The Turkish Election

22 July 2007

The Turkish Election

By Gwynne Dyer

The best thing about the outcome of the Turkish election on Sunday is that now the army can’t make a coup. It may still want to: it was certainly making menacing noises about it recently. But after almost half the voters (47 percent) backed the incumbent AK (Justice and Development) party in Sunday’s election, the army simply cannot move against it. A great many officers would just refuse to act against the popular will in such a blatant way, and the army would never risk a split in the officer corps.

The even better thing about this election is that Turks have decisively rejected the false dichotomy between “political Islam” and “democracy” that paralyses politics in so many Muslim countries. That matters, because Turkey is a rapidly developing middle-income country of 75 million people that still has hopes of joining the European Union. (The current obstructionism of leaders in France, Germany, Austria and a few others countries is irrelevant, since they will probably all be gone by the time a decision is taken in ten or twelve years’ time.) But the election outcome is also important for other Muslim-majority countries.

Most foreign reporting of the Turkish election followed the script provided by the main opposition parties, the Republican People’s Party (CHP) and the Nationalist Action Party (MHP), in which they were defending enlightened, secular democracy in Turkey and the AK Party was just a front for ignorant hordes of rural Muslim fanatics who wanted to shove shariat law down the nation’s throat. It was a “test of Turkish secularism,” they claimed –and if it was, then secularism lost. But that isn’t what really happened at all.

The real struggle in Turkey was between the “republican elite” and practically everybody else. The “republican elite” are a privileged and well-educated class of people who have virtually monopolised senior jobs in the military, the judiciary and the state bureaucracy for several generations on the pretext that they must have control in order to defend Ataturk’s secular reforms (in the 1920s!). But these days, that is only a pretext for preserving their power: secular democracy in Turkey is not in danger.

There are certainly fanatics in Turkey who would like to force all their fellow-citizens to conform to their particular brand of religion on pain of death. Every country has some of those, but they are as rare in Turkey as they are in Spain — and while the ones in Turkey probably do vote for the AKP, since it is the only party that openly espouses “Islamic values,” they are a tiny proportion of its supporters.

Indeed, it’s likely that quite a few of the people who voted for the AK Party this time are not even believers. Although officially 99 percent Muslim, Turkey has lots of unofficial non-believers, especially in the big cities, and many of them would have been attracted by the party’s impressive economic record (five unbroken years of high-speed growth), by its unwavering commitment to membership in the European Union, and above all by its determined attempts to LIBERALISE Turkey’s legal system.

The AK Party has consistently used the need to make Turkish law conform to EU norms as a justification for changing the law in ways that expand individual rights. Of course, that also undermines the ability of the “republican elite” to control the state from behind the scenes, so they are fighting back by accusing the AK Party of being a Trojan horse for religious fanatics who want to stop Turks from drinking alcohol and force women into “Islamic” clothing. The AK Party denies it, it has spent the last five years in power moving consistently in the opposite direction, and most Turkish voters believe it.

The larger significance of the AK Party’s success in Turkey is that it demonstrates that devout Muslims can co-exist with their less devout fellow-citizens in a democratic constitutional order. All the devout need in order to prosper is recognition of their equal rights, not a monopoly of power and control over the personal behaviour of the less devout and the non-believers.

In Muslim-majority countries where the secular holders of power and the Islamist revolutionaries see one another as mortal enemies — which is to say, in about half of the countries of the Muslim world — peaceful democratic change, compromise and co-existence of the sort that we can see in Turkey are regarded as impossible. It is war to the death between the establishment and the fanatics, and there is very little space between them for people who would quite like more democracy and civil rights but don’t fancy living under shariat law as interpreted by extremists.

Opening that space up is the most important political task these countries face. The interesting thing about Turkey is that it has been the Islamic activists, not the secularists, who did the hard work that made it happen. But let’s be honest: even the AK Party would have found it hard to open the Turkish system up if it had not had the prospect of membership in the European Union as an inducement for everybody to be reasonable and cooperative — and it’s unlikely that the EU will be offering Egypt or Pakistan membership any time soon.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 5 and 6. (“There are…system”)