Eyes On Turkey

Recep Tayyip Erdogan, head of Turkey's most popular political party and a devout Muslim, has something to hide--and it's in his refrigerator. At his home in a middle-class suburb of Istanbul earlier this year, he stopped a Turkish TV crew from peeping inside the fridge in his kitchen. "Private," he declared. Just what did Erdogan not want the nation to see? A few cans of beer, according to an associate, kept on hand for thirsty guests.

Why the fuss? Turkey is a firmly secular country. Though most Turks are Muslims, they're still enthusiastic consumers of beer, wine and raki. Only the ultraconservative Islamic fringe has a problem with alcohol--the kind of people that Turkey's secularist and politically powerful military wants to keep out of power. So when a politician whose party is topping the polls and looks like he might even rise to head a new government is embarrassed about having an un-Islamic can of beer in his house, Turkey's secularists get a little nervous.

Should Turkey's Western allies be worried, too? Turkey is heading for early elections in November, and the prospects for its mainstream political parties aren't good. The country's 77-year-old prime minister, Bulent Ecevit, is old and ailing, unable to lead a fractious coalition that threatens to dissolve at any moment. The economy, already a shambles, grows worse by the week. Popular disaffection runs so deep that the approval ratings of even Turkey's largest traditional parties have sunk to 10 percent or less.

Contrast that with Erdogan's newly formed pro-Islamic, conservative party known as Justice and Development. AK, as it's known for short, enjoys a 24 percent rating--making it by far the leader of the political pack. As a popular former mayor of Istanbul, Erdogan is the new face in Turkish politics, untainted by the current government and economic crisis that no one else seems able to cure. And unless the military steps in to stop the AK's meteoric rise, it looks like Turkish voters are ready to give Erdogan and his Islamic alternative a try.

At a time of jihad and the war on terror, when Islam is widely taken to be the enemy of modernity, that prospect might be expected to set alarm bells jangling, especially in Europe and the West. After all, Turkey is a key NATO ally, the likely launching pad for any assault on Saddam Hussein. And as early as December of this year, it might just finally be set to receive its long-sought invitation to join, at some point, the European Union. Could an "Islamic" Turkey set back these prospects?

If past were prologue, there might be cause for worry. Erdogan and many of the AK leadership were once Islamic activists in Turkey's infamous Welfare Party, which briefly took power in 1996. It was Turkey's only experience of an Islamic government--and it wasn't happy. Islamist Necmettin Erbakan, then prime minister, suggested that Turkey head a union of Islamic nations. He visited Libya and built closer ties with Iran. Before long the Turkish military lost patience and deposed him in a constitutional coup in February 1997, banning the Welfare Party to this day. Erdogan himself spent four months in jail in 1999 for "inciting religious extremism," when he read out a poem to a crowd in southeastern Turkey, allegedly inflammatory for linking military and religious themes. It was, ironically, an excerpt from standard grade-school textbooks: "The domes of the mosques are helmets / And the minarets are our bayonets." He is also currently under investigation again after videos were released last year recording remarks he made in 1992, in which he appears to praise Islamic Sharia and criticize the Army's role in politics.

Erdogan himself has a ready reply to such charges: that was then, and this is now. Like former communists in Eastern Europe, Erdogan claims that times have changed and so has he. His new AK Party isn't "Islamist," he told NEWSWEEK. It's pro-religious freedom. Turks of every religion must be able to exercise their faith, as well as other basic individual liberties, he explains. "We are for democracy, secularism, justice and social welfare. We want to strengthen the constitutional system, not to destroy it," he says, likening his party's identity to that of a European-style "democratic conservative." And that's another important change. Once vehemently anti-Europe, Erdogan is now strenuously pro-Europe--so much so that the AK Party's 53 members of the legislature recently lobbied to reconvene Parliament in order to pass EU-inspired reforms that would permit the nation's Kurds to broadcast and teach in their own language and would ban the death penalty in Turkey.

It's a remarkable evolution. Elsewhere in the world, Islamists often seek to squash individual rights. In Turkey, at least when it comes to the AK, they champion them--for an obvious reason. Turkey's Islamic faithful have the most to gain from the kind of liberalizing laws suggested by the EU. Ever since Mustafa Kemal Ataturk founded the Turkish Republic in 1923, public expressions of Islam have been strictly controlled in a way unthinkable in modern Europe. Conservative women students, for instance, are not allowed to wear head scarves to school or university; if they do they are thrown out. State employees are forbidden from wearing "Islamic" beards and "un-contemporary clothing," such as traditional Islamic shalwar pants or skullcaps. Friday sermons in mosques have to be approved by the state's Ministry of Religious Affairs, and clerics (including priests and rabbis) are banned from wearing their ceremonial robes in public. "It is ridiculous. Turkey is 98 percent Muslim, yet we are less free to practice our traditions than Muslims in Paris or London or Berlin," says Murat Yalcintas, the U.S.-educated deputy head of the AK Party's powerful Istanbul branch. "This isn't to do with religion," he emphasizes. "It's a human-rights issue."

The AK Party has also shed the dour image of the former Islamist parties. The party's spiffy, glass-and-steel headquarters in downtown Ankara could pass easily as headquarters for an investment bank. Energetic young people dash smartly hither and thither. Female staffers wear pantsuits, and no head scarves. It's the young, college-educated generation, not some hidebound cadre of elders, that runs the campaign. AK has even accepted a sexy young Turkish woman pop star, Sevda Demirel, as a member.

Traditional Islamist voters, not surprisingly, disapprove. Among them is 48-year-old Bahri, a perfume-shop owner in Fatih, an ultraconservative area of Istanbul. Like many, he will vote for a more radical religious party, Recai Kutan's Saadet, or Happiness Party. "AK has compromised," he says, bearded and wearing a skullcap. "They are no longer righteous." Such sentiments, widely shared among an older generation of religious conservatives, probably means that Erdogan is moving in the right direction. Religion alone, he recognizes, is neither a winning nor popular platform in today's Turkey. Witness the foundering Saadet, which polls around 4 percent of the electorate. "The world has changed," says Erdogan of his new post-Islamic image. "It is natural for us to change according to new realities."

It's a good shtick. The question is whether it's entirely genuine. Many in Turkey's military and bureaucratic circles, particularly, don't buy Erdogan's conversion. They fear that AK is a Trojan horse. Once in power, will it unleash a hidden Islamist agenda and institute reforms undermining Turkey's secular order? "Do you want Friday to be an official holiday? Do you want a mosque in Taxim Square [in the heart of Istanbul's secular nightlife district]?" asks the rector of a leading Turkish university, who requested not to be named. "This year it seems impossible; they will deny they want it. But next year it will be possible... All in the name of democracy, saying it's what the people want."

Erdogan himself shrugs off such concerns. Voters aren't backing him because of his religious credentials, he repeats. They like his track record of political accomplishment and skills as a big-city manager, in stark contrast to the country's current leaders. He was one of the most successful mayors in the history of Istanbul, before being jailed, and he clearly knows how to woo the grass roots. Local offices of the AK Party in Istanbul run neighborhoodwide employment agencies. They organize complaints to the local council, run programs for the disabled and sports tournaments for the young. They even distribute free AK Party footballs on weekends to picnickers--the kind of simple but effective electioneering that no other party has managed to pull off. "We saw Erdogan in action as mayor, and he did a good job," says Kerim Zengin, a former Democratic Left Party councilor in the Istanbul district of Gaziosmanpasha who recently switched to the AK Party. "We don't trust politicians anymore; we look only at results, not words."

The acronym "AK" means "white" or "pure" in Turkish, and much of Erdogan's support rests on the untainted image of his party. So far, it's been spared the almost universal sense of disgust and distrust among voters for Turkey's political class, which suffers a dearth of new faces. Erdogan's campaign formula--coupling pro-European policy with a traditionalist, religious twist and an emphasis on honest government--seems to have caught the mood of the moment. But even as he has emerged as a player in Turkey's high-stakes political game--and perhaps the player--there are wild cards in the deck that could produce some unpredictable turns of fortune.

One is Iraq, and whether an AK Party government would support a U.S. strike. Erdogan has been deeply skeptical--but so have most of Turkey's mainstream parties, as well as the military. Some Turks fear that the AK Party may follow the example of the old Welfare government and try to forge stronger alliances with Arab neighbors at the expense of its ties with America and Europe. So far, there's been no sign of that. AK members of Parliament have consistently voted to extend the U.S. use of the Incirlik air base to enforce the no-flight zone in northern Iraq, which must be renewed every six months. "If we see proper justification [for a U.S. strike], if it's approved by the U.N., then OK," says the AK Party's deputy chairman, Abdullah Gul, following the line taken by Ecevit in meetings with U.S. Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz last week. "Otherwise we can't justify this to our own people, or to our neighbors in the region."

Another wild card is Erdogan's relations with the Turkish military. However carefully the AK Party leadership treads, a clash between the party and the generals, the country's de facto behind-the-scenes rulers, is almost inevitable. Erdogan has long argued that the military should have no role in government, and though he has lately toned down that rhetoric, AK Party activists haven't. "We believe that all state institutions should do their own jobs," says Yalcintas when asked about the Army--a near-blasphemy in secular Turkey.

Predictably, the Army and other strongly antireligious state institutions have been doing their best to shut Erdogan down. Recently a court ruled that his 1999 conviction bars him from being elected to Parliament, and therefore from becoming prime minister. Erdogan's lawyers are appealing. But he's also facing treason charges for criticizing the Army in 1992, and another criminal investigation has been opened for alleged corruption when Erdogan was mayor of Istanbul--an accusation that many find ironic since, at the time, Erdogan was famously (and unusually) uncorrupt, to the point of refusing even to live in the official mayor's residence.

What the Army will do if Erdogan and his party win the election is unclear. His next court date isn't until just before the probable Nov. 3 ballot, so he will be free during the campaign. Jailing him at his moment of victory would probably be hard to justify, even within the military. Apart from the outcry in Turkey, the EU's Copenhagen summit is set for December. There, Europe will consider whether to set a date for formal accession talks for Turkey--and decide whether to accept Cyprus as a member, excluding the Turkish portion of the divided island. Denying a popularly elected leader his post on flimsy charges would not do Turkey's democratic image much good and at such a critical juncture--and it could cripple its EU bid, which the Army strongly supports.

Erdogan's opponents (and, again, especially the military) must also take account of his likely postelection partners. The best-case scenario would be that an AK government would be in coalition with respected centrists defecting from the current regime, among them former foreign minister Ismail Cem, who recently formed a new center-left party called New Turkey, and possibly Economy Minister Kemal Dervis and other center-right parties. That would be good news in the West, and especially for the International Monetary Fund, whose $16 billion bailout depends on Turkey's adhering to strict economic criteria.

The bottom line, ultimately, seems to be heartening. Unless Erdogan is an Oscar-winning prevaricator, there's nothing inherently scary about his party's coming to power. On the contrary, any stable government, even with a moderately Islamic hue, could well enjoy the widespread support required to undertake the tough steps necessary to bring Turkey out of recession. The country could also end up moving toward Europe more rapidly than under the current coalition. Indeed, the AK Party's agenda for human rights has much in common with Europe's, which so far has been the major hurdle betweeen Turkey and the Union.

Such speculation is a bit premature, of course. But this much can confidently be said. If Erdogan and the AK win in November, and if the Turkish political establishment allows the party to take power, Turkey will have shown itself to be a true democracy--one in which even anti-establishment parties can get themselves elected. For a country that's long been doubted on this score, that would a huge stride indeed.