Prior to the July 22 elections, the attempt to elect close friend of Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan, foreign minister Abdullah Gul, as a new president was aborted, with the opposition boycotting the voting session and the Constitutional Court subsequently blocking the election process. These events were accompanied by mass rallies supporting the secular nature of the Turkish Republic. A battle for the Turkish soul began. Reasons why the islamist party received such a support from secular Turkish society deserve further examination.
Historical background: the legacy of Ataturk
The Turkish Republic was founded in 1923 after three years of struggle against conditions imposed on the then Ottoman Empire by Entente Powers in the Treaty of Sevres (1920) and Greek annexation of western Anatolia. Mustafa Kemal, who later in his 30s adopted the surname Ataturk (Father of the Turks), was one of the leaders of nationwide resistance against the Entente Powers and Greece. When the resistance resulted in the unambiguous victory, Mustafa Kemal managed to concentrate all power in his hands.
When the war for independence of a newborn republic had ended, Mustafa Kemal and his followers focused on introduction of a broad set of reforms which have affected virtually all aspects of life of common people in Turkey, such as introduction of latin alphabet instead of arabic script, ban of the fez – a traditional men’s head-dress, adoption of civil code inspired by Swiss example and similarly, adoption of a constitution inspired by French example.
Doubtlessly, the most crucial change for the Republic was separation of state and religion. Ottoman sultans were both political and religious leaders of the Ottoman empire. Moreover the caliph, a title which belonged to the sultans, was religious leader of entire sunni muslim world. This all ended with the establishment of the Republic of Turkey. Ataturk’s motto, „achieving a level of contemporary civilization,“ has been established as an ultimate goal of the modernization (i.e. westernization) of Turkish society. In his terms, there was no other civilization but the Western European one. Since separation of religion and politics is one of the fundamental assets of the Western world, there was no other way but to abolish the institution of caliphate and establishment of a parlamentarian republic, not to establish a democracy at that time. Until 1946, Turkey still remained an authoritarian regime with only one existing political party – the Republican People’s Party.
Evolution of multi-party system and re-emergence of Islam in politics
The era of single party rule ended in 1946 due to both external and internal reasons. First, Turkey was keen to be part of the newly-formed international society represented by the United Nations Organisation and due to Soviet threat, subsequently, also to become part of NATO. Second, the single party regime lost its credibility due to insufficient feedback from the people. To solve both issues, adoption of free competition of political parties and deeper democratization were required.
Between 1946 and 1980, the civilian government was three times ousted from power by the army. Precisely speaking, it occured in 1960, 1971, and finally 1980. While in 1960 and 1971 power was given back from the army to the civilian government once the reason for intervention disappeared, in 1980, after overriding both radical leftist and rightist armed groups, the army stayed in power for two years. Since 1982, a new constitution has been adopted and subsequently new general elections were held. It was the beginning of the era of Prime Minister and later President Turgut Ozal. He won elections twice in 1983 and 1987 and at the beginning was the choice of the army which banned many pre-1980 politicians from politics. However, it was him who stimulated the renaissance of the role of Islam in society.
The end of the Cold War has meant a dramatic change for Turkey. While for many European countries, the 90s was a decade of progress, but for Turkey it was the era of lasting political crises which was further aggravated by the situation in Southeastern Turkey. There the Army fought regular war with insurgents from Kurdistan Workers Party.
From Welfare Party to Justice and Development Party
The Welfare Party, or WP, was predecessor of JDP. Both parties emerged as winners of elections, the WP in 1995 and the JDP in 2002 and 2007, and are considered to be pro-Islamist. WP formed a coallition government in 1996 together with the True Path Party of former Turkish Prime Minister Tansu C?ller, but this government was one year later forced to resign. It was the army at that time which again intervened in politics. The „Post-modern Coup“ was more indirect involvement of the army in politics via the National Security Council – an institution which under the 1982 constitution provided the military with a formal position in the policy-making process – than a full scale coup d’etat. However it was first time generals had intervened to preserve the secular character of the Republic.
What are the main differences between the WP and the JDP? Generally Islamist parties in Turkey were in the 90s against negotiations with the EU about membership. This is not the case for the JDP, as we will see below. Although two most prominent members of the JDP – Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdo?an and Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul – were members of the WP, its succesor stands for an apparently moderate policy. JDP leaders are also aware that challenging secular basement of the republic could affect the destiny of the Welfare Party.
There were two main reasons why the JDP won the elections and why it gets almost two-thirds majority in the the parliament. During the 90s, governments lacked stability – with 10 (!) coalition Governments formed between 1991 and 1999. The second reason was the very bad performance of economy, which was badly affected by deep economic crises in 1994, 1999 and 2001. Mistrust of the people frustrated with the state of old political parties and the economy elevated the JDP to power for the first time.
Its huge majority in Parliament was given thanks to peculiarities of the Turkish electoral system. Notably, the very high 10 percent electoral treshold played the key role, since the only other party which managed to get to the parliament was the Republican People’s Party. Only these two parties and some independent individuals participated in the distribution of seats.
The road to the April 27 crisis
The JDP, during its first term, performed in a more than sufficient way. In the last three years economic growth was around seven percent per year. Direct foreign investment increased significantly, and since 2002 has made Turkey one of the most attractive countries for foreign investors. What is the most significant success of the JDP government? Definitely was opening talks of EU accession in October 2005. Such an unprecedented success has not been reached by some pro-Republican party, but by a pro-Islamist one.
What exactly does Islamism means in the case of JDP? Definitely there is nothing common with Islamist movements/parties like the Palestinian Hamas, for example. The JDP is by structure a western-like type of political party. Its leaders are keen to mark the JDP as equivalent of the Christian-Democratic parties which are so common in EU countries.
But in Turkey some, namely „hawks“ in the military and main opposition parties, believe that there is a hidden agenda of the JDP to turn Turkey into an Iranian style theocracy. However, it is hard to prove because of the lack of physical evidence, apart from the intended lifting of the ban on wearing women’s headscarves at official places or increasing number of religious high schools.
What was the April 27 crisis about? The JDP intended to exploit its majority in parliament and to elect a new President of Republic from its members. As a candidate, Turkish Foreign Minister Gul was chosen since the president is elected by parliament and there are a three to four rounds of electoral procedure, gradually decreasing a required majority. Oppositon boycotted the first round and the leader of the Republican People’s Party, Deniz Baykal, delivered an appeal to Constitutional Court on the invalidity of the first round based on the fact that less than two-thirds of elected deputies were present at the vote. On the same day the military also posted the so-called „e-memorandum“ on its Web site reminding the country of its role as gardian of secular principles of the republic. This raised speculation as to whether or not the army could directly intervene in politics. All those events were accompanied by pro-secularism mass rallies. Under these conditions, the court decided in favor of an appeal even though it has made all the electoral procedure unoperable since now the opposition needs only one-third plus one deputies to block the election of a president. The way for pre-term elections were open and the term elections was postponed on July 22.
Elections: Satisfied people do not want to make changes
Elections ended with a huge electoral victory when almost every second Turk gave the vote to the JDP. How did it go with all the strained pre-election situation and mass demonstrations against the JDP? First, the JDP government recorded very good performance and people with its support are giving the JDP a chance to continue with reforms, even though Turkish-EU relations are not in a good state now and question of Turkey’s membership is not popular in either the EU and Turkey. The majority of people recognize that the need to undergo further reforms is good for Turkey, with or without EU membership.
However, the crisis is not over yet. There is still a problem for the next president, since the current one is serving over term. Just before the elections, another decision of the Constitutional Court said the next president could be voted directly by the people. The matter of whether the JDP will follow its own intention and let the people vote or not is not that clear now. One of the opposition parties stated that its deputies will not block the election procedure, which means that JDP could elect the president in parliament.