Turkey Set For A New Start After Tough Polls

Sebnem Arsu, For The Straits Times

The Straits Times (Singapore)
August 1, 2007 Wednesday

ISTANBUL – LAST week’s elections show that for the largely secular
Turkish people, the pro-Islamic ruling party’s ability to run a stable
economy trumps its tendencies to introduce a more Islamic lifestyle.

Voters handed the Justice and Development Party (AKP) another five-year
term, while at the same time diversifying the voices of the opposition
by giving parliamentary seats to staunchly nationalist groups as well
as independent candidates from the Kurdish minority.

Overcoming accusations that it was a threat to secularism, the AKP
won 46.4 per cent of the popular vote, an increase of 12.2 percentage
points over the 2002 election results.

In the late 1990s, the AKP was floundering in Turkish politics. Its
unsuccessful attempts to limit the use of alcohol in public areas and
criminalise adultery, among other initiatives, had incited fears that
it had a hidden agenda to turn the country into a more Islamic one.

But it managed to win over the masses in 2002 and again last week.

This is because it caters to the needs of the poor, delivering health
services, stabilising food prices and reducing bank interest rates.

‘They’ve built good roads, given civil servants full access to private
hospitals, distributed free schoolbooks to our kids, what more can
I ask for?’ said Istanbul resident Israfi Sair, 36, a former civil
servant and father of one.

Turkey’s 80 million people are overwhelmingly Muslim, but the country
has held high its secular, modern outlook even as it has pursued its
aim of joining the European Union (EU).

Despite some EU members questioning its compatibility with Europe,
Turkey has long been integrated with global financial markets and

In stark contrast with other Muslim countries in the Middle East,
it stands out as the only Western-style democracy.

While increasingly aware of their Islamic identity, Turks guard their
secular outlook, tolerating women in headscarves as well as those
who prefer Western clothes.

Indeed, the recent elections, originally scheduled for November,
were called as a result of turmoil surrounding the ruling party’s
nomination in April of Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul as its
presidential candidate.

The furore centred on the fact that his wife wears the headscarf –
a symbol that 51 per cent of the staunchly secular Muslim population
finds disturbing and not appropriate for the highest state office,
according to a survey by the Istanbul-based Turkish Economic and
Social Studies Foundation.

A broad coalition of groups reacted to the news of Mr Gul’s nomination
by pulling out the stops to campaign against the ruling party.

The largest opposition party, the Republic People’s Party (CHP), the
voice of the higher echelons of the state bureaucracy, worked alongside
the army, the constitutionally mandated guarantor of the secular state.

Both raised concerns that the AKP was moving Turkey towards becoming
an Islamic state. The military even hinted that, if necessary, it
might have to act.

However, the election results proved that the alarmist rhetoric
over the threat to secularism did not persuade voters, who went with
the AKP.

But the election results also provided no shortage of opposition
lawmakers to keep an eye on the ruling party and any tendency towards
anti-secular practices.

Although the AKP increased its share of the vote, it now has fewer
seats – 340 in a 550-seat Parliament. A third party which had no
seats in the previous parliament, the Nationalist Action Party (MHP),
garnered 14.3 per cent of the vote and 71 seats.

Analysts agree that the MHP’s improved showing reflected voters’
reaction against continuing Kurdish separatist terror in the
south-east, the war in Iraq and the double standards shown by the EU
towards Turkey’s membership bid.

The Nationalists’ previous lack of representation in parliament has
been seen as a source of frustration and blamed for violence that
has erupted throughout the country.

Attacks reached a tragic climax when a gunman shot dead leading
Armenian journalist Hrant Dink in a crowded Istanbul street in January.

Analysts believe the MHP’s presence in Parliament will help to
neutralise the polarised factions and curb violence.

The election results also reflected a desire for peaceful co-existence
between the Turkish people and minority groups, with the inclusion
of 27 independents, mostly Kurds.

The latter have said they want to focus on finding a solution to
the armed conflict between the Kurdish separatist group, labelled as
terrorists internationally, and the Turkish army. The struggle has
cost more than 30,000 lives in over 20 years.

For many, it is hard to imagine parties like MHP and CHP, with their
strong ideas of Turkishness and integrity of Turkish land, finding
common ground with politicians who once expressed sympathy for the
Kurdish separatist movement.

But for Kurds, this is a start. They have not had parliamentary
representation since 1991.

‘We expect mutual compromise from both MHP and Kurdish politicians
for peace and resolution in the south-east,’ said Mr Nurullah,
a 26-year-old Kurd who did not want to give his full name.

Mr Baskin Oran, a 62-year-old political science professor who ran
as an independent candidate, believes that the people’s questioning
attitude towards the role of the military and the strength of the
elitist status quo as well as the public will for diverse political
parties opened a new page in Turkey’s democratic process.

The real victor of one of the toughest elections in Turkish history
was Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Before cheering crowds at his party’s headquarters in Ankara on
election night, he showed his party’s will to embrace the masses
despite their political choices.

‘We consider your different choices as the richness of your democratic
life. Be content, we will also safeguard your trust in the future,
as we have done so far,’ he said.

His words will be tested soon enough, when his party presents its
presidential nominee to the new Parliament, which opens this month.

A re-nomination for Mr Gul could potentially incite tensions once

If AKP introduces a new nominee with a less religiously conservative
lifestyle, Mr Erdogan’s words would find traction.

It would be considered the first step of a government aiming at
overall public consensus and peace.