Elections in Turkey

Beyond Kemalism

Election results in Turkey have put to rest the lie that the AKP is merely an obscure Islamic secret society. Yet, the results also present a great danger. The newly found strength of the AKP will be difficult to control, says Ömer Erzeren

Erdogan and his wife on the day of his election victory (photo: AP)
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his wife Emine Erdogan greet their supporters outside of the party headquarters in Ankara, Turkey, late Sunday, 22 July 2007

​​Political calm has returned to Turkey following the massive election victory of the conservative Justice and Development Party (AKP). Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan's party won almost 47% of the votes and now holds a wide majority in parliament. Every second voter chose the AKP. During the last elections held in 2002, by contrast, only 34% of Turks voted for the party.

The election results are a slap in the face for the military and opposition parties, who thought they could score with nationalist slogans and militaristic poses.

The military had rattled its sword against the government. Both the military and the opposition parties joined forces in preventing parliament from electing Foreign Minister Abdullah Gül, the AKP's preferred candidate, to the post of president. The strategy of the general staff was to force the AKP into submission with threats. The election has given them their comeuppance.

At the same time, the election results also served as a referendum on the military's desire to intervene in state affairs.

The AKP is now a national popular party

In addition, the results have put to rest the lie that the AKP is merely an obscure Islamic secret society. If the regional voting patterns are carefully analyzed, it becomes clear that the AKP has succeeded in becoming a national popular party. Ethnic and religious affiliations played much less of a role than in previous Turkish elections. Armenians and Alawites were also among AKP voters.

Even the number of Kurds supporting the party rose dramatically. The party garnered votes from across all social classes. The times are long gone since the AKP was primarily the party of upwardly mobile Islamic Anatolian businessmen and it fished for votes in the poor quarters of the country's larger cities. The party has seen a breakthrough in both working class and middle class districts.

photo: AP
Turkish Kurds dance during an election rally for an independent candidate in the southern Turkish city of Gaziantep. For the first time since 1993, the Kurds have their own voice in parliament

​​This is reflected in the composition of the AKP parliamentary group, which is, correspondingly, very ideologically heterogeneous. It includes members such as the social democrat Ertugrul Günay, who stresses the importance of state directed social policies, the left-wing liberal constitutional lawyer Zafer Üskül, who wants to remove all anti-democratic articles from the constitution, as well as parliamentarians who began their political careers as cadres of the Islamic movement.

What unifies the AKP is pragmatism. It has a pro-European course, liberal economic policies, and wants to integrate the Turkish market into the capitalist global economy. Such a program requires the dismantling of the state apparatus, which not only used to control the economy, but also determined the political and ideological pillars of the system.

An opportunity for Turkey

The old Kemalist apparatus has already been toppled in the economic sphere. It is now set to lose control of politics. One of its last bastions remains the army. The new government has no plans to storm this bastion, but aims to weaken its power step-by-step.

The election results offer Turkey an opportunity. One example is the unresolved Kurdish conflict. The Kurdish Democratic Society Party will be able to build a parliamentary group with its 21 members. The candidate Sebahat Tuncel, who sat in prison during the election campaign for her support of the banned PKK, will take up a seat in parliament. For the first time since 1993, the Kurds have their own voice in parliament.

Yet, the results also present a great danger. The newly found strength of the AKP will be difficult to control.

Despite this transformation, the party leadership is still in the hands of men who entered politics to promote Islamic values. A strong parliamentary opposition is needed. Deniz Baykal's Republican People's Party (CHP) received almost 21% of the vote – a bitter defeat. With Baykal ("The cement holding our society together is nationalism.") at the helm, the once social democratic leaning party has nothing to counter the AKP's political project other than the claim that the CHP will remain true to the state.

A ruling party, however, has no political future in Turkey. More than ever before, the country needs a democratic left-wing party as a counterbalance to the AKP. The future will show if the CHP is prepared to undergo such a transformation. Otherwise, Turkey is faced with being effectively ruled by a one party regime.

Ömer Erzeren

© Qantara.de 2007

Translated from the German by John Bergeron

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