The decisive victory of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) in the July parliamentary elections, followed by the selection of Abdullah Gul as the next president despite harsh objections by the country’s powerful military leadership and hard-core supporters of the secularist ideology established by Kemal Ataturk, represents a new phase in the history of modern Turkey. Those opposed to these developments claim that Turkey is drifting dangerously toward Islamist rule. They insist that the government headed by Recep Tayyip Erdogan is following a secret agenda, disguising its true intentions behind a smokescreen of disingenuous endorsements of Turkey’s secular tradition.
I share the contrary view, expressed by British Foreign Secretary David Miliband during a recent state visit to Ankara. “Turkey grew stronger in the eyes of the world,” he said. Miliband was referring not only to the orderly democratic elections but to the military’s willingness to accept a political outcome contrary to its wishes. Its acquiescence was undoubtedly helped by Gul’s inaugural speech, which stressed his commitment to secularism as well as his announced intention to respect the traditions of the presidential palace, which means his wife will be excluded from official ceremonies because she wears a headscarf. As a bright young Turkish journalist, Mustafa Akyol, observed, Gul’s presidency “signals not an ‘end to secularism’… but a bolstering of our democracy.” Gul’s recently announced support for repeal of Article 301 of the Turkish penal code, used to prosecute writers and journalists for “insulting Turkishness,” is a further encouraging straw in the wind.
This smooth transition to unchallenged AKP leadership was greatly aided by the support of the business community, as well as by the party’s grassroots popularity. Clearly, voters were not convinced by the military’s pre-election warnings. Public support stemmed from two achievements during the first phase of the Erdogan leadership: the success of market-friendly reforms in achieving high economic growth rates and Turkish successes in the world economy of a sort that had eluded prior governments; and a government outlook that was comparatively free from corruption and was seen to be genuinely committed to addressing the concerns of the poor, who make up a large percentage of the citizenry. It is a rare achievement in any country for a government to please its business and financial community and also to win over the poor. This double achievement goes a long way toward explaining the AKP’s electoral vindication and the passivity of the army and embittered secularists, whose traditional power seems to be slipping away. Put differently, if the economy had been stagnant, the business leadership restive and the grassroots disappointed, then the election results would likely have been far less supportive of the AKP, and the military would not have been nearly as likely to accept AKP initiatives of which it disapproved.
In many respects the political struggle is misperceived as one of secularism versus religion. This misperception was illustrated by a pre-election cover of Time portraying a young woman wearing a headscarf, which supposedly expressed what was at stake in the elections. A more accurate understanding would have regarded the elections as a clash between two kinds of secularism and two kinds of democracy. The AKP offers Turkey more inclusion for major groups previously neglected, oppressed or victimized by discrimination: the religiously observant, the poor and minorities (especially the Kurds).