Turkey: Election Pits Islamists, Secularists

To hear Turkey’s opposition tell it, this weekend’s parliamentary election represents nothing less than a battle for the soul of the country. On one side stands Ankara’s ruling Justice and Development Party, or AK Party (AKP), a party that has its roots in political Islam and which opponents accuse of harboring a secret fundamentalist agenda to undermine Turkey’s strict separation between religion and public life. On the other are a fractious group of left- and right-wing parties united by only two things: a conviction that the AKP is not doing enough to defend Turkey’s national interests against Kurdish terrorists and European Union bureaucrats, and a passionate opposition to any manifestation of political Islam.

Turkey’s nationalists are nothing if not vocal. As soon as parliamentary elections were called in May, middle-class secularist voters in their hundreds of thousands took to the streets in a series of mass rallies in Ankara, Istanbul and Izmir to protest against Sharia (Islamic law). Carrying portraits of their country’s secularist founder, Kemal Ataturk, and draped in a sea of red Turkish flags, the protesters denounced the AKP for its alleged Islamism. WE DO NOT WANT TO LIVE IN IRAN! proclaimed one banner carried by a woman in jeans and a T shirt in Istanbul. WE DO NOT WANT TO WEAR THE VEIL! read another.

But the reality is rather different. In five years in power with the largest parliamentary majority in a generation, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has not, in fact, passed any laws that could be described as Islamist. Crucially, he has deliberately steered away from tackling one of the most draconian laws of the Turkish secular state, a ban on wearing Islamic headscarves in any state institutions—including schools, universities and government offices. At the same time, he’s actually liberalized restrictive laws on the property of Turkey’s religious minorities—Greeks, Armenians and Jews. And more importantly, he has introduced sweeping reforms that scrapped legal restrictions on freedom of speech and granted Kurds more cultural rights—reforms that last year allowed Turkey to open formal negotiations to join the European Union (EU). "It’s hard to see how incorporating European Law into your legal code is a way to introduce Sharia law," observes one European diplomat in Istanbul not authorized to speak on the record.

So why are Turkey’s secularists and nationalists so vociferous in their denunciations of the AKP? One simple reason is that the party is likely to win this Sunday’s elections. Polls vary widely, but most predict a convincing victory for the AKP. Erdogan himself is so confident of a win that he pledged this week to step down from politics if his party got fewer votes than in their last landslide victory in 2001.

A deeper reason is that the rift is not really between Turkish secularists and Islamists but over two very different visions of Turkey. Paradoxical as it may seem, many "secularists" actually want a more nationalistic, isolationist Turkey with a politically powerful military, while many "Islamists" favor integrating Turkey into Europe and scrapping the last remnants of authoritarian laws restricting freedom of religious observance. "Many of those who say they promote 'secularism' are also calling for Turkey's 'full independence' from the U.S. and the European Union," says Egemen Bagis, an AK Party M.P. from Istanbul and Erdogan’s senior adviser on foreign affairs. "That model calls for Turkey's isolation, locked behind walls. [The] AK Party means democracy and keeping Turkey on the EU track."

The rift between AKP and its opponents is also more than political—it also reflects a profound change in Turkish society. The real secret behind the AKP’s likely success in the upcoming elections, which would herald a term in power unprecedented in a generation of Turkish politics, is not its political skills but the rise of a new social stratum of a conservative, Anatolian middle class to economic and political power. It is a social revolution begun in the 1980s by former president Turgut Ozal, who freed the Turkish economy from the bonds of state control and laid the foundations for an economic boom that has seen the Turkish economy grow by an average of 5 percent over the last five years. The new economic—and increasingly, political—elite of Turkey is not the Westernized, Istanbul-based business class nor the ultrasecular bureaucratic class of Ankara but small businessmen with their origins in rural Turkey. They tend to be socially conservative, religiously observant—and vote for the AKP.

Unsurprisingly, Turkey’s old elites feel deeply threatened by the rise of AKP and its supporters—none more so than the Turkish military, which removed four governments in as many decades between 1960 and 1997. The Army sees itself as the guardian of Ataturk’s secular legacy and views the AKP’s embrace of the EU—with its insistence of a strict separation between the military and politics—as an existential threat.

In April, soon after the AKP put Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul forward as its choice of president, the Army reacted with a sharply worded statement on its Web site vowing to defend against any "threats to the republic." Though Gul is considered one of the AKP’s moderates, his wife, Hayrunisa, wears an Islamic headscarf and is pointedly not invited to official functions, where such headgear is banned. The idea of a headscarfed woman occupying the presidential palace is anathema to many ultrasecularists. Shortly afterward, Turkey’s constitutional court, following the Army’s lead, annulled the parliamentary vote backing Gul on the grounds that the vote lacked a quorum. That decision precipitated Sunday’s early election. Both the military and the judiciary fear Gul as head of state because the presidency can veto all laws and controls all judicial and top military appointments, and so he would have the power to change the most staunchly nationalist and secularist institutions in the country.

How will the military react to a possible AKP victory in coming elections? Turkey has changed too much to allow an old-fashioned military coup. The giant secularist marches in May denounced the idea of a military takeover almost as vociferously as they blasted the AKP. And the truth is that the AKP is also genuinely popular. The military has always cast itself as the instrument of the people’s true will—and for it to depose a popularly elected government would not only destroy Turkey’s ongoing economic boom but also potentially fatally damage the credibility of the Army itself—not to mention ending Turkey’s hopes of joining the EU. At best, they can fight a rearguard action. In response to the constitutional court ruling against Gul, the AKP passed a new law allowing the president to be elected directly by the people rather than by Parliament. But that law will only come into effect after the term of the next president—and it’s likely that the AKP, even if it gets an absolute majority in Parliament in coming elections, will try to avoid further confrontation with the military and choose a less controversial candidate than Gul.

In many ways, the election is a battle for the soul of Turkey—but not a battle over whether Turkey should be more or less religious but over whether it should be more or less European and free. The AKP, despite its Islamist roots, pledges to press ahead with its dream of readying Turkey for Europe, despite the cold shoulder from France and other European countries. Turkey’s old-fashioned nationalists, on the other hand, appear committed to returning Turkey to a form of enforced state secularism—and the illiberalism and military rule that went with it. Sunday’s vote will show which direction the people want.