Turkey’s Justice and Development Party (AKP), which was a convincing victor in the parliamentary elections on November 3, and has now formed a government, has been variously described in the Western media as ‘Islamist’, ‘rooted in ‘Islam,’ and even ‘Islamic-tinged’. Initial reactions to its victory were very negative, but within weeks it has succeeded in reassuring both Turkey’s secularists and Western governments.
European and American comments on the party’s victory, its leader’s policy statements and the appointment of a prime minister and a largely technocratic cabinet have been favourable. Even the normally hostile Greek press and politicians were on the whole friendly when Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the AKP chairman, visited Athens on November 17 for the first stop of his European tour. Political leaders also began to call for support for Ankara’s application to join the European Union. George W. Bush telephoned Gerhard Schroeder, the German chancellor, to urge him to end Germany’s opposition to Turkey’s admission to the EU.
Erdogan’s public pledges that the AKP will not adopt an Islamic platform, his decision to put EU membership at the centre of party policy, and his readiness to accept the UN’s plan for resolving the Cyprus issue as a basis for negotiations, have all convinced many in the West that he has no secret Islamic programme. The appointment of a pro-Western prime minister and cabinet have put to rest most misgivings about the AKP’s Islamic roots; some analysts have even indirectly criticised the army generals for being too sceptical. An editorial in the Financial Times of London on November 21, for instance, said that the AKP, “despite the misgivings of the Turkish military about its Islamist roots, is managing its historic electoral triumph with a businesslike touch that belies its lack of government experience.” The editorial also complimented the party for not showing even “a hint of triumphalism or Islamism”.
Erdogan, the unchallenged leader of the AKP, could not himself become prime minister and had to name his deputy, Abdullah Gul, instead. The new government is expected to seek an amendment to the constitution to allow Erdogan to become a member of parliament and prime minister. Meanwhile, Turkey’s Western allies and creditors, local industrialists and army generals are pleased with Gul and the cabinet he has named. He is also popular among the rank and file of his party.
Gul, 52, who is a trained economist with foreign policy expertise, worked at the Islamic Development Bank in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, before entering parliament in 1991. After Erdogan named him as candidate, president Ahmed Necdet Sezer, a fiercely secular politician, asked him to form a government. The resultant cabinet of 25 members, reduced from 36 in fulfilment of Erdogan’s campaign promise, are pro-Western and acceptable to Sezer, who objected only to the appointment of Besir Atalay as education minister. Atalay, a former university dean who was dismissed for allegedly recruiting Islamic-oriented teachers to boost his campaign to lift the ban on the headscarf at college, was given another portfolio.
The minister appointed to implement the programme of reforms concluded with the outgoing government is Ali Babacan, 35, an American-trained economist. The new foreign minster is Yasar Yarkis, a former diplomat who is treated with suspicion by Turkish Europhiles because of his known enthusiasm for the Arabic language and culture. But he is undoubtedly pro-Western, as many Arab politicians are, and is willing to reach a settlement in the Cyprus dispute, two qualities that recommend him to Western capitals.
Gul earned the pro-Western stamp of approval for his team when he announced that the two leading goals of his cabinet would be the maintenance of Turkey’s “strategic partnership with the US” and its admission into the EU. The full programme of the new order was announced by Erdogan. In addition to the economic and political pledges, Erdogan also promised to restructure the Higher Education Board, a watchdog set up after a military coup in 1980 that sees its job as “weeding out political extremists and guarding Turkey’s secular system.” The watchdog is also vital to the enforcement of the ban on Islamic headscarves at university, which the party wants to end, but only by “consensus”. This proposal was seized upon, both in Turkey and abroad, as proof that Erdogan has not changed his Islamic convictions. The issue was, for instance, referred to in the Western press as “politically sensitive ground”.
The West needs the AKP to demonstrate that democracy and Islam are compatible – particularly after NATO’s decision to restructure itself, instead of disbanding, to fight “international terrorism”. Turkey, the only Muslim member of the alliance, also has borders with Iraq, Syria and Iran – countries that are targeted by the US as enemies of the West and of Israel. The AKP’s retention of its ‘democratic platform’ will also give credibility (they hope) to George W. Bush’s boast that the US is determined to ‘persuade’ Muslim countries to adopt democratic rules and respect human rights.
But if danger for the AKP continues to distance itself from its Islamic roots, it will itself lose credibility among the voters who have given it its electoral victory, although it is undoubtedly preferable to the parties that it has replaced.