Turkish election results alarm secular elites and European governments alike

Developing Just Leadership

M.S. Ahmed

Safar 16, 1438 2002-11-16


by M.S. Ahmed (World, Crescent International Vol. 31, No. 18, Safar, 1438)

The overwhelming victory achieved by the Justice and Development Party (AKP) in the Turkish general election on November 3 has been described as a “political earthquake” and a “revolution”. For the first time in 15 years one party has seized an absolute majority, while the old parties that ruled the country for decades have been defeated, leaving only two parties with seats in parliament.

Because the AKP is perceived as having Islamic roots, despite its emphatically secular platform, European politicians have begun to voice publicly their objections to Turkey’s membership of the EU. These objections are dismissed in Turkey, even by die-hard secularists, as the objections of “Christian fundamentalists”. The most vocal rejectionist, Valery Giscard d’Estaing – a former French president and head of the convention on Europe’s future, which is drafting a constitution for the EU – said that Turkey was not in Europe and had a different culture, and that admitting it into the EU would be “the end of the EU”. Both the EU Commission and member-states distanced themselves from his remarks, although they reflect views that are voiced widely by many politicians in private.

The AKP won 34.2 percent of the vote, and 363 of the 550 seats in parliament, benefiting from the rule that leaves parties that get less than 10 percent of the votes cast without seats. (The parties that lost seats – including those in the ruling coalition – had collectively got almost half of all the votes.) Just four more seats would have given the AKP the two-thirds majority it needs to amend the constitution drawn up by the army when it seized power in 1980.

The party owes its success to the public perception that it is honest, and to the charisma of its de facto leader, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who was mayor of Istanbul from 1994 to 1998, and became very popular in that post. The only other party not caught by the ten-percent rule was the conservative Republican Peoples Party (RPP), which got 19 percent of the vote and 179 seats. As the RPP had had no seats in the last parliament, this is an excellent performance, thanks for it being due mostly to Kemal Dervis, who recently resigned from the outgoing government to stand for parliament on the RPP ticket. As economy minister and former World Bank official, Dervis had negotiated the financial agreement with the IMF that was supposed to resolve the country’s economic crisis. But in the election he stood on an anti-IMF platform and displayed great charisma. Exploiting their personal wealth and local power bases, nine independents also won seats in parliament, which means that the AKP need not depend exclusively on the RPP to obtain the extra four votes it needs to introduce amendments to the constitution.

An amendment to the constitution is necessary if Erdogan, 48, is to become prime minister or member of parliament; the constitution at present bars anyone convicted of a crime from serving in either capacity. Five years ago, when he was mayor of Istanbul, Erdogan read out an old nationalist poem to a gathering of the now-banned Welfare party, of which he was then a member. “The minarets are our bayonets, the domes our helmets, the mosques our barracks and the faithful our soldiers,” he read. He was arrested, convicted and sent to prison on a charge of “incitement to religious hatred”. He was barred from standing for parliament and cannot be prime minster because of this conviction, and the country’s president cannot call on anyone to form a government until the AKP appoints another of its MPs to lead it. But despite this difficulty Erdogan has been acting as the AKP’s de facto leader, negotiating with foreign leaders and enunciating government policy. But, fully aware that the generals consider themselves the guardians of the country’s secular constitution, he has gone out of his way to dissuade them from deposing the AKP, as happened in 1997, when they removed the coalition government led by the ‘Islamist’ Welfare Party.

Erdogan insisted both before and after the election that his party is strictly secular, that it stands by the economic package negotiated with the IMF by the outgoing government, and that entry into the EU is the first priority of the party’s foreign policy. He is even on record as saying that “no-one comes between us and the Turkish army”. On the issue of lifting the ban on headscarves in state offices and schools, which raises suspicions in secular circles, he is non-committal, saying merely that it is not a priority. In fact, lifting the ban is not that Islamic, while keeping it is against the democratic principles that secular Turks and EU member states urge Ankara to adhere to.

The generals, of course, profess to respect the will of the Turkish people who have elected the AKP. General Hilmi Ozkok, the army chief of staff, announced in Washington soon after the polls that the people’s will should be respected. But the fact that a general should have visited Washington to discuss important political issues when there was no effective government in Ankara, and that he should feel it necessary to say publicly that he supports the will of the people, could be interpreted as a move to emphasise who the real rulers of the country are. General Ozkok, who was appointed chief of staff in August, may not be as trigger-happy as his predecessors were in 1997, but he has no business to be meddling in the country’s political life to the extent that he has.

But even more objectionable is the reaction of European fundamentalists – general Ozkok is, after all, at least a Turkish citizen. In Italy, for instance, the mayor of Premana (Lombardy) flew a flag at half-mast in protest at the AKP’s victory. Pietro Coverto said: “The victory of an Islamic party in a country that could soon join the EU threatens our Christian culture.” Valery Giscard d’Estaing’s remarks were in a similar vein. Writing in Le Monde, a French daily, he alluded to Turkey’s Muslim population and high birthrate. He said that Turkey has “a different culture, a different approach, a different way of life,” and would therefore become the biggest member state of the EU. “Its capital is not in Europe; 95% of its population live outside Europe. It is not a European country,” he said. He also warned that admitting Turkey would cause a scramble for EU membership among Middle Eastern and North African countries such as Morocco. “In my opinion it would be the end of the European Union,” he said.

Giscard d’Estaing’s remarks are clearly directed at the Copenhagen summit in December that will decide which candidates will be admitted to the EU. Turkey, which is a candidate but has not been granted an accession date, will aim to secure a negotiating date in the near future. This explains the decision of Erdogan and the Turkish foreign ministry not to ignore his remarks but to refute them publicly. Erdogan pointed out that “Turkey is a member of the Council of Europe, the OECD and NATO. Such statements about a country with such affiliations can be nothing more than emotional.” Turkey’s foreign ministry dismissed d’Estaing’s views as personal and unfortunate, adding that it is “an undeniable fact that Turkey belongs to Europe and Turkey’s membership of all European bodies and the agreements it has signed are the most concrete proof of this.”

The remarks and actions of these European politicians and others are undoubtedly based on xenophobia and religious bigotry, but they are right that Turkey does not belong to Europe. If their offensive but true statements cause the Turkish people to consider seriously a return to their Islamic roots, then the election results that prompted the xenophobic reaction are a welcome development. In another sense they are certainly to be welcomed: the old political order has been swept away. Bulent Ecevit, the outgoing prime minister, and his party, Tansu Cillar, the former prime minister, and her party, and Mesut Yilmaz, the outgoing deputy prime minister, have all failed the 10 percent test and lost their seats. This failure has also led to another remarkable development: they have all resigned from their party positions, and withdrawn from Turkish politics for good.

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