A Man for the Season

It is doubtful whether the Justice and Development Party is bent on changing the character of the Turkish state. The Islamic party won its popularity largely through social welfare work for women, children and the poor. Such things need not be religiously motivated. They are in themselves good and useful, and deservedly gain popularity for that reason.

By John Psaropoulos, Athens News
Reprinted by Permission

It is difficult to overestimate the importance of Turkey's general election. The victory of the Islamic party's fifth incarnation since it was founded in 1970 is its greatest yet. It is a slap in the face of the military establishment, which recently disqualified Turkey's first Islamic prime minister, and a challenge to Kemalist doctrine, which banned religion from government. Whether the party realises a promised revolution in political ethics remains to be seen, but at the very least it has brought a catharsis of the old guard: Tansu Ciller, Devlet Bahceli and Bulent Ecevit have all resigned as party leaders.

The Islamic leader, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has tried to provide continuity by taking positions on his country's four most pressing concerns:

1. The economy is on IMF life support. Erdogan has made the right sounds about sticking to the reform process, rallying the stock market. On the strength of that rally, the government now hopes to sell half a billion dollars' worth of bonds.

2. Turkey's EU prospects have receded into the distance after the Commission's latest report. Since Erdogan has expressed himself in favour of membership and his party enjoys autonomy in parliament, one hopes that he can speed along legal reform, and actually implement it faster than the divided government of Ecevit.

3. The US wants to use Turkish bases for a war on Iraq. It may attach an $800 million aid package to acquiescence. Erdogan has followed existing policy and declared that his country will wait for a UN mandate. US-Turkish relations were already being tested over Iraq, but as a devout Muslim Erdogan makes the relationship even more complicated, and the State Department has reacted politely to his ascendancy.

4. Perhaps the most complicated issue is Cyprus, which qualifies for EU entry in 2003. Turkey has threatened to annex northern Cyprus if the island joins the EU without a political settlement between the Greek and Turkish communities. Erdogan's statements were initially encouraging. He told Greek state television that Turkey favoured "a Belgian model", ie the federal polity Greece also favours, and he told the BBC Greek Service that it was a mistake to speak of northern and southern Cyprus entering the EU, but simply that Cyprus was entering the EU. It appeared as if Erdogan was moving away from the policy of communal apartheid which has been a pillar of Turkey's Cyprus policy for thirty years. But on November 6, Turkey's outgoing foreign minister forcefully reiterated the standard position for two separate states, extinguishing Greek euphoria.

Erdogan seems little interested in a thirty-year-old territorial dispute. In an interview on Turkish television he is reported to have said, "I hope the Cyprus issue is relieved of its strategic and ideological husk." With the ailing health of Bulent Ecevit, who ordered the Cyprus invasion in 1974, and of Turkish-Cypriot leader Rauf Denktash, who rallied Turkish-Cypriots in the 1950s, Turkey loses its staunchest Cyprus negotiators, in much the same way Greece did with the death of Yiannos Kranidiotis in 1999. This is likely to cause insecurity among generals and the foreign ministry, and friction with a new and open-minded leadership.

Erdogan is an outsider in more ways than one. He is in the extraordinary position of leading his party to victory but being unable to lead it in government, because of a court order barring him from holding public office. His party also faces a court case to outlaw it.

Both legal actions stem from fears that Erdogan and his party have a hidden agenda to abolish the secular state. Bulent Ecevit and finance minister Kemal Dervis hinted at this before the elections. The Justice and Development Party did not quite win the 366 parliament seats required to change the constitution. It is perhaps as much of a relief to Erdogan as to the generals that he is not perceived as a threat in that sense.

It is doubtful, though, whether the Justice and Development Party is bent on changing the character of the Turkish state. The Islamic party won its popularity largely through social welfare work for women, children and the poor. Such things need not be religiously motivated. They are in themselves good and useful and deservedly gain popularity for that reason.

Islam has been struggling to find its official enshrinement in Turkish society since it was disestablished by Kemal Ataturk in the 1920s and 1930s. The trouble was that Islam had pervaded every aspect of life: Turkish law was religious, Turkish writing was the Arabic script of the Quran, and the Calipha te, the religious leadership of Islam, had proven unsustainable without the Sultanate, the political leadership of the Ottoman Empire. Ataturk was forced to re-invent society. He introduced Western dress, law, education and government. But Turkish culture has clung to its religious identity. The question is whether it has done so in a way that separates church from state. It would appear so. A majority of Turks votes and prays. Turkey, for all its problems, does not seem to be struggling with fundamentalism the way Egypt and Algeria are.

When the founder of Turkey's modern Islamic political tradition, Necmettin Erbakan, became prime minister in 1996, Turkey's generals forced him out. They installed Bulent Ecevit who led a coalition of nationalists, socialists and centrists. It collapsed the moment Ecevit fell ill, releasing the pent up tendency towards the Islamic party.

Islam has again been sold as a political choice in a secular system. The country has another chance to treat it as such. If the generals again decide to step in, they will simply be bottling up the genie.

(Posted 23 January 2003. Reproduced with permission.)

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