Turkey’s Election: Islamists Deal a Blow to the Secular Establishment (ARI)

Turkey’s Election: Islamists Deal a Blow to the Secular Establishment (ARI)

Resumen en Inglés

Theme: The Justice and Development (AKP) Party, which has its roots in political Islam, was returned to office after it won a landslide victory in early elections called to resolve a crisis with the powerful military, backed by the secular establishment, over who should be the country’s next President.

Summary: The AKP won a larger slice of the vote but fewer seats because three other parties also passed the high threshold of 10% of the national vote for entering parliament. It now has a mandate to speed up reforms, and in particular reinvigorate the bid to join the European Union (EU), and where absolutely necessary take on the rigidly secular establishment. Voter turnout was 84%, well above the 75% in 2002 when the AKP first came to power. The thorny issue of whether an AKP person occupies the presidency, however, has still to be resolved. Parliament could make another attempt to elect the President or a direct election be held for the post for the first time.

Analysis: The election on July 22 was held four months ahead of schedule after the military, the self-appointed guardians of the staunchly secular constitution, threatened to intervene if the AKP pushed ahead in April with its candidate for the presidency, Abdullah Gul, the Foreign Minister, to replace Ahmet Necdet Sezer, a former judge who was due to step down on May 16 (see the author’s previous analysis at www.realinstitutoelcano.or g/wps/portal/rielcano_in/Content?WCM_GLOBAL_CONTEXT=/Elcano_in/Zonas_in/Europe/ARI+51-2007). Gul’s wife, like Erdogan’s, wears the Muslim headscarf which is banned in all public buildings and has come to symbolise –in the eyes of the so-called deep state (the military, the judiciary and other segments of society)– a threat to the secular republic founded in 1923 by Kemal Atatürk. The military found it very hard to stomach the first AKP government and its control of the presidency was and maybe still regarded as a step too far. The President, who swears an oath of allegiance to the ‘secular nature of the Republic’, is Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces, responsible for certain top appointments and has a veto power over laws approved by parliament. Sezer did not hesitate to use these powers.

Instead of caving in and coming up with another candidate more acceptable to the secular elite, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Prime Minister, took a bold gamble and decided to break the deadlock by bringing forward the election for a new parliament. This tactic looks as if it has paid off handsomely, although the AKP has 21 fewer seats in the 550-seat parliament and does not have on its own the two-thirds majority required to elect a new President (see Figure 1). In a surprise move two weeks before the election, the constitutional court backed the government’s proposal to allow the people rather than parliament to elect the President, having earlier supported the dubious claim by the opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) that parliament could not elect Gul as it lacked a quorum of 367 deputies in the first round of balloting (the CHP boycotted it). Whether Erdogan seeks a consensus candidate to be approved by parliament or decides to let Gul run in a direct election remains to be seen.

Figure 1. Political Islam in Turkey: % of Vote and Seats in Parliament Held by Islamist parties, 1972-2007

Nat. Salv.11.8488.624

V = votes; S = seats.Source: Turkish Interior Ministry.

The AKP’s winning of a second five-year term in office was very much a personal victory for Erdogan and clearly showed that the great majority of Turks do not regard his party as bent on bringing in sharia (Islamic law)through the back door. Equally, the election was a big defeat for the CHP, the oldest Turkish political party, whose logo consists of the six arrows which represent the foundational principles of Kemalist ideology: republicanism, nationalism, statism, populism, secularism and revolutionism. The CHP, which campaigned on the threat to secularism, won 111 seats (20.9% of the vote), down from 178 and 19.4%, respectively, in 2002 when it was the only other party to gain seats in parliament (independents won nine seats), while the extreme right-wing Nationalist Action Party (MHP) was returned to parliament with 72 seats and 14.3% of the vote (57 and 18%, respectively, in 1999). The MHP benefited from the rise in nationalism in Turkey stemming from disenchantment with the long drawn out process of joining the EU, increasing opposition to membership from countries such as France and the resurgence of terrorism by the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). Independent candidates from the mainly Kurdish south-east of Turkey won 27 seats.

The new parliament is much more representative of the country’s very complex make-up than the previous one, which only had two parties because of the threshold of 10% of the national vote (basically designed to keep overtly Kurdish parties out of parliament) required to guarantee seats in parliament. The presence in parliament of Kurdish deputies and the ultra-nationalist MHP (whose Grey Wolves were partly responsible for the escalation of political violence in the 1970s before the 1980 coup) could be an explosive mix. Voter turnout was very high at 84%: many people broke off holidays to return home to vote, underscoring just how crucial Turks regarded the election.

The AKP’s victory bore out the results of the last survey on religion in Turkey which showed that Turks had become more religious compared to 1999, but at the same time increasingly against a state based on Islamic law.[1] The party’s grass roots support comes from socially conservative Muslim businessmen and merchants in Anatolia, who have been excluded from power for decades by the largely Ankara and Istanbul-based secular and urban elite and are now obtaining it to the almost snobbish disgust of the status quo. According to Kemal Kirisci, Jean Monnet Professor at Bosphorus University, the apparent paradox is because as Turkey has become ‘more democratic people have become more comfortable or more secure in being their true selves, ethnically and religiously’. The survey sought to pinpoint the position of the Turkish public regarding the arguments that Turkey was under threat from Islamic fundamentalism. Only 33% of respondents supported this view. Furthermore, when the respondents were asked whether secularism could be maintained without the support of the military –which has been the armed forces’ justification for ousting four elected governments since 1960– almost 60% agreed with the statement and under 25% disagreed. When asked whether the AKP believes in democracy, 53.7% supported the statement while in 1999 only 26% of respondents said that AKP’s predecessor (Virtue) believed in democracy.

A lot has changed in Turkey in well under a decade, but the mindset of the secular establishment has changed little. This is partly because some of the steps taken by the AKP have not helped the party’s image with secularists, notably Erdogan’s own failed effort in 2005 to outlaw adultery, attempts by some mayors to create alcohol-free zones and creating loopholes allowing students at the imam-hatip schools (IHS), established in the 1950s as vocational schools to train imams (clerics) and hatips (preachers), to transfer to academic high schools before graduation, thus granting them preferential treatment in going on to non-theology majors in universities. New laws in 1997 stipulated that IHS graduates were to enter universities as theology majors as originally intended. This curtailed the growth of IHS, but since the AKP entered government, with an Education Minister, Huseyin Celik, who has promoted the recruitment of IHS graduates as teachers, the number of IHS students has surged. ‘This is not a technical matter but a fierce internal debate about universal secular education, a pillar of Turkish secularism’, according to Soner Cagaptay, Director of the Turkish Research Programme at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.[2]

Erdogan also has a very pragmatic side, as well as a tendency to occasionally shoot himself in the foot. This was clearly shown shortly after the spat with the military when 150 deputies were dropped from the party’s list for the July election, some of whom might have alienated centrist voters with their ‘reactionary’ views. They were replaced by more modern faces, notably its poster boy, Mehmet Simsek, a former London-based Merrill Lynch economist and the youngest of nine children of a dirt-poor Kurdish family, who was the leading AKP candidate in Gaziantep, Turkey’s sixth-largest city and the centre of pistachio-nut cultivation.

As well as persuading a majority of people that it does not have a secret agenda –the hearts and minds of the secular elite, however, have still to be won over– the AKP benefited from the economic boom that its reforms during four years have helped to engineer, especially much lower inflation and, in turn, lower interest rates (see Figure 2). Turkey has enjoyed an unprecedented period of sustained growth. Not surprisingly, the country’s stock market reached a record high on 23 July after the AKP’s victory as the party is pro-business and its second outright victory means that it can form another single party government. Until the arrival of the first AKP government in 2002, Turkey suffered from a long series of inept and squabbling coalition governments which did very little to modernise the country economically, socially or politically. Some Turks, initially sceptical about the AKP but who have been won over by its largely impressive record, go as far as to say that were Atatürk alive today he would vote for the AKP and not for the CHP, which has fossilised.

Figure 2.

Foreign investors are also pleased with the AKP’s victory. They invested more in the country in 2006 than in the previous five years (see Figure 3). In the latest significant acquisition, ING, the Dutch banking and insurance group, agreed in June to buy Oyak Bank for US$2.67 billion from the Armed Forces Pension Fund. Tourists, too, have been flocking to the country (see Figure 4). Turkey’s tourism receipts last year were the ninth largest in the world.

Figure 3. FDI in Selected European Countries (US$ billion)


Source: OECD.

Figure 4. Top International Tourism Countries

RankArrivals (millions)RankReceipts (US$ billions)
1. France79.11. US85.7
2. Spain58.52. Spain51.1
3. US51.13. France46.3
4. China49.64. Italy38.1
5. Italy41.15. China33.9
11. Turkey18.99. Turkey16.9

Figures for 2006.
Source: World Tourism Organisation.

A Busy Agenda
Erdogan immediately promised to redouble the efforts to join the EU, a process which has been stalled over the last year because of the slower pace or lack of reforms in Turkey and the Cyprus issue. Talks on eight chapters were suspended last December after Turkey refused to open its ports to ships from Cyprus, an EU member, and Nicolas Sarkozy, France’s President, succeeded in blocking talks in June on economic and monetary union (see Figure 5). Sarkozy is openly against Turkey’s EU membership and support for it Europe-wide is waning.[3]

Figure 5. Turkey’s EU Progress

Science and research
Enterprise and industry
Financial control
Economic and monetary policy
Free movement of goods
Right of establishment and freedom to provide services
Financial services
Agriculture and rural development
Transport policy
Customs union
External relations

A very positive signal would be sent if the new government quickly reformed the infamous article 301 of the penal code, enacted in May 2005, which still makes it illegal to insult ‘Turkish identity’ and state institutions and gives prosecutors wide latitude to pursue cases. A guilty verdict can carry a prison sentence of up to three years. Those brought before the courts include Orhan Pamuk, the Nobel literature laureate, and the Turkish-Armenian journalist Hirant Dink, who was murdered in broad daylight on a street in Istanbul in January amid reports of the alleged involvement of members of Turkey’s security forces.

The record on torture is also not as good as the AKP likes to believe. Despite its zero tolerance policy, Amnesty International denounced in a report in July the ‘culture of impunity’ in the Turkish criminal justice system.[4] The report said the government’s commitment to its policy cannot be regarded as sincere and effective ‘until real steps are taken to address the persisting issue of the failure to punish official who violate the absolute prohibition on torture and other ill-treatment’.

The AKP must also find a way to assuage the rise in nationalism, epitomised by the MHP’s return to parliament, which not only threatens the domestic reform agenda (it favours a return to the death penalty, outlawed in EU countries, and is against any reform of 301), but could lead to a risky incursion into neighbouring Iraq in pursuit of the separatist terrorists of the PKK who have a safe haven in northern Iraq’s mountains from where they enter Turkey. The army has been making threatening noises about invading the only fairly calm bit of Iraq, as a result of the killing of more than 200 Turkish soldiers since the start of the year. It tried to use the government’s reluctance to authorise such a mission as a tactic to take away votes from the AKP, but failed. The US, too, has pursued a hands-off policy, one of main factors behind Turkey’s rampant anti-Americanism, the strongest in Europe and even higher than in the occupied Palestine territories, according to the latest Pew Global Attitudes Survey (see Figure 6).

Figure 6. Favourable Opinions of the US (%)

Great Britain83757058555651

Source: Pew Global Attitudes Project, 2007.

Conclusion: The continuation of the AKP in power was the best possible result and the military should draw a lesson from the slap which the country’s most respected institution (according to opinion polls) has received in the face. But it is very far from being discredited.

The AKP, however, has not received a blank cheque to ride roughshod over the secular establishment. Erdogan recognised this when he said after his victory that he would seek national unity and respect Turkey’s secular constitution. The first test of the wills of both sides will come over the post of the presidency. While he must be sorely tempted by the size of his victory to let Gul run in a direct election for President, it may be better if he was magnanimous and agreed a compromise candidate.

William Chislett
Writer and journalist

[1] See the analysis by Kemal Kirisci of the results of the survey on religion conducted by Ali Carkoglu and Binnaz Topraz and published by TESEV, www.edam.org.tr/yayinlar/makaleler/e-bulten/edam-bulletin_spring_2007 .pdf.

[2] See his analysis for the Elcano Real Institute on the Turkish military (www.realinstitutoelcano.org/wp s/portal/rielcano_in/Content?WCM_GLOBAL_CONTEXT=/Elcano_in/Zonas_in/ARI+80-2007).

[3] See the very detailed analysis of this issue by Antonia M. Ruiz-Jiménez and José I. Torreblanca, ‘European Public Opinion and Turkey’s Accession: Making Sense of Arguments For and Against’, www.epin.org/pdf/WP16_RuizJimenez_Torreblanca.pdf.

[4] See ‘The Entrenched Culture of Impunity Must End’, http://web.amnesty.org/library/Index/ENGEUR440082007?open&of=ENG-2EU.