Accessibility links

Breaking News

Turkey: Voters Head Into Key Elections

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan called the snap poll after a confrontation with the military (file photo) (epa) July 20, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Turkish voters head to the polls on July 22 to elect a new parliament, in what some commentators are calling a "watershed" moment for the nation of 70 million.

In many ways, this election will be the ultimate test of Turkey's maturity as a modern democracy.

The atmosphere is tense ahead of the vote, as the secular-military establishment, hard-line nationalists, Islamist-rooted politicians, and Kurdish representatives all battle on the campaign trail, trying to shape the direction that Turkey will take.

With so many opposing factions expected to make it into parliament, the question is: will these sworn rivals be able to negotiate through their differences, or will they drive the country off a cliff?

The poll "may even lead to a fresh round of elections, or perhaps the military may feel compelled to make its presence felt in a very visible form," Zaman said.

Amberin Zaman, the Turkey correspondent for “The Economist” magazine, told RFE/RL from Istanbul that it's anybody's guess.

"It depends on how you look at it. You could say the glass is half full or half empty. You could say this is a great opportunity for all these different fragments of society to get together within the framework of the parliament -- a legitimate political framework, rather than violence -- to sit down and thrash out their differences and build some kind of consensus that allows this country to move forward," Zaman said.

"On the other hand, you could say we're going to end up seeing people throttling each other and God knows where all of this will lead," she continued. "It may even lead to a fresh round of elections, or perhaps the military may feel compelled to make its presence felt in a very visible form. It's hard to say."

Defending Secular Tradition

The fact that elections are taking place in July is a reflection of the tensions already rocking Turkish society. Originally, the polls were not due until November.

But Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who heads the Islamist-rooted Justice and Development (AK) party, called the snap poll after a confrontation with the powerful military.

That happened back in April, after Erdogan nominated his political ally, Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul, to be Turkey's next president. Gul is a devout Muslim and his wife wears a head scarf.

This was too much for Turkey's generals, who see themselves as guardians of the country's secularist tradition, as laid down by republic founder Mustafa Kemal Ataturk more than 80 years ago.

The military threatened to intervene against the AK-led government, saying Turkey was drifting toward Islamic fundamentalism.

Many saw that as no idle threat. Three time before -- the last time in 1980 -- the Turkish military has overthrow civilian governments it did not like.

The military refused to accept Abdullah Gul as president (epa)

Erdogan withdrew Gul's nomination. But in calling for early elections, he threw down the gauntlet to the military. And his strategy appears to have paid off, according to Zaman.

"There are a lot of people who believe that the military's statement against the AK party has added to AK's popularity. In fact, AK is playing the martyrdom card big-time. It's going around and telling people: ‘Look, they don't want a pious president,'" Zaman said.

"This is, after all, a Muslim country of 73 million," she added. "It's 99 percent Muslim, and to the ordinary Turk, that has resonance. [And they wonder] why can't we have a pious president? What's wrong with that? And so it's added to AK's ratings. And if you look at recent opinion polls, they consistently show that AK will probably improve on the 34 percent of the vote that it got in the elections in 2002.”

Economic Factors

It's not just pious Turks who are backing the AK party. Erdogan's performance over the past four years seems to have convinced many people -- including members of the urban elite -- that the Islamist-rooted party deserves another term.

When Erdogan came into office, Turkey was in the midst of an economic crisis.

Under the AK-led government, rapid economic growth has returned, inflation has been tamed and foreign investment has reached record levels. Reforms to update Turkey's legal code have been instituted.

In short, the AK party has shown -- perhaps for the first time in the Muslim world -- that an Islamic party can govern successfully in a democracy and be seen as modern.

By comparison, the military and its secular allies, with their shrill warnings and scare-mongering, are losing their appeal for many Turks.

“The irony indeed is that this party, which is accused of being backward and of taking the country back to the Middle Ages, is in fact at the vanguard of change, whereas the pro-Western party, so-called, the [Republican People's Party] CHP founded by Ataturk, seems to be the one most resisting change. And that's the paradox of Kemalism. Having achieved this huge transformation of Turkish society in the 1930s, it then failed to transform itself and keep in step with the times,” Zaman said.

The Islamists' coming of age has been long in the making and represents a sea-change for Turkey. It can be traced back to the opening up of the economy, according to Zaman.

“We need to go back to the late 1980s, when the late President Turgut Ozal, who took power after the military's last coup in 1980, opened up the Turkish economy -- which was a state-controlled economy, pretty much in the Soviet style," Zaman said.

"That's what really triggered the big changes, because with the opening of the free market, the monopolies, the handful of big businesses that used to control all the wealth in this country, suddenly saw their monopoly challenged. And over time you've had a shift of wealth from the Istanbul-based industrialized elite toward smaller entrepreneurs in Anatolia, who over time have become big.”

The Kurdish Faction

Of course, the Islamists are not the only ones claiming a slice of the political pie. For the first time, Turkey's parliament could end up with a Kurdish faction.

The Democratic Society Party (DTP), made up of ethnic Kurds, is not expected to overcome the 10 percent barrier it needs to enter parliament as a bloc.

But it is seeking to circumvent that requirement by running most of its candidates as independents. If more than 30 of them make it into the 550-seat legislature -- as seems possible -- they will then be able to regroup as a faction.

The election comes amid fears of rising Kurdish militancy (AFP)

That will present a whole new set of challenges for Turkish politics. At present, Kurds are not officially recognized as an ethnic minority in Turkey.

The Kurdish issue has drawn as much passion as the Muslim-secular debate, coming amid a recent rise in terror bombings claimed by the militant Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK).

The increase in terror attacks, combined with events in northern Iraq, has raised alarm in many quarters in Turkey. It has also led some voters to embrace ultra-nationalists, who are also banking on a return to parliament.

“They're looking at what's happening in Iraq," Zaman said. "They're seeing the emergence of a Kurdish state there, with the backing of the United States -- at least that's how many Turks see things."

"At the same time, you have this resurgent PKK violence in this country. Almost every day there are reports of Turkish soldiers being killed. And local, Kurdish nationalism here in Turkey is now heavily overlaid by Kurdish nationalism from Iraq, to the extent that Turkey's Kurdish problem and the Iraqi Kurdish issue have become one and the same. And that creates a lot of insecurity among people, among young people, many of who will be voting for the nationalist party," the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP).

The July 22 elections will be a laboratory for democracy -- one that could create a new recipe for coexistence or, some fear, lead to an explosion.