Tuesday, July 24, 2007


Why the Elections in Turkey Mattered

Turkey's recent election has been greeted with some relief in western circles as the re-election of Recip Erdogan has been interpreted as a vote for continuity and modernization. Turkey's emergence from the shades of the Ottoman Empire began in 1923 when the great Kemal Attaturk established a secular republic, distinct from connections with the Sultanate and directed at removing religious barriers to joining the 'modern' world of the west.

Would that it had been that easy; since the second world war there have been four military coups and the tensions between the supporters of Attaturk and the bourgeoning world of Turkish Islam are never far from the surface as Orhan Pamuk's brilliant novel Snow illustrates so well. As one of the few Muslim democracies, Turkey represents the interface between the west and the world of Islam and is something of a barometer of how the two are co-existing. If a successful modus vivendi can be established between the two it will bode well for the wider world's attempts to achieve the something similar. That is why Erdogan's success at the head of the Justice and Development Party(AK)- a party with Islamist roots but inclined towards modernisation- has been welcomed in the west.

The election was called when the army made bellicose noises in the spring that the government's candidate for the presidency, Abdullah Gul, was perceived as too Islamist leaning for the secularists, who demonstrated in the streets in their millions. The problem was heightened by the fact that both Gul and Erdogan(see picture) had wives who wore the Islamic headscarf, even though it has been banned in public buildings and has highly potent symbolism for both sides of the religious divide. There was some fear at the time that the army might intervene and stage yet another coup, which would have plunged the country back into the past.

To defuse the crisis Erdogan called an early election, one which he went on to win emphatically with 46% of the vote and 340 out of the 550 seats in parliament. As The Economist noted, the AK has presided over an average annual growth of 7.3% plus plentiful inward investment and $40bn a year form tourism. Turkey is emerging from the poorhouse of Europe at quite a rate. Erdogan has proved an astute balancer of the divide between secularists and Islamists, while steering the ship of state subtly towards a position acceptable to both the USA and the EU.

Maybe the most pressing problem for the new prime minister to solve is the gung ho attitude of the army, massing on the Kurdish border. The Kurdish nationalist PPK has long been a thorn in Turkey's side and the army would love to intrude across the border to crush the 3500 PPK militants said to be sheltering there. America's disinclination to wound its Kurdish allies in Iraq has caused its popularity to plummet in Turkey and the army consequently has a dangerous degree of popular support. It will be a difficult and perilous job to rule Turkey over the next year or so but as The Guardian leader comments today:

It will not be easy to reform a country as large and varied as Turkey, but Mr Erdogan is the right man for the job.

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