It is hard to understate the high drama of the Turkish elections that took place on July 22nd. One leading candidate, Devlet Bahçeli, of the neo-fascist Nationalist Action Party (MHP) took to tossing a hangman’s noose to his audience to demonstrate his tough “anti-terror” stance. Another candidate was murdered shortly before the election, though unpaid debts and ties to organized crime are more likely than politics as the cause of his assassination.
But the most important aspect to these elections was that they represented an important face-off between the elected government of Turkey and that country’s powerful military and bureaucratic elite. For many in the bureaucracy and, particularly, with the military, the government is nothing more than an Islamist wolf in democratic sheep’s clothing. In the Spring, a combination of massive (and well financed) protests, half-veiled threats from the powerful Turkish military, and legislative high jinks effectively stymied the ability of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) to choose its candidate for the Presidency. At a legislative impasse, the Prime Minister, Tayyip Erdoğan, called for elections, promising to win an even more decisive victory than he had in the 2002 elections. He was as good as his word and the AKP, won better than 45% of the popular vote, an improvement of more than 12% over the 2002 results and more than enough to ensure that the AKP can again form a government without reliance on coalition partners.
There are a number of reasons to be pleased with the results of the election. The poor showing of the MHP suggests that even in the militantly nationalist atmosphere of contemporary Turkey, the attractions of fascism are limited. On the other hand, a significant number of Kurdish candidates, who risked disenfranchisement through the arcane rules of Turkey’s electoral system (written under the watchful eye of the Turkish military), effectively overcame this hurdle by running as independent candidates. Twenty-seven independent candidates will participate in the new parliament, most of them representing Kurdish interests. Perhaps the most important outcome of these elections, however, has been the failure of the old military and bureaucratic elites to either cow or overturn the popularly elected government.
That being said, do the 2007 elections really, as so many commentators have suggested, represent the “triumph of Political Islam” in Turkey? In a word, no.
Clearly, many in the old Turkish elite and among the millions who protested the AKP this past Spring, believe that the AKP constitutes a danger to the secular nature of the Turkish state. There are reasons to be concerned. Early in the AKP administration, an attempt to criminalize marital infidelity raised eyebrows and threatened a national pastime before it was quietly aborted. More troubling, municipal governments associated with the AKP, have often attempted to use state resources to promote what they see as proper Islamic practice. Finally, the AKP, while far less corrupt than previous Turkish governments, has not shied from indulging in what the Turks call, “kadrolaşma” stuffing government institutions with their supporters both as a means of rewarding loyalty and ensuring that their power continues even if their electoral fortunes one day falter.
Nevertheless, these concerns are overstated. First, the secret to the AKP’s success is that it has reframed debates regarding the role of Islam in Turkey. While there is certainly a determined (and tiny) minority in Turkey which hopes to overthrow the secular basis of the Turkish Republic, this has never been on the AKP’s agenda and indeed would be tremendously unpopular. Instead, they have argued that being religiously observant should not constitute a barrier to access of the public sphere. The AKP has coupled this call for tolerance for religious observance with economic liberalism and a determination to locate Turkey decisively in “the West.” This “center-right” formula has been consistently successful in Turkish politics since the first democratic elections in 1950. It has proven equally successful for the AKP.
Certainly, many devout Sunni Muslims voted for the AKP this past Sunday. But most were voting for the opportunity to practice their religion without interference from the state, not imposition of Islamic law. In addition, much of the AKP’s electoral success is based on its economic policies and the steady growth and relative stability that they have brought. In Turkey, as elsewhere, money matters.
The AKP’s relative liberalism seems to have also gained it the support of many who have been distrustful of state power but have no interest in an Islamist state. As in the past, the AKP did well in Kurdish regions. If newspaper reports are to be believed, it also did well with many of Turkey’s diminishing non-Muslims, who were presumably won over by the AKP’s pro-Europe stance and were fearful of the rabid nationalism espoused by both the MHP and the formerly left-of-center, Republican People’s Party (CHP). Of greater electoral significance, the AKP also did surprisingly well in regions with large Alevi population, a group that has historically voted for left-of-center parties and has been particularly protective of Turkey’s secular traditions. Only serious survey data will indicate how successful the AKP was with the Alevi; at minimum, however, they were able to cut into a significant portion of the Alevi vote. This is particularly significant because the Alevi are a large voting bloc which has historically sided with the secular left as the best defense against Sunni dominance. Even if Turkey’s elites remain unconvinced of the AKP’s long-term ambitions, the party has been able to convince an even more important group: Turkey’s voters.
The AKP won its popularity through careful stewardship of the economy and by progressive liberalization of the political sphere. Its victory is a victory for Turkish democracy, not a call for Sharia.
Howard Eissenstat is an Assistant Professor of Middle Eastern History at Seton Hall University in South Orange, NJ.