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Turkey's elections:
An outsider's view

Richard Falk, TFF Associate


July 17, 2007

Although living for more than two months each year in Turkey for the last decade I still consider myself an outsider. Besides not speaking Turkish, and living the rest of the time in America, there are inevitable gaps in my experience and understanding. Turkey is a diverse and complex country. Yet through my being here so often, and with the help of friends, I have developed a love for the country and its people, as well as a concern about its future. From such a perspective perhaps a modestly informed perspective has something to contribute, combining a certain detachment with a definite sense of engagement, that is, wishing for the best. I also am familiar with (mis)understandings of what is at stake in these July 22nd Turkish elections in some foreign settings, especially the United States.

            What seems so unusual is that the elections arouse this intense interest and yet the substantive differences between the main contending parties, and their leader, appear to be so minor. It requires a subtle knowledge to sense any important difference on the main concerns of Turkey: the economy is doing too well to draw serious criticism, and on opposition to the PKK and the approach to the Kurdish minority there is little disagreement, which is also true with respect to the resolution of the Cyprus question. All the parties claim strong nationalist credentials, but some seem more strident than others. The more extreme expressions of nationalism are associated with the National Movement Party (MHP) and Young Party (GP) that do adopt an anti-EU position, but since Turkish prospects of European Union membership are so remote, this issue has virtually dropped out of sight. This absence of substance seems to explain why the campaigning seems all about frills: displaying banners, mobilizing partisan crowds, sending sound trucks through the streets blaring slogans and patriotic music.

            The puzzle then is why this intense interest in the absence of sharper disagreement about substance. The media and most persons correctly believe that these elections involve a vote of confidence in the leadership displayed by the AKP (Justice and Development Party) while governing Turkey during the last several years, and the strong feelings pro and con generated by the personality and style of Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan. But what the AKP represents and why the concern about Mr. Erdogan is subject to wildly different interpretations. The point of convergence has to do with attitudes toward the relationship between the way the AKP has run the government these past few years and the role of Islam in Turkish society.

            Certainly overseas, there is no doubt that these Turkish elections are of interest almost exclusively as a barometer of the strength of pro-Islamic forces. TIME magazine’s cover story on the elections was built around the single image of a young woman wearing a headscarf, which was relied upon to express a judgment as to why these elections seem so important. Those who oppose the AKP generally do not seriously challenge its record on substantive issues, but regard its continued popularity with the public as a threat to Turkish secularism. There are many variations as to why this threat exists, and the confusion is heightened because the AKP itself does not present itself as anti-secular, but on the contrary as devoted to sustaining secularism. The most ardent followers of the legacy of Kemal Ataturk seem to believe that this threat has to do with a secret agenda of the AKP to turn Turkey into an Islamic state that will eventually impose sharia law and resembles Iran. Such a future is opposed both because of its societal consequences and it is thought likely to prompt a military coup, or even some kind of civil war of the sort that caused upward of 60,000 deaths in Algeria. These fears generate various irresponsible allegations, suggestions of anti-democratic practices of the AKP within a variety of governmental settings.

            These anxieties about Islamic influence assume more subtle forms that exert a strong influence. Women, especially, talk about the increasing number of headscarves on the streets, and say, undoubtedly sincerely, that this makes them uncomfortable in certain public spaces. Somehow, this Islamic tendency is linked in minds of many persons with the AKP leadership, and its supposed undisclosed program of promoting Islam. What such attitudes totally overlook is that the Turkish reality is entirely the opposite. It is the women wearing headscarves that cannot study in Turkish universities, that cannot hold a variety of professional and public positions, and that they have long met with harsh discrimination in almost every domain of Turkish life. It is their continued subordination that gives the issue such potency as a litmus test of what kind of society Turkey is becoming. Lurking beneath these antagonisms is an implicit concern that if AKP liberates the religiously oriented majority in Turkish society, then it will turn against its former oppressors, abandoning all pretense of moderation once it is securely in  control of the government. As Nietzsche warned, beware of the resentments of those who were previously repressed.

            Here too controversy abounds, and confusion exists. After all Turkey is an overwhelmingly Muslim society. Why should the expression of an Islamic religious identity be treated as socially and politically dangerous by the self-proclaimed protectors of the Ataturk legacy? The claim being made is that headscarves are political symbols, coercively imposed by male-dominated families eager to make an anti-secular statement, that wearing a headscarf in Turkey is different from wearing it elsewhere, precisely because it is linked with this powerful domestic movement to turn Turkey away from modern life styles. All of this relates to the elections because a victory for AKP is so widely viewed by its opponents as a blow against secularism and modernity.

            It is in relation to these issues that I find public perceptions to be misleading, and dangerous. It is not secularism that is in issue in the Turkish elections but a profound disagreement about the proper nature of secularism. The AKP clearly has pursued a secular agenda during its period of leadership, ardently championing reforms associated with preparing Turkey to be a member of the European Union, especially during its first years in office when prospects of membership looked more feasible. This pro-EU outlook produced a variety of welcome reforms with respect to human rights and the autonomy of the elected political leadership of the country in relation to the proper role of the army in a constitutional democracy. Aside from its success in managing the Turkish economy, this AKP period has been the most constructive from the perspective of problem solving, seeking compromises on contentious issues (e.g. Cyprus), and, above all, the deepening of Turkish democracy.

            Against this background, I believe the real debate, which is not publicly acknowledged by either side, is about what kind of secular society does Turkey want to be. The so-called secular side of the debate, fearing political Islam and seeking to recover control of governmental power, favors a persistence of an exclusionary secularism that maintains a discriminatory relationship to those who explicitly associate their identity with their religious beliefs. The dominant AKP position in the debate seems to be seeking a renewal of secularism by making it more inclusive, treating all Turkish citizens in a non-discriminatory fashion. But there are some uncertainties that cloud such an optimistic assessment. Many tensions divide supporters of the AKP, including such issues as the proper societal status of women, the treatment of the large Alevi minority, and the best approach to take on regional and national Kurdish questions.

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            If this interpretation is more or less correct, then it would be a hopeful result if the AKP is returned to power without needing a paralyzing coalition. I have spoken to many on the anti-AKP side of the debate who say that they will vote for the mildly leftist Republican People’s Party (CHP) or even the rightest MHP, but that it would be a disaster for the economy and the country if they were to succeed. Their motivation is to cut into the AKP victory sufficiently so as to require a coalition government that would ensure continuity with respect to public policy. Such an outcome would be a setback for Turkey’s political future that depends on incorporating all tendencies within a creative and productive democratic framework. Rather than being a threat to secularism, the AKP is a robust vehicle for a necessary Turkish transformation in the direction of inclusionary secularism, the only orientation that will allow Turkey to live up to its great potential in the years ahead.

            So understood, the Turkish elections are important, not in relation to an Islamic threat, but as to whether Turkey is able to move on to realize the full potential of a secular society: namely, incorporating all of its people within a functioning democratic whole that exhibits tolerance toward differences of belief and practice. The distorting peculiarity that is caught up in the Turkish experience is that it is the majority of the society that is belatedly seeking emancipation from a suppressive form of ‘secularism’ that is actually anti-secular to the extent that it is intolerant toward those who manifest their religious beliefs. Whether the AKP will be allowed to move in this direction by the Turkish electorate and ‘the deep state’ (army + intelligence apparatus), and whether if allowed, AKP will have the capacity and patience to fulfill this vision of a truly secular and democratic state are the real crux of the political struggle that has bubbled to the surface in the lead up to July 22nd.  


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