The Middle East Channel

Why Turkey is not turning Islamist

As the Turkish parliamentary elections scheduled to take place in early June draw closer, the debate on Turkey in Western capitals is heating up. The governing Justice and Development Party (AKP) has been ruling the country by an average 40 percent of the popular vote since 2002, recently won a decisive victory in a constitutional referendum, and is widely expected to win a third term. But skeptics warn that it is really a façade behind which Islamists are trying to impose a religious agenda on Turkey. They fear that if the AKP wins the June 2011 elections with an overwhelming majority, it will have both the will and the means to take what critics call its "already authoritarian tendency" a step further to implement an Islamist agenda. They treat the AKP base as a monolithic entity determined to "de-Kemalize Turkey" by establishing an Islamic state. Increasing religiosity in Turkey and the rise of a new Islamist elite whose alleged interest is in breaking Turkey's ties with the West are provided as evidence. Turkey's deteriorating relations with Israel and flourishing ties with Syria and Iran have given the skeptics resonance in Washington and heated the debate about AKP's Western democratic credentials.

This misreads both the AKP and the domestic dynamics within Turkey, however. The AKP's voter base is both socially and politically heterogeneous with diverse and sometimes conflicting interests, which forces the AKP to move towards the center of the political spectrum in order to maintain power. The diverse structure of the AKP's support base has a moderating effect on the governing party's policies, mitigating against the likelihood of Turkey transforming into an Islamic state. An AKP victory is, therefore, unlikely to mean a descent into Islamist rule. The more serious concern should be whether it will remain committed to democratic reforms and consolidate the transition which it has begun.

Although the AKP has roots in Turkey's Islamist movement, the party has distanced itself from the legacy of political Islam and pursued a deliberate strategy of filling the void on the center-right. It's clear from a look at the voter base of the AKP that it is has attracted a far broader constituency than did its predecessor, the Felicity Party, in 1999 elections. According to a 2002 pre-election survey, the AKP attracted only 27.4 percent of Felicity Party supporters. Nearly 22 percent of its supporters had previously voted for the nationalist party, MHP (the Nationalist Movement Party) and 17 percent had voted for center-right parties. Much to everyone's surprise the AKP even garnered 7 percent of center-left votes.

From the start, then the AKP has been a coalition of diverse political forces bringing together former center-right voters, moderate Islamists, moderate nationalists and even some segments of the former center-left. Ideologically, the AKP is closer to the center-right, which combines liberal and conservative values, than to the far right. It shares with past center-right parties the values of Turkish nationalism, sensitivity to Islamic and conservative social values and a commitment to providing social services. In this sense, the AKP embraces conservatism as a set of social and cultural values rather than as a political ideology. The AKP's conservatism resembles the new conservatism of the U.S. and Britain which combines liberal and conservative values. The party brings the religious issues to the political arena but it does so not as a matter of religion but as a matter of basic rights as seen in the case of its defense of the abolition of the ban on the wearing of headscarves in universities.

The AKP is also a coalition in the sociological sense, representing a cross-section of classes, including a large part of the rural population, urban slum-dwellers, artisans and small traders in the cities, as well as the working class and the rapidly rising Islamic bourgeoisie. This new emerging bourgeoisie rooted in Anatolia is the driving force of the coalition and contrary to skeptics' arguments it plays a crucial role in the AKP's moderate policies. As the beneficiaries of globalization, this export-oriented group greatly profits from capitalism, democracy and trade with the EU and has a lot to lose from open confrontation with the secular establishment and the state elites. A good example is the strong support MUSIAD, the leading Islamist-leaning business organization, has shown for the reform, democratization and pro-EU policies of the AKP.

Given that the party has broad support in every region and among many different social segments, it has to reflect diverse interests and govern from the middle. The AKP's candidate selection in the 2007 elections points to the party's deliberate effort to do exactly this. For example, many deputies from the more conservative National Outlook tradition were not nominated, while 100 deputies out of a total of 341 represented a liberal worldview. The AKP leadership now includes figures with distinguished center-right or social-democratic pasts such as the Minister of Culture and Tourism Ertugrul Gunay.

The party's performance in government suggests that pressures from the opposition and from within its own diverse constituency have led the AKP to pursue centrist policies at the expense of alienating more conservative segments of its base. A case in point is the party's attempt to criminalize adultery in 2004. In the face of opposition from its liberal supporters, as well as opposition parties, the AKP tabled the legislation. Their introduction of the legislation reflected the AKP's sympathy for the religiously inspired demands of its conservative base, but their retreat from the issue pointed to the party's pragmatism in the face of opposition.

Those who argue that Turkey will become an Islamic state under the rule of the AKP point to increasing religiosity in Turkey. Religion is on the rise globally and Turkey is not an exception. Studies conducted by prominent scholars suggest that the percentage of Turks who consider themselves "very religious" rose considerably but support for a sharia-based government has declined sharply in the last decade

The question analysts should be asking is not whether Turkey will become an Islamic state under AKP rule but how committed under a third term, the AKP will be to consolidating democratic reforms achieved during its previous tenure in office. Since it came to power in 2002, the AKP has taken bold steps to address the country's chronic challenges, such as Kurdish demands for greater rights and the military's outsize influence in Turkish politics, including its authority over the country's Constitution. However, there are still important problems which need to be resolved if Turkey is to become a strong, stable and functioning democracy, which respects values like human rights and freedom of expression.

One such issue is the ongoing trial of Ergenekon -- an ultra-nationalist clandestine organization with ties to members of the country's military and security forces charged with plotting to overthrow the government. The trial is an important step toward democratization, insofar as it challenges the military's legal ability to intervene in political affairs. However, one cannot turn a blind eye to the human rights violations triggered by the trial. Some implicated in the case, including military officers, journalists, political activists, academics and leaders of NGOs have been held without charge for several months before the release of indictments. The government has brought lawsuits against journalists who have reported on the Ergenekon case. The frequent ban of websites, including YouTube, and the increasing pressure on newspapers critical of the government, continue to violate freedom of expression and restrict citizens' access to information.

After eight years in power, the AKP is faced with a choice between continuing its commitment to liberal economic reforms and democratization or yielding to authoritarian and conservative demands. If the 2011 elections hand the AKP another term in government with at least 38 to 40 percent of the popular vote, which many believe will be the case, the AKP will have the backing to continue the reform process it has embarked on since 2002. After eight years in government and two electoral victories with substantial majorities, it is clear that the AKP does not have a covert plan to establish an Islamic state. The real question, then, is how seriously the party will suffer from incumbent fatigue at a time when all the conditions are ripe for a major democratic transformation after two terms of uninterrupted single-party rule.

Gonul Tol is the Director for the Center for Turkish Studies at the Middle East Institute.

AFP/Getty Images

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