At Large

Turkey’s New Chapter

The country's dominant Islamist party finds a new way to weaken the country's secular military.

By 8.20.07

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It is rare that a relatively young political leader with his party holding 340 of the 550 seats in parliament would choose to be a candidate for the presidency of his country when the post has been authoritatively referred to as "symbolically important but ostensibly ceremonial." That is exactly the case in Turkey where the current foreign minister, the 56-year-old Abdullah Gul, darling of the conservative, politically Islamist Justice and Development Party (AKP), has put him forward for the seven-year term as president of that country.

The expectation of an agreement on a non-partisan candidate acceptable to all sides had been blown away with the strong AKP victory at the polls in July. The closeness of the AKP's majority now to a necessary two-thirds of the parliament makes it possible to amend the constitution giving more weight to Islamic values. Interestingly, the AKP's alliance with the 27 parliamentarians of the Kurdish southeastern provinces may be what tips the balance.

The Republican People's Party (CHP) with its mere 112 delegates can no longer be the strong political ally of the Turkish military that it once was. This shift in the political power balance leaves the armed forces greatly weakened as the traditional arbiter of Turkish secular life.

The military has seized control four times since 1960, and finally in 1982 created a constitution that was aimed at bringing unity without religious interference into Turkey's political life. It all seemed logical and correct as an effort to prevent what had become periodic outbreaks of conflict and violence usually involving separatists and religious partisans.

In recent years the increasing attraction of Islamic traditions undoubtedly has brought strength to the neo-Islamist AKP, often through the strong direction of its leader, the former mayor of Istanbul and now prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Erdogan, however, has specifically declined moving on to the presidency, preferring apparently to remain active in the cut and thrust of Turkish politics while having the diplomatically skilled Abdullah Gul in the presidential chair.

This could be a very astute move by Erdogan who has effectively used his foreign minister as point man in Turkey's still determined desire to gain full membership in the European Union. EU membership -- or even the dream of it -- acts as an element of political cohesion for Turkey. The AKP considers the stringent democratic rules of the EU club as a block to Turkey's traditional military dominated politics, while those on the historical right view full accession to the EU as the fulfillment of Mustapha Kamel Ataturk's great western ambition for his country.

Gul is perceived as a more Islamic-oriented figure. In spite of his protestations that he will steadfastly protect Turkey's secularism, Gul is still viewed by many in Europe as an "Islamic politician." Moving Abdullah Gul into the prestigious but far less operational role of president is the type of political maneuver that satisfies the Turkish political mindset -- and also rubs the military nose in their loss of civilian political power. Animosity is another driving factor in Turkish politics. So is the fact that by constitutional law the president picks the chief of the general staff, the man who commands Turkey's army, navy and air force.

This, however, brings up the Turkish army's role in securing the country's southeastern Kurdish border. The Kurds now in parliament can make up the two-thirds bloc necessary to put Gul in as president in the first two rounds of voting. The AKP want their support and the Kurd minority of Turkey wants the military presence diminished on Turkey's Kurdish-dominated border with Iraq. A deal can be made, though in the end the AKP still hold the upper parliamentary hand, for in the third ballot they need only a simple majority.

No matter what happens, in the final analysis certain factors will stay the same. The Kurds in Turkey will remain a source of separatist fervor and tension with Kurdistan, Iraq. The Turks will have to maintain a consistent secularization of their political life if they ever expect to gain full accession into the EU. And, finally, any government of Erdogan/Gul will have to work to rebuild Turkey's once strong ties to the United States if they wish to maintain their country's special political, military and economic relationship with Washington -- as Washington will have to do in turn.

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About the Author
George H. Wittman writes a weekly column on international affairs for The American Spectator online. He was the founding chairman of the National Institute for Public Policy.