Secular Turkey trounced
A landslide victory for Turkey's main Islamist party may move national debate away from secularist fears, writes Gareth Jenkins
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With a photograph of modern Turkey's founder Kemal Ataturk in the background, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan speaks to the media as he leaves the Cankaya presidential palace after a meeting with President Ahmet Necdet Sezer in Ankara.
The moderate Islamist Justice and Development Party (JDP) was returned to power on 22 July in Turkey's general elections in a landslide victory that was as much a rebuff to the warnings of the country's secular establishment as it was an endorsement of the JDP's nearly five years in power.
Provisional results from the polls suggest that the JDP won 46.8 per cent of the vote, up from 34.3 per cent at the last elections in November 2002 and giving the party 341 seats in the 550- member unicameral assembly.
Only two other parties succeeded in crossing the 10 per cent national threshold required for representation in parliament: the nationalist Republican People's Party (RPP), which won 20.6 per cent of the vote and 110 seats; and the ultranationalist Nationalist Action Party (NAP), which won 14.3 per cent and 71 seats. A further 28 seats were won by independents, 24 of them members of the pro-Kurdish Democratic Society Party (DSP), which had decided to field candidates as independents in order to overcome the 10 per cent threshold applied to parties.
In the weeks leading up to the vote, the parties' campaign speeches were dominated by nationalism, as forces vied with each other to convince the electorate that they would launch the toughest crackdown on the violent campaign being waged by the separatist Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK). But the underlying theme -- certainly for middle-class Turks -- was secularism and whether or not the JDP harboured long-term plans to introduce a radical Islamist agenda.
General elections were triggered by a confrontation in late April between the JDP government and Turkey's secular establishment, led by its still powerful military. On 27 April, the Turkish General Staff (TGS) posted a memorandum on its website implicitly threatening to topple the JDP government if it pushed ahead with its plans to appoint Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul as the country's next president. The fear was that if the JDP controlled both parliament and the presidency there would be nothing to prevent it from eroding the principle of secularism that is enshrined in the Turkish constitution. In response, the JDP called early elections for 22 July, over three months ahead of schedule.
During its nearly five years in power, the JDP has overseen an unprecedented period of domestic political stability and sustained economic growth and passed sufficient domestic reforms to allow Turkey to open accession negotiations with the EU. But in the 18 months leading up to the announcement of early elections, the JDP appeared to have lost direction. Hopes of EU accession were fading, PKK violence was increasing, and there were clear signs that the pace of economic growth was beginning to slow. Perhaps most critically, the government had failed to create sufficient jobs and the apparent economic boom had not been reflected in a substantial increase in living standards. Figures released by the Turkish Central Bank indicate that average real wages are still more than 20 per cent lower than in 2000.
But the military memorandum of 27 April enabled the JDP to go into the elections portraying itself as a champion of democracy. Perhaps more importantly, opposition parties failed to inspire any hope of a better future if they came to power. Their aggressive, argumentative campaign rhetoric appears to have alienated potential voters by raising the prospect of strife and instability if such parties ever formed a government.
Meanwhile, several leading members of the JDP attributed the JDP's crushing victory to a public reaction to the military's memorandum of 27 April. Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan described the elections result as, "the reflex of the national will in response to what was done to Abdullah." Parliamentary Speaker Bulent Arinc characterised the outcome as a "civilian memorandum".
In fact, the electorate appears not so much to have reacted against the memorandum as ignored it. Unlike hard-line secularists, who fear what the JDP may do in the future, a large proportion of the electorate appears to have focussed more on what the party had done in the recent past; particularly its not introducing any radical Islamist measures during its nearly five years in power.
"I voted for the JDP in 2002 because they were a new party and I thought that unlike all the parties that had come before they might actually do something to improve our lives," said Osman, a 38- year-old curtain-maker. "In fact, whatever they say in the newspapers or on television, I am no better off now and I didn't want to vote for the JDP again. But all the opposition parties seem to know is how to fight and argue. Who wants that?"
Professional pollsters agree, noting that their research indicates that the electorate voted for continuity and stability rather than for or against the military memorandum.
"Most of those who voted for the JDP come from low income groups, and people such as tradesmen and farmers," said Adil Gur of the A&G polling company. "In fact, these people weren't satisfied with the government's performance, but the JDP ran a very successful campaign, promising them to help them if it was returned to power, while the opposition just concentrated on attacking the JDP rather than offering anything to the electorate."
When it convenes in early August, the first task of the new parliament will be to elect a new president. It is currently unclear whether the JDP will once again attempt to appoint Gul or whether it will opt for a less divisive figure. However, even if it can reach a compromise on the presidency, there is little doubt that the JDP's second term in power will be much more challenging than its first.
Sources close to the DSP suggest that once they have been sworn in as deputies, the 24 independents will rejoin the party, giving a pro- Kurdish party a substantial presence in parliament for the first time in Turkish history. During the election campaign there were several street clashes between supporters of the DSP and the NAP. With both the NAP and the DSP in parliament, tensions are likely to rise, particularly if the PKK steps up its campaign of violence.
As a result, the new government's first months in power could be overshadowed not by the decades-old debate over the role of religion in Turkish public life, but the country's other great and unresolved problem -- the Kurdish issue.