Foreign Policy Research Institute A Nation Must Think Before it Acts The Turkish Problem — and Hope

The Turkish Problem — and Hope

On November 3, Turks elected a new parliament. Turkey’s citizens had 18 parties to choose from in the elections, 3 of which had been in the previous government. Not one of those, nor 13 other parties, met the 10 percent of the vote threshold for obtaining seats in the Parliamentary elections, which were resoundingly won by the Justice and Development Party (AKP), the latest incarnation of an earlier Islamist party. AKP received 34 percent of the vote, giving it 363 seats in the 550-member parliament— just four less than are needed to amend the constitution. The Republican People’s Party (CHP) of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the fanatically secularist founder of the Turkish Republic, won 19.3 percent of the vote and will have 179 seats in parliament.

But this is not the victory for Islamists it might appear to be, after the Islamist victories in Morocco, Indonesia, Kuwait, and Bahrain. Understanding the reasons for these results is important if one is to understand the general stakes of the war on fundamentalist Islam terror as represented by Al Qaeda.

Turkey, with 70 million Muslims, has been the only case study of Islam’s potential to become compatible with modernity, democracy, and tolerance. Muslim leaders elsewhere who have taken Ataturk as a model, from Afghanistan’s King Amanullah in the 1920s to Pakistan’s President Musharaf and various post-Soviet leaders in central Asia today, have largely failed. Meanwhile, Turkey had in Tansu Ciller, prime minister from 1993-96, the only female chief of government ever in the Islamic world elected on her own merits (rather than family background). Its military is thoroughly secular and has the constitutional role of protecting Ataturk’s secularism, which is supported by some 70 percent of Turks.

Ever since Ataturk imported persecuted German Jewish professors to establish Turkey’s first public universities, banned Islamic garb, and proclaimed that the West was the model to be followed, Turkey has pursued a clear course of moving closer to the West. Some 3 million Turkish citizens now live in Western Europe, concentrated in Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium, and France. A NATO member since 1953, Turkey provided excellent fighters in Korea, and today has the second largest army in the alliance (after the United States), one that has proven itself in successful combat experience since 1984 against the Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK). Sharing borders with Iran, Iraq, Syria, Georgia, and Azerbaijan, it may be situated in the least desirable neighborhood in the world. It has therefore been in its interests to train armies and establish military academies in the Turkic-speaking former Soviet republics in Central Asia, from Uzbekistan, Kazakstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan, all the way to the Chinese borders. The Turkish/NATO air base in Incirlik is a key to any operation in Iraq, and is still used by US and UK forces in enforcing air control over northern Iraq.

Considering all this, what is to make of the results of the latest Turkish elections? To begin with, the number of votes cast for AKP, 10.8 million, represents slightly less than 20 percent of eligible voters and was slightly below the total of invalid and uncast votes, and less than the roughly 20 percent of votes going to secular parties that did not break the 10 percent threshold individually. This is about the same percent of the vote the Islamists obtained the last time they reached power, in 1996.

Second, exit polls and informal talks with Turkish voters suggest that many voted for the AKP because of its clean record in administration in large cities such as Istanbul and Ankara, rather than for its muted religious history. Rejection of the incompetent and corrupt secular regimes had far more to do with AKP’s victory— and CHP’s— than the AKP’s proposing to lift the army-imposed ban on women’s wearing Islamic headscarves at universities and official places.

In fact, the AKP’s rhetoric since its victory has been anything but radical. Its de facto leader, former Istanbul mayor Tayyip Erdogan, who was banned from politics for making religious speeches, has all but openly accepted the military’s role in preserving secularism. In fact, he compares his party to the German Christian Democrats. Erdogan and the newly installed prime minister, Abdullah Gul, an economist, are moderate in dealing with the Cyprus issue, committed to NATO membership, pro-American, and obsessed with winning Turkey’s membership in the European Union.

All of this should allay most concerns about an Islamist takeover in Ankara. Strategic decisions are taken by the National Security Council, where the military and the president have a clear majority; and the new government is openly aware of the limits imposed on it by the society, the elites, the media and, ultimately, the army. Whether those limits will confine the new government from legalizing the wearing of headscarves in public places (which it claims it promotes on the basis of multiculturalism and tolerance) and demoting Turkey’s strategic ties with Israel remains to be seen, but the latter in particular is highly unlikely.

Turkey’s unspoken strategic alliance with Israel runs deep. Israeli pilots train in the wide open Anatolian air space, the powerful pro-Israel lobby in Washington largely counters the hysterically anti-Turkish Greek and Armenian lobbies, and Turkey sells water to Israel. The mere existence of this alliance serves to contain Syria’s rogue regime. In October 1998 Ankara gave Damascus a clear ultimatum— cease and desist from supporting the PKK or else. Without Israel’s saying a word, the implicit threat from south and north compelled Damascus’s compliance. PKK camps in Lebanon, Syria’s protectorate, were closed down, and PKK leader and founder Abdullah Ocalan was expelled, to be ultimately captured in Kenya, effectively putting an end to the PKK.

And yet Valery Giscard d’Estaing, chairman of the EU’s federal constitution project, stated last month that Turkey is not a European country, and that its accession to the EU would be the end of that organization. Given the increasing internal security and cultural problems posed by the Muslim minorities in Western Europe, Giscard’s concerns may seem reasonable. However, the Turkish minority is the least problematic and— at least compared to the Moroccan, Algerian, or Pakistani elements, less likely to be attracted to Islamist radicalism.

The problem is that Turkish elites, including the neo-Islamists of AKP and ordinary Turks, most of whom have some family connections to Western Europe— have made EU membership a litmus test of Turkey’s acceptance as a European country. It is highly unlikely that Turkey will ever become an EU member, but its rejection will only force Ankara closer to the Middle East.

For U.S. foreign policy, the impact of the AKP victory in Turkey is marginal: Turkey’s support for a U.S. war on Iraq if the UN approves such an action remains unchanged. Domestically, it can only bring better economic management, of which Turkey has a clear need. and in European terms, it means better prospects for resolution of old problems such as Cyprus, ties to Greece, and immigration. Ultimately, the AKP leaders promise a new model of Islamic governance, one that embodies realism and flexibility with modernization, even as it reminds Turks of their Muslim heritage. They can potentially be another example of why the Turkish experiment is relevant and needed, and why the United States should support it.