Blockade of the Turkish Presidential Elections: A Clash of Wills between Moderate Islamists and the Secular Establishment (ARI)

Blockade of the Turkish Presidential Elections: A Clash of Wills between Moderate Islamists and the Secular Establishment (ARI)

Theme: The nomination of the Foreign Minister, Abdullah Gül, of the ruling moderate Islamist Justice and Development Party (AKP), as a candidate for the Presidency has led to a political crisis in Turkey.

Summary: The presidential elections in Turkey have resulted in a political crisis, reflecting the deepening divide between the secular establishment and the moderate Islamist government, led by Prime Minister Recep Tayip Erdogan. After a long coexistence with the Islamist ‘parallel society’, the secularists fear that the balance of power between them and the Islamists will be destroyed if the AKP occupies the Presidency. The Armed Forces have reacted to the nomination of Mr Gül with an unmistakable threat to bring down the government, thus proving that the Army is still a powerful actor in Turkish politics. The idea is that the current political deadlock should be overcome by the early general elections called for July. The crisis shows that despite the democratic rhetoric displayed by Erdogan and his party, ample sectors of Turkish public opinion continue distrusting the sincerity of the Islamists’ democratic principles. Islamists have now to decide whether after the general elections they want to press ahead with an Islamist candidate for the Presidency, which could make tensions revive, or back down and try to find a consensus candidate.


Secularists and Moderate Islamists: The Kemalist Opposition to an AKP President
Turkey’s traditional secular establishment, represented by parts of the bureaucracy and the judiciary and backed by the Armed Forces, is being confronted by a new class of Islamic-oriented political modernisers. The deep divide between secularists and moderate Islamists has become increasingly visible and has led Turkey to a severe political crisis. A new President should have been elected by parliament by 15 May and since the moderate Islamist AKP holds an absolute majority in parliament there was little doubt that the post was within the AKP’s grasp. After the first election round in parliament on 27 April the main opposition party, the Republican People’s Party (CHP), appealed to the Constitutional Court claiming that the vote was invalid as there were not enough members of parliament present at the time. At midnight that very same day the Armed Forces reacted to the nomination of a member of the AKP as the candidate for Turkey’s Presidency with an unambiguous threat to overthrow the democratically-elected government. The Armed Forces consider themselves the guardians of modern Turkey’s secular traditions and believe that the separation of state and religion would be under threat with a President from an Islamic background. A couple of days after the Armed Forces’ declaration, the Constitutional Court accepted the main opposition party’s attempt to block the presidential elections and annulled the first round of the parliamentary vote. Once the Court’s decision was announced, the parliament decided to call general elections for 22 July, four months earlier than planned. The AKP has repeated the presidential vote, but due to a renewed failure because of the continued boycott by the opposition, Mr Gül announced his withdrawal from the elections. This means that the current President, Ahmet Necdet Sezer, will continue in his post until after general elections.

With the decision to annul the presidential vote, the Constitutional Court followed political rather than legal criteria, since previous Presidents have been elected with less than two-thirds of the members of parliament in the first round of voting. The quorum for the presidential election is a novelty introduced by the Court, that had never previously existed. The consequences of the Court’s decision for Turkish democracy are very significant, as in the future any boycott of the presidential elections could lead to general elections. Prime Minister Erdogan has proposed placing the presidential elections in the hands of the citizens, which would make it more difficult for the secular establishment to block presidential elections again. The main opposition party is against such a move but some small parties are in favour and the AKP only needs a handful of votes to force such a bill through.

The annulment of the presidential elections shows the severity of the struggle between Turkey’s secular establishment and the growing popularity of political parties rooted in Islam. Secularists in Turkey have always mistrusted the AKP’s Islamist background. The symbolic takeover of the presidency by a politician with Islamist roots is hard to digest for the guardians of Kemal Atatürk’s secular heritage. The Turkish President’s political functions are mainly honorary, but he is Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces, appoints judges, positions in the Administration and rectors of universities. The President, elected for seven years, is the country’s most important post in safeguarding secularism and the country’s republican tradition. Being a resolute advocate of the constitutional secular order, the current President –Ahmet Necdet Sezer– is held in high esteem by secularists. Many Turks perceive Mr Sezer as a corrective to the Islamic AKP government: over the past two years, due to a muted opposition, he remained the only visible ideological resistance to it. If a member of the ruling AKP were to have become President, the three most important appointments –those of the Prime Minister, the President and the President of the Parliament– would have been held by the same party. Apart from being a question of the ideology of the state, the struggle is also about the power of a westernised old guard that is cemented in the establishment and threatened by the new rural, religious and conservative forces of Mr Erdogan’s party, whose growing economic power is leading to the transformation of the country’s social character.

The position of the secular elites is backed by a considerable part of Turkey’s civil society, especially in the big cities. The recent political developments have taken hundreds of thousands of secular Turks to the streets because they fear that their lifestyles will be threatened if the AKP also occupies the presidency. On 15 April, before Foreign Minister Gül’s nomination as candidate, hundreds of thousands demonstrated in Ankara against the Prime Minister becoming Turkey’s new President. ‘We don’t want an Imam as President. The Republic is secular and will stay secular’; ‘We are all Turks, we are all followers of Atatürk’, these were some of the calls heard during the demonstrations. Turkish civil society is becoming more vocal because of Islam’s growing role in the country. Liberal western-oriented Turks want to defend their lifestyles against any visible indications of an emerging religious control. But to an increasing degree neither do they want the problem to be solved by the intervention of the Armed Forces. On 29 April nearly a million secularists demonstrated in Istanbul shouting ‘no to coups’ and ‘no to Sharia’. These protests underline the deepening divide within Turkish society over the role of Islam.

The Role of Islam in Turkish Society
Religious conflict is one of the main issues facing Turkish society today. During the process of formation of the nation-state –that began in the 1920s–, the new state’s elite considered it necessary to redefine both the political system and Turkish identity. Islam was replaced with other ideals such as ‘Turkism’, modernity and statism. The aim of the republican founding fathers was to relegate religion to the private sphere. After the consolidation of the Turkish Republic in 1923, the institutional secular order was not only separate from religion, but also had a hostile attitude towards it. Until the establishment of the Turkish Republic, however, Islam was a fundamental principle of society. Atatürk’s reforms were carried out from the top down were imposed on the population by a one-party regime. It is often argued that the Turkish state impeded the formation of civil society by focusing on long-term national interests at the expense of sectional interests and that kemalism was a state-centred, elite-defined and illiberal modernisation project. The way in which the Turkish state was created explains some of the complexities of modern Turkish identity. In Turkey, the strong state tradition generated the creation of state institutions that were autonomous from society, such as the Armed Forces, the National Security Council, the Constitutional Court and the civil service; these play a dominant role in the policy-making process.

The sudden and large-scale shift away from religion during the formative years of the Turkish republic created a conflictive relationship between the state elite and the religious segments of the population. For the latter it became increasingly difficult to let a purely secular worldview dominate the public sphere. Since the 1970s, Islam was again re-emerging and becoming more visible in Turkish politics. The National Salvation Party (Millet Selamet Partisi) under Necmettin Erbakan’s leadership was relatively successful at the polls in the 1970s, and was able to enter successive coalition governments with both left- and right-wing parties. The Welfare Party (Refah Partisi, RP) of the 1980s and 1990s, again under Mr Erbakan’s leadership, undertook a serious effort at grassroots organisation in the slums of the big cities and distributed welfare assistance to the poor, a move that led to its success in the 1994 municipal elections when Welfare Party candidates won 28 municipalities, including the two largest cities, Istanbul and Ankara. The party’s strategy then took it power in a coalition government after the 1995 parliamentary elections, with Mr Erbakan serving as Prime Minister in 1996-97. The Welfare Party’s successor was the Virtue Party (Fazilet Partisi), which split into the Felicity Party (Saadet Partisi) and the Justice and Development Party (Adalet ve Kalkinma Partisi, AKP). The latter was formed by the reformist young generation of the Welfare Party, led by today’s Prime Minister Erdogan and Foreign Minister Abdullah Gül. After having been sentenced to prison for engaging in Islamic agitation, Mr Erdogan became a moderate and secular Muslim. In its 2002 political programme, the young leaders of the new AKP committed the Party to the consolidation of a liberal democracy in Turkey. They seem to have learnt from the Welfare Party’s experience and drawn their conclusions from it. Given the political past of today’s AKP leaders, the secularists’ suspicions towards them are understandable.

The discussion about the role of religion in Turkey has recently become sharper. The possibility of a former Islamist, who has moderated his views considerably, competing in the election to the presidency, has thrown secularists into a panic. On 13 April, the current President Ahmet Necdet Sezer gave his last speech before a military audience in Istanbul, warning that the country’s secular system was being confronted with its most serious danger since the founding of the republic.

The AKP Government Since 2002: Islamism but No Challenge to the Democratic Framework
Traditionally, Islamism in Turkey was built on and legitimised by a strong anti-western attitude. In the late 1990s, however, pro-Islamic parties realised that they needed the West and the Western values of democracy, human rights and the rule of law in order to confront the kemalist centre. They acquired legitimacy by engaging in this new discourse and began to challenge the secularist elite. The ruling AKP accepted the separation of religious and political affairs and has used both human rights and EU membership in its search for systemic legitimacy. The Western universal law system based on the protection of individual rights was the only way to protect the social, political and economic rights of Muslims.

Although Prime Minister Erdogan has tried to implement some Islamic-driven measures over the past years, on the whole he has not tampered with Turkey’s secular, pro-western orientation. Furthermore, the AKP government has been Turkey’s most stable government in years. The reforms enacted by the Erdogan government secured the start of Turkey’s EU membership negotiations in October 2005. The economy is doing well, with annual growth running at 5% or more. With the prompting of the EU, the AKP government has reduced the power of the Armed Forces, taken drastic measures on torture and granted minority groups more rights. The overall consequence of these reforms has been progress towards a more open and democratic Turkey.

Nevertheless, in four and a half years of government, the AKP has made several moves in the Islamic direction. It has tried to ease restrictions on the headscarf ban in Turkish universities, to outlaw adultery, to broaden Islamic education, to expand opportunities for graduates of Imam Hatip schools for training clerics, to limit the sale of alcoholic drinks and to bring devout Muslims into key positions in the Administration, especially a former Islamic banker as head of the central bank. Until now, most of these attempts have failed because of the resistance of President Ahmet Necdet Sezer, the judges and the military. The military, the university rectors and the judges have seen themselves as the protectors of the secular Republic in these recent years. What they fear, if an AKP politician takes the post of President, is the Islamic infiltration of Turkish society. Opponents of Mr Erdogan and his followers point to these moves in the Islamic direction as proof that the apparently moderate Islamists still have to reveal their real intentions.

A Midnight Declaration by the Armed Forces, Whose Power was Supposed to be Decreasing
On 28 April 2007 the Turkish military issued a sharp warning to the government, announcing that it would intervene if the AKP drifted too far from the secularist state. In theory, constitutional reforms had reduced the military’s room for political intervention, but the Army’s allies still control parts of the Administration and the judiciary and they can still mobilise followers. Despite the limiting of their power due to Turkey’s approach to the EU in recent years, the consequences of the military’s declaration have shown that the Armed Forces still continue to be a decisive power in the country.

The military, in their self-perceived role as the ‘guardians’ of the secular and unitary state, occupy the paradoxical position of ‘safeguarding’ democracy while at the same time being a major challenge to Turkey’s further democratisation. They have obliged political Islam to moderate its goals but they have also prevented the expansion of rights and liberties. According to provisions in the 1982 Constitution, the military have the power to interfere if they perceive that vital interests of the kemalist ideology are at risk. After the 1960 and 1980 military coups, the Turkish military left the stage to democratically-elected governments within a relatively short time. However, they secured their role as the guardians of the Turkish state every time they withdrew from power. One of the latest examples of military intervention was in 1997, when the coalition of the pro-Islamic Welfare Party (Refah Partisi) and the True Path Party (Dogru Yol Partisi) collapsed following the ‘soft’ –or ‘post-modern’– military coup d’état on 28 February 1997. Since the late 1990s the military had remained in the background of the political scene, aware of the problems of direct rule in a country that has become socially, politically and economically complex. The military’s reaction to the religious challenges in Turkey is complex and cannot be classified as simply anti-Muslim. There are conservative religious elements within all political parties; opposition arises only if a threat to the established nature of the state is perceived. The Army itself has supported Islamic education in the past. The greatest perceived threat after the 1980 military coup was radical socialism, which is why the military government made the teaching of Islam in schools obligatory. The Army’s aim is to defend the state in its current form and the perceived threats to it can change over time. Even today, secularism and nationalism –defined by Atatürk’s original agenda– can be described as the heart of the Army’s identity.

The military see an AKP President as the instrument for the erosion of military power once the compliant Mr Sezer has gone. With the power to appoint the head of the Army, Turkey’s judges and university rectors, an AKP President could have deeply altered the distribution of power between the Islamist government and the secular and military establishments. However, due to an increasing change of values in favour of the democratisation of Turkey’s political culture, the military would have been unable to react in a more radical manner than they did. Even if the Armed Forces currently perceive an ‘Islamic danger’, a classical coup d’etat is unlikely; their verbal threat to a President with an Islamic background shows that the generals have had to refine their political instruments. The fact that a verbal threat has been enough to block a presidential election confirms that their role is still considerable. The days of classic coups might be over, but the military can continue their anti-government rhetoric and shun presidential functions or National Security Council meetings. The military’s future role in the Turkish political framework will become more apparent in the course of this year. An opportunity for the military to maintain a powerful position, if they remain within the legal framework, is the (unlikely) failure of the AKP to reach an absolute majority in the next parliamentary elections.

Conclusions: The presidential election has become a trial of strength between the secularists and the moderate Islamists and has even led to the Army being provoked. The Prime Minister’s decision to nominate a loyal AKP companion has resulted in an explosion of the country’s cultural tensions. The prospect of the presidency being occupied by someone with a background in political Islam is threatening to Turkish secularists. The present crisis could have been avoided had Prime Minister Erdogan chosen someone from outside his own party. Given the panic that any religious link with politics creates in Turkey, the AKP should have done more to reassure secular Turks in order to have avoided the current political crisis. For four-and-a-half years the AKP has failed to dispel the suspicions of the secular establishment. It has treated the presidential election more as a party matter and has not really tried to avert polarisation. Given the distribution of power in the country, with the AKP leading the government and the kemalists controlling the Armed Forces, the judiciary and parts of the Administration, an arrangement or consensus with the ‘other side’ would have been a cleverer move from the AKP. The government could have made more of an effort to underline that there is no call to fear Islamic infiltration in the country. Prime Minister Erdogan has failed to build a bridge between the religious and secular parts of Turkish society and he has underestimated the depth of secular concerns.

The political tensions in Turkey have not been dispelled by the postponement of the presidential elections and the early calling of general elections for 22 July. The forthcoming general elections will lead to even further polarisation and the real showdown with the generals will begin if the AKP gains an absolute majority in the elections. During the electoral campaign, both sides will claim legitimacy: the AKP will present itself as the country’s only democratic party and as a victim of military intervention; the opposition, the Republican People’s Party (CHP), that is ideologically on the same side as the military, will continue to conjure up the danger of religion in the political arena. With another thumping majority, Mr Erdogan might choose to stick to Mr Gül for the President’s post. However, most observers believe that Mr Gül will not be nominated as candidate again –even if the AKP gains an absolute majority –because in that case the military might feel obliged to intervene again–. The AKP gaining an absolute majority –as in the last elections– will depend on how many parties reach the 10% barrier to enter parliament. In the last general elections in 2002, 45% of votes were given to parties that failed to reach the threshold. As a result, while the AKP only received 35% of the vote, it was ultimately awarded 66% of the seats. A recently decided fusion of several opposition parties could represent a serious threat for the AKP’s aim of achieving another absolute majority.

Even if the Islam-influenced AKP were to control Turkey’s two most important institutions, the realistic threat to Turkish democracy would be limited. Opinion polls show that Turkey is becoming more religious but also increasingly opposed to an Islamic state. The slogans chanted at the recent demonstrations –‘Neither coup d’etat nor sharia’– reveal that Turkey is not longer subject to the classic confrontation between secularism from above and religious fundamentalism from below. A dramatic back-slide into a military dictatorship or a re-radicalisation of the religious forces is more unlikely than it might seem. Turkey has begun to experience a fundamental process of modernisation in recent years and this puts both sides under an enormous pressure to change.

Deniz Devrim
Researcher at the CIDEL Project (Citizenship and Democratic Legitimacy in the European Union), financed by the European Union’s 5th Framework Programme