreme tactics by opposition forces. In the past, it could at least be argued that military intervention served the cause of political and economic stability in the country. Under present circumstances, even most secular conservatives would agree that any military intervention would result in dangerous and unpredictable forms of political instability. At the same time, it is hard to envision at this point either side backing down on the presidential nomination. The very problematic nature of any interference with the governing process by the military would almost certainly cause a populist backlash, which in turn would likely intensify its repressive character.

            Beyond these defining issues of inclusiveness and the civilianization of Turkish constitutionalism, there exists the shape of Turkish nationalism. As with headscarves, the 1982 Constitution, and accompanying legislative enactments were extremely restrictive when it came to freedom of expression and thought. Penal Code Section 301, criminalizing any assertions deemed by prosecutors to ‘insult Turkishness,’ and used to indict such eminent cultural figures as Orhan Pamuk and Elif Shafak, stands before the world as a decisive demonstration that Turkish nationalism contradicts fundamental human rights associated with liberal democratic norms and practice. As long as 301 remains a part of Turkish law, the European opposition to Turkish EU membership rests on defensible grounds (although several EU members seem unashamed of their
somewhat similar anti-defamation laws). Part of the promised effort by Erdogan leadership to revive the Turkish campaign for EU membership is a much needed and desired constitutional overhaul that is much more supportive of freedoms for the Turkish citizen.

            Democracy can only flourish if the citizens are free to speak their mind, and social and political truth allowed to emerge from the marketplace of ideas. When using the word ‘genocide’ gives rise to potential criminality and even assassination, the political culture needs to be restrained by the receptivity of the rule of law to free speech, however distasteful to parts of thea society. As it happens, the recent World Court decision denying Serbian responsibility for genocide in Bosnia suggests Turkish nationalists need not be so afraid of opening the Armenian issue to fuller debate.

            Further in the background are several foreign policy concerns. Part of the reality of the deep state is associated with control over Turkey’s strategic relations with the United States and Israel. From a democratic perspective, it seems clear that Turkish sympathies are much more responsive to the Palestinian struggle than official diplomacy conducted by Ankara would suggest. Even a constructive initiative designed to acknowledge the legitimacy of Hamas as the elected representative of the Palestinian people was rebuffed by the secular establishment fronting for the military. And it was only the responsiveness of the Turkish Parliament to public opinion that saved the Erdogan government from disastrously backing the American invasion of Iraq back in 2003. For Turkey’s democracy to mature fully, its strategic relationships need to reflect better its political identity and democratically determined national interests, but such goals will not be attained without a long and hard campaign.

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            In the short term, Europe and the United States have strong reasons of their own to avert a Turkish crisis of the sort that could unfold in the months ahead. In this sense, the general impression caused by the insistence of the global media that the July elections should be seen Islam v. secularism are extremely unhelpful, throwing oil on a simmering fire. What could be helpful would be governmental and diplomatic assertions by foreign leaders of confidence in the AK Party, a more forthcoming European attitude toward the EU accession negotiations, and the advocacy of a more balanced approach to Cyprus, especially renewed support for the Annan plan and a UN role.

            Of course, the winners in the elections can do their part to help avert the looming crisis by being tactically cautions without losing sight of their strategic goals relating to democracy and nationalism. What this means concretely is difficult to specify. It would certainly imply an approach to the election of a president that gives the military an opportunity to move gracefully away from their earlier stand of implacable opposition. The AK Party exhibited this sort of intelligent prudence when it refrained last spring from ornanizing counter-demonstrations that would certainly have been larger and more impressive than those of the old secular forces, but also dangerously more polarizing of the country, and destabilizing. 

            Nowhere in this panorama of concerns, does the issue of political Islam appear as a genuine concern even in its diluted form of interpreting the election as a victory of ‘moderate Islam’ set off against modernist secularism of the Euro-American variety. The banner of Islam is being waved not by Islamists but by those increasingly isolated opposition forces in Turkey that see no constitutional path that leads them back to their former position of hegemony in relation to government, market, and societal mores. In these circumstances, confusing the terms of struggle depends on a strategy of tension that creates some impression that only a military takeover can avoid a Turkish descent into chaos. Such a strategy seems ill-conceived considering the level of support that the AK Party currently enjoys, which includes the confidence of both the business world and Turkish masses. When I asked a non-religious private car driver employed by a secular family who he favored in the elections, his response was revealing: “Am I stupid?” This was his way of saying that, of course, he gave his vote to the AK Party. One can only wish that there are similar responsible voices in the military, the opposition, and abroad that also are not stupid! 



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