It’s an odd thing about representative democracy; it sometimes can be responsible for becoming a pathway for varying forms of undemocratic rule. Turkey may be on the road to this end, but not quite yet.
This week’s election votes indicated the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) maintained its dominance over the Turkish parliament with 326 members — just short of the 330 required to put its reforms to a referendum — but a bit more under the super-majority 367 of 550 parliamentary votes necessary to amend the constitution in parliament. With the possible assistance of some minority party members, it is still possible to have the first major constitutional change since the 1980 military coup and its 1982 new constitution. This would alter the current parliamentary system to a presidential one. It would provide the current AKP leader, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, with the chance to be president with full executive power and two five-year terms as a new and powerful head of state. One way or another, Erdogan will continue working to accomplish this.
More important than the actual numbers in the election is the proclivity of the neo-Islamist AKP to support the increasingly authoritarian actions of its principal leader. Erdogan has developed his popularity into an effective political weapon that has given the AKP the ability to ride roughshod over parliamentary procedures and dominate national politics. Sixty journalists are reported to be still in prison for deviating from an acceptable AKP line. Most importantly, Erdogan’s police force has jailed one out of every ten Army generals and broken the military’s long-standing legal control over Turkey’s secular governance as established by modern Turkey’s founder, Mustapha Kemal Ataturk.
There was a time when the combination of military and judiciary kept Turkey’s governance firmly in the hands of secular-guided parliamentary leadership framed by a Western-oriented constitution. Since 2002 the country has been run by the AKP. Even with the disappointing results of the election and delay of a new constitution, the party is now in a clear position of power over the military and judiciary. Erdogan has worked toward introducing a centrally dominant system that controls all external and internal security, effectively emasculating the political leverage of the armed forces.
As Erdogan and the AKP envision it, Turkey will no longer have a military that is the final arbiter of the politico/cultural direction of the country. A new constitution would be aimed to free the judiciary from the possibility of being subservient to the military. The tenets of Turkish interpretation of the Islamic faith will be the guiding spirit of the nation rather than the relatively high-minded but obscure reverence of secular standards as set forth nearly 90 years ago by Ataturk.
While Erdogan and his AKP party seek to project an image that has them ridding Turkey of military control and placing greater emphasis on the building of civilian infrastructure — hospitals, housing, transportation, etc. — the liberal elements of the nation find themselves isolated from the AKP mainstream. Ironically it has been the conservative secular inclination of the armed forces in the past that has maintained and protected liberal instincts and characteristics.
The outward trappings of Islam — especially as manifested by the ostentatious modesty in the dress of women — is perceived by the secularists as really a symbol of a backward political step. For the neo-Islamists who form the spine of Erdogan’s following, the return to purity and, indeed, superiority of their religion is matched by their perception of renewed Turkish strength.
Central Anatolia has become the dynamic heart of the AKP. Here the entrepreneurs of the middle class have combined their business acumen and religious conservatism into a decisive voting bloc for the AKP. Coincidentally with the rise of the AKP and Islamic recognition has been a surprising economic growth. It is this fact, more than any other single development, that has reinforced the AKP and Erdogan’s popularity. At the same time, the earlier preoccupation with acceptance by and entrance into the European Union has diminished in direct proportion to German and French objections.
For Turkey, non-acceptance by the European Union shows insulting disregard for a longtime NATO member’s desire to be recognized as one among equals. Discrimination is not unknown among the multifarious demographics of Turkey. Nonetheless, to be so openly rejected for membership into the “club” of the historically exclusive and Christian West is a matter of serious affront to a newly awakened Islamic Turkey.
For the West the growth of political Islam in Turkey touches nerves long since dulled by the fall of the Ottoman Empire. It’s not that the Turks became Western allies after Ataturk’s successful modernization. They were clearly pro-German during most of the Second World War, even though afterwards through NATO they became steady allies against Soviet expansion. Any future Western alliance, political and military, will be substantially impacted by what would appear to be Turkey’s growing fraternity with its Moslem brothers. This will change the entire Middle East equation. And of this Erdogan is more than aware.