Beginning of the End?

The scene was sadly familiar, especially in the strife-torn Middle East. In the shadow of a great mosque, a crowd of 40,000 gathered to bury a victim of political violence--and vent their rage at the authorities. But this was not Iraq or the Palestinian territories. It was downtown Ankara. Nor were the demonstrators angry Islamist fanatics. They were judges, bureaucrats and businessmen, staunch secularists shouting out their loyalty to the state--and denouncing a government they say is taking Turkey down a dangerously Islamic path. "Turkey is secular and will remain secular," they chanted. "Turkey will not become an Iran."

The occasion was the funeral of Judge Mustafa Yucel Ozbilgin, killed by a 28-year-old lawyer who opened fire recently inside Turkey's High Court. The gunman's motives are not yet clear, but the presumption of most in the crowd was that he was a militant Islamist getting revenge for a court ruling last November that upheld restrictions on the wearing of headscarves in and around public schools. "This is an attack on the secular republic," declared President Ahmet Necdet Sezer, who accused Turkey's ruling Justice and Development Party, or AKP, of seeking to "destroy the regime" by undermining the country's strict division between mosque and state.

Sezer's attack--and the demonstrations following Ozbilgin's murder--were a direct challenge to Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey's mildly Islamist prime minister. AKP ministers who attended the funeral were booed and jeered by the crowd. But more worryingly for Erdogan were the sentiments expressed by Turkey's ultrasecular chief of the staff, Hilmi Ozkok, who called the protests "truly hope-giving and admirable" and said their example "should be followed by everyone all the time." When the Turkish Army speaks, elected leaders tend to listen. Necmettin Erbakan, Turkey's last Islamist prime minister and Erdogan's political mentor, was removed in 1997 in a bloodless coup orchestrated by the military. His crime? The same as Erdogan's, at least as Sezer sees it--undermining the secular state.

Turkey's P.M. isn't about to be ousted in a military coup, of course. Erdogan is much more moderate than Erbakan ever was, and more popular. Nonetheless, he now faces the most serious crisis of his career. Ever since he came to power in a landslide victory in 2002, Erdogan has been trying to roll back Turkey's brand of draconian secularism. His party has appointed religiously minded bureaucrats to senior positions in the Education Ministry; last year it tried (unsuccessfully) to criminalize adultery. The AKP has steadily campaigned to lift the ban on headscarves in schools, universities and government offices, though so far Turkish courts (and even the European Court of Human Rights) have rejected their plea. Most controversially, last month Bulent Arinc, the AKP speaker of Parliament, suggested the time had come to "reconsider the concept of secularism as it is practiced in Turkey"--triggering a storm of protest. Erdogan's Islamism may be mild by Middle Eastern standards, but this month's demonstrations are a clear sign that he may have gone too far. "The so-far silent secularists have now raised their voice," says Professor Nilufer Narli of Istanbul's Bahcesehir University. "This is a massive movement of people from all walks of life."

Rattled by the show of secularist strength, Erdogan and his party appear to be backpedaling. They rushed to join the secularists in their loud condemnation of the court attack. Ozbilgin's killer is an "enemy of the regime, of secularism and the rule of law," said Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul. The government also tried to downplay the more overtly Islamist elements of its program. The headscarf issue is "a problem perhaps for only one and a half percent of the people," according to Deputy Prime Minister Mehmet Ali Sahin, who insists that the government's priority is unemployment and the economy.

But Erdogan's real problems run deeper than Turkey's Islamic-versus-secular culture war. After all, he came to power promising to clean up official corruption and put Turkey's failing economy back on firm footing. His success in doing so over the past three years generated immense popular support for other reforms--chiefly new laws liberalizing the country's antiquated justice system and granting new rights of free speech and religious tolerance to Turkish minorities, including his own Islamist backers. But lately those economic underpinnings have suddenly turned wobbly, partly due to his government's mismanagement. Fiscal reforms put in force early in Erdogan's term tamed runaway inflation. But just last week the International Monetary Fund warned that Turkey's soaring budget deficits may stall the latest installment of a $20 billion aid package negotiated in 2001. The Istanbul stock market, one of the star emerging market performers of 2005, has dropped 19 percent and the lira 15 percent this month alone amid worries about the government's ability to finance its growing domestic debt.

All this has eroded a critical element in his political base--Turkey's largely Istanbul-based business community, which has never been totally comfortable with AKP's brand of Anatolian populism. Last year Erdogan clashed with Tusiad, a powerful group of industrialists and businessmen, over the appointment of a new Central Bank governor. In a clumsy attempt to put an AKP loyalist at the helm of one of Turkey's few independent institutions, Erdogan tried to appoint the former head of a Saudi-owned Islamic bank to the post. Eventually the job went to Durmus Yilmaz, an old hand at the Central Bank. But the affair shook businessmen's confidence, and the economy's recent troubles have eroded that trust even more. "The government is paying more attention to installing its own people and following its own religious agenda," complains Mehmet Ali Ince, an importer of copying equipment in Istanbul whose business has been hit by the falling lira.

A consummate pol, known for trimming his sails to the political wind, Erdogan may now be looking for a way out. Some analysts speculate that next May he might use his party's two-thirds majority in Parliament to be appointed president, ousting Sezer, an arch-secularist who acts as a counterbalance to Erdogan. Critics of the ruling party fear that if Erdogan were indeed to take the job, the AKP would be emboldened to push through exactly the Islamic policies they're shying away from today--such as scrapping the headscarf ban and ending government control over religious appointments and even the content of sermons. Opposition deputies have even threatened to resign en masse to force early parliamentary elections to dilute Erdogan's majority and block his presidential bid. Meanwhile, tensions are likely to continue to build. This spring brought a new eruption of violence in Turkey's southeastern Kurdish-inhabited provinces, heightening mainstream society's concerns about the country's stability. Polls show that support for nationalist parties is rising fast, especially among the young--further eroding the AKP's supremacy.

Erdogan's greatest political project--membership in the European Union--may also soon turn into a serious political liability at home. Europe's obvious reluctance to admit Turkey, even on an extended time-table, has alienated many Turks. Yet Ankara has little choice but to push ahead, adopting in the coming months a series of tough Brussels-mandated reforms of agricultural subsidies, banking and labor regulations that is destined to generate even more economic hardship, and thus more resentment for the government. With the secularists emboldened, Erdogan will likely try to avoid further controversy by muting his religious agenda and focusing instead on the economy. And there, the markets, not God, will decide.

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