After The Quake

Dr. Abdullah Gul, Turkey's likely next prime minister, sits in his sleekly modern office as darkness descends. It's not dusk--his window is obscured by a giant five-story-high portrait of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the modernist, ultra-Western founder of the Turkish republic. The picture is being gently rolled down the facade of his party's headquarters to celebrate its landslide victory in last week's stunner of an election.

For an organization described by critics as "dangerously Islamic," the Justice and Development Party was showing its true colors in a most unreligious manner--literally cloaking itself in the mantle of Ataturk, the symbol of all that's progressive (and utterly secular) in Turkey. As a symbol, the message could not have been clearer. "We are not a religious party," says Gul, emphatically, as Ataturk's three-yard-wide bow tie twitches into position outside his window. "We want to show that a Muslim society can be transparent, democratic and compatible with the modern world."

It's hard to overstate the significance of that remark--or the scale of the party's win in the Nov. 3 polls. It was nothing less than a political earthquake. The victory swept away all but one of Turkey's traditional parties--and handed AK, as the party is known for short, a comfortable two-thirds majority in Parliament. For the first time in a political generation, Turkey has a government drawn from a single party. With luck, that'll mean an end to the fractured and stalemated coalition politics of the past. The new government will have a clear mandate and the power to execute on it.

If one is to take the AK at its word, that could mean massive and rapid social and political reform, especially in the realm of human rights. It means an acceleration of Turkey's drive to join the European Union--and a push to defuse several brewing crises abroad. Above all, it means a new impetus for economic change, principally a drive to clean up the cronyism and corruption that have hobbled Turkey's banking and financial system for decades.

All this is good news. But AK's power to change Turkey also raises fears, especially among the country's military and security elites. For all the fine words about democracy and modernity, they worry that the party's leaders have not fundamentally changed since their days as Islamic radicals. AK's charismatic chairman, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, was himself imprisoned for four months as recently as 1999 for "inciting religious hatred," after he famously recited a religious poem at a rally. Never mind that Ataturk was also fond of quoting the poem in question. Erdogan was banned from ever holding public office--a restriction he now plans to fight even at the cost of changing the Constitution (interview). "I hope the party has changed, and doesn't engage in any provocative acts," says one retired senior general with ill-concealed distrust. "It will be closely watched."

Such skepticism will not quickly dissipate. Only deeds will banish the doubts. That said, a strong case can be made that AK's poll victory may be one of the best things to happen to Turkey in years. For starters, the party isn't really "Islamist," however much that word might be bandied about. Both Erdogan and Gul forcefully, even indignantly, affirm their belief in the separation of church and state; when they speak of religion, it's solely as a matter of personal choice.

The secret of AK's success has been in persuading Turkey's political center to give the party the benefit of the doubt on this score--at least for now. Fully 40 percent of the party's support came from first-time voters; 70 percent of its backers hadn't voted for religious parties in the past. That clearly suggests that "AK has changed from an Islamist to a conservative center-right party," says analyst Can Peker--and in the process moved away from the Islamist roots of its leaders. By contrast, Turkey's truly religious hard core voted for the openly Islamist Saadet party. It drew just 2 percent of the vote, proving that old-style political Islam no longer has much of a following.

Significantly, the AK is determined to accelerate Turkey's entry into the EU. Though he holds no formal post as yet, one of Erdogan's first acts after the election was to announce that he would tour the capitals of Western Europe beating the drum for Turkey's candidacy. He wants a firm start date for accession talks--and already has received a promise of support from an age-old rival, Greece, which he will also visit this autumn. That reception is likely to be mixed. Last week Valery Giscard d'Estaing, the former French president who's shaping the future Constitution of Europe, told Le Monde that Muslim Turkey's joining the EU would be "the end of Europe," all the more so with an alleged Islamist like Erdogan at the helm. Admitting Turkey, he want on to say, a country with as large a population as Germany, would invite similar requests from other "non-European" countries, such as those of the Maghreb, implicitly upsetting the balance of power within the EU and destroying its cultural identity. Erdogan shrugged off the remarks as pure "emotion." "Turkey is a member of the Council of Europe, the OECD and NATO," he said. Why not also the EU?

As part of that drive, AK aims to quickly implement a raft of EU-inspired legislative reforms passed in August--including the right of Turkey's 12 million Kurds to broadcast and teach in their native language, the abolition of the death penalty and guarantees of free speech and other minority rights that in the past have all too often been honored in the breach. Though certain to arouse controversy in Turkey, this agenda would be considered moderate by Western standards. The most extreme cause in the party's program is the right of women, should they choose, to wear head scarves in government offices and schools. For now, even that is on the back burner. Such change must come through "consensus," Erdogan tells NEWSWEEK. "It mustn't be allowed to become a point of conflict."

That sense of moderation could also help the new government defuse some ticklish foreign-policy challenges, which previous governments have only aggravated. Take Cyprus. The new government is likely to mute the nationalist rhetoric of the outgoing regime of Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit, with its bellicose rants about "annexing" the northern half of the divided island. Instead, just last week Erdogan suggested that it be united under the "Belgian model"--two ethnicities, one international identity. AK's repudiation of nationalist politics may also help quiet the drumbeats over Iraqi Kurdistan and the desire in some quarters of the country to invade northern Iraq, ostensibly to protect the rights of ethnic Turkomans.

Ultimately, though, the AK will stand or fall on the economy. Last Sunday's ballot was not merely an election; it represented a revolution. Turks clearly want the old party cronies out. They're sick of corruption and economic mismanagement. Voters proved immune to the IMF-bashing of some rival parties; they largely blamed their own pols for stealing the country's money and plunging it into financial chaos. The practical expression of their anger was that Ecevit's party garnered only 1 percent (!)of the popular vote--a repudiation of almost unimaginable magnitude. AK's victory, by contrast, sent the stock market soaring by 25 percent. Interest rates fell on government debt and the lira rose. That suggests that Turkey's major economic problem--investor confidence--may already be solving itself.

With a more settled political landscape, banks should be less wary of lending, foreign money should come in and the state should be able to reduce its budget deficit by borrowing more cheaply. AK will stick to the IMF's strict spending and macroeconomic plan for Turkey, says Erdogan, even as he tries to renegotiate certain conditions that have worsened unemployment. Meanwhile, he's suggested breaking up old and inefficient state-owned monopolies in sugar and tobacco--all well received by Turkish free marketers.

There is no guarantee that AK itself won't succumb to its own brand of cronyism; on the other hand, its leaders pride themselves on their squeaky-clean image--to the point that the party's name translates to "white" or "pure." "AK is not anti-establishment. We are against oligarch ties between the state and businessmen, as under Marcos and Suharto," says Emin Sirin, a newly elected AK Party M.P. for Istanbul.

To be sure, problems lie ahead. For one, AK's massive majority could backfire. If Erdogan has the latitude to take giant steps for the good, he also has the opportunity to make disastrous mistakes unchecked by a more experienced coalition partner. His is a neophyte government, after all, and could easily blunder. There's a tightrope to be walked, too, with the Army, which remains deeply wary of AK in general and Erdogan in particular. If the new government crosses the line between the state and religion, the military could move quickly to remove it in the sort of "soft coup" which brought down the mildly Islamist (but deeply incompetent) government of Erdogan's mentor, Necmettin Erbakan, in 1997.

So far, the two sides have gotten off to a good, if wary, start. Turkey's chief of the general staff, Gen. Hilmi Ozkok, remarked during a visit to the United States last week that the results "reflect what our people want, and I respect this." For his part, Erdogan referred to the military as "the apple of our eye" and "all of our Army." He has also indicated that he'll listen to their advice on Turkish participation in a U.S. campaign in Iraq--albeit with the same wariness as the outgoing government. This entente, though stiff, is encouraging and may even blossom into trust if Erdogan sticks to governing the country well and abstains from grinding ideological axes. With a bit of luck, and a lot of time, Turkey could take a big step toward becoming that most elusive quantity--a model of a modern, democratic, stable and economically prosperous Islamic nation. For the rest of the Muslim world, what a revolution that would be.

Join the Discussion