It figures that one of the weekends I’m out of town, the whole world’s eyes focus on Turkey. And not just Turkey, but my current hometown of Ankara. Arrgh. So let me give you the quick scoop on the recent murder of judge Mustafa Yucel Ozbilgin, and the resulting fallout, a flare-up of the country’s secular vs. Islamist tensions.
Michael Rubin has periodically been writing about Turkey on NRO, and had two useful Corner postings updating readers. Rubin is an exceptional scholar, and I agree with much of what he has said about Turkey on NRO. My only quibble would be that sometimes he makes it sound like the ruling Islamist party, AKP, is successfully making drastic and rapid changes to a historically secular nation.
The good news for those of us who are fans of secularism is that AKP has been hitting roadblocks in its efforts since they took office. Yes, AKP has a sizable majority in parliament, but they have more than a few divisions within their members. Some of their members are the type of Islamists Americans ought to be worried about; some are just pious religious types who feel that the secular elites don’t respect their values (a sentiment I’ll bet many red state Americans relate to), others are attracted to AKP’s anti-corruption theme in the 2002 election, some are longtime politicians who opportunistically signed onto AKP while it was rising, etc. Then there are the opposition parties who have been relentless in their criticism since AKP came to power. Most of Turkey’s political, business, education, judicial and media elites are staunchly secular, and have been fighting AKP’s efforts tooth and nail.
Finally, there is the Turkish military, the traditional final guardians of the rights of the Turkish people, who have been watching this government warily. So Glenn Reynolds is right that it is good news when “Tens of thousands of Turks are rallying spontaneously in favor of secularism and liberalism.” But we really shouldn’t be surprised; secular and comparably liberal (with some exceptions) government have been the rule since Ataturk. There are a lot of staunchly secular Turks, particularly in the cities, and they won’t hesitate to kick the tushie of anybody who tries to turn their country into Iran, or Saudi Arabia, or anything resembling the Arab countries that many Turks see as hopelessly backwards hellholes. Thus, the chilly reception for Foreign Minister AKP party member Abdullah Gul at the funeral of the murdered judge.
It’s worth noting that AKP came to power with a surprising majority in 2002 after the other, more secular and established parties had flopped terribly, particularly during an economic crisis the previous year. Corruption was a serious issue, and the public was willing to throw out most of the old guard and give these new religious guys a try.
Rubin’s posting of 6:36 pm Saturday suggests that early elections are a real possibility. Perhaps, but since I’ve been here, I’ve heard rumors of early elections… if not weekly, then biweekly. AKP’s opponents would love, love, love to see early elections. Polls I had seen a while ago suggested that the public’s opinion of the opposition parties hadn’t rebounded; that while they had gripes with AKP, they weren’t necessarily ready to turn over the reigns to any of the other options. Maybe that’s changed in recent weeks; AKP’s anti-corruption stance looks pretty tarnished, as it seems every day the papers are touting one new scandal after another.
Here’s the real deadline here in Turkey. The positions of Prime Minister and President are separate in this country. The Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, is the leader of AKP and a guy who many secularists believe is a bad, bad guy, secretly aiming to transform Turkey into an Islamist nation. He’s not a fire-breathing ideologue, although he has gotten a lot more politically clumsy since I arrived fifteen months ago. (Skipping the funeral of the murdered judge to attend a party meeting seems spectacularly boneheaded.) Secularist Turks worry that AKP's leaders might be a more clever menace, patient Islamists willing to change the laws, bit by bit, willing to take a generation to see their vision come to fruition.
The current President of Turkey is Ahmet Necdet Sezer, a retired judge who was named as a consensus candidate back in 2000, before AKP took power. (The Turkish President is sort of a Super Supreme Court, who can veto legislation and has approval over many key appointments. The President is selected by Parliament.) Sezer is a staunch secularist who is seen as an obstacle to AKP’s agenda. Sezer’s term ends in May 2007; if Erdogan were to fulfill a complete five year term, he would be up for election in November 2007. It is widely believed that the AKP wants to hold on to power until at least May of next year, appoint a sympathetic new President, and then take their chances on an election. If there is an election beforehand, AKP could lose its majority in the Parliament, and lose its chance to appoint an Islamist-minded President until at least 2014.
So a lot of people want to see early elections, and want to see AKP go down. The idea of having early elections gained some weight when former President Suleyman Demirel said he would call them if the decision was his.
But just because people want early elections doesn’t mean they're going to happen. Basically, a majority in parliament would need to call for early elections, meaning the one-third or so that is the secular Republican People’s Party (CHP) would have to back it (they would in a heartbeat) and a sizable chunk of the AKP would have to either A) get so angry with Erdogan that they have a vote of no confidence and take their chances before the voters or B) reach a point where they fear delaying the election any longer would cost them seats, and perhaps their majority.
Having said that, there are reports that military leaders support the idea of early elections, and their voice carries considerable weight in Turkish society. I note the markets are acting like they expect early elections, or at least further instability. And there’s one last wrinkle – there’s the possibility that Erdogan may want to become President. Theoretically, AKP could vote him into the position before the next parliamentary elections, but that move would spur vehement opposition from all of their opponents in Turkey. CHP members of parliament have already suggested they would resign their seats en masse if AKP tried that.
Very shortly after I arrived here, I learned that the average American’s appetite for news from Turkey was… limited. On a day to day basis, the comings and goings of Turkish politics are not all that relevant or interesting to the average American (or, perhaps the average NRO reader). However, recent events suggest the country may be reaching a crossroads; we may in the coming months be reaching a point where the world's eyes will be (or ought to be) on Ankara, as the government and its people make a historic decision about the identity of their nation.