Vol. 2, No. 15 December 30, 2002
The recent Turkish elections were more a protest vote against economic difficulties and corruption, not a wish to embrace Islamic radicalism.
When the Islamist prime minister Necemettin Erbakan took power in 1996, the Turkish military, which regards itself as the ultimate guardian of the secularist democratic tradition of modern Turkey’s founder, Kemal Ataturk, elegantly eased Erbakan out of power.
The great majority of Turkey’s Islamists are nationalists, trying to further Turkish national interests, rather than pan-Islamists.
Both Turkey and Israel see themselves as living in a violent and unstable Middle East, maintaining an adversary relationship with Syria, and having growing concerns about the security risks emanating from Iraq and Iran, particularly in relation to weapons of mass destruction.
Turkish Voters Seek Stability, Not Radicalism
In elections for the Turkish parliament on November 3, 2002, a new party formed out of a banned Islamic movement — the Justice and Development Party (AKP) — won 35 percent of the popular vote and 363 of the 550 seats. The Republican People’s Party (CHP), which gained nearly 20 percent of the votes, was the only other party among the 18 parties contesting the elections that exceeded the minimum 10 percent threshold.1 Thus, for the first time in nearly fifty years there are only two political parties in the Turkish parliament, and Turkey expects to have a majority government that enjoys a comfortable margin in parliament.
The identity of the new ruling party and its overwhelming strength in parliament have generated concern in many world capitals. Turkey, located at the crossroads of the Caucasus, the Balkans, and the Middle East, and at the door of Central Asia, holds a geopolitical position of major importance.
To a large extent, the results of the recent Turkish elections reflected a protest vote — a popular response to the chronic inability of a fragmented political system to act effectively to deal with fundamental challenges such as strengthening Turkey’s economy, fighting corruption and cronyism, and working toward a more just distribution of wealth. Turkish voters dumped the ruling parties out of economic frustration, not out of a wish to embrace Islamic radicalism. The success of the AKP was more related to its image as a clean and efficient party than to its latent Islamist credentials.
Actually, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, a former popular Islamist mayor of Istanbul and the current party leader, made great efforts to distance his party from its more radical Islamist predecessors in Turkish politics, and he disclaimed any Muslim agenda. The AKP was marketed as a moderate conservative party that accepted the secular constitution and the democratic order. During the campaign, the AKP promised to deal primarily with economic and welfare issues, to maintain Turkey’s bid for membership in the European Union, and to support a UN-sanctioned American action in Iraq. Yet, many of the party loyalists were previously members of more radical movements and it remains to be seen whether they will go along with the non-confrontational attitudes espoused by the current leadership.
Misplaced Concerns in the West
Much of the concern in the West over the results of the Turkish elections is rooted in ignorance about religion. Those educated in secular school systems often look down upon religion as a primitive and doomed phenomenon. Indeed, the fathers of that intellectual tradition, Max Weber and Karl Marx, each one in his own way, speculated that progress will wean the masses from primitive beliefs, and subsequently the world would become rational, despite occasional bouts of extremism. These secularists fail to see the vitality of religion and its ability to adapt to modernity. Indeed, religion remains a powerful social and political force even in the developed Western world. The prediction that the Turkish election results portend the potential failure of Turkish democracy relies on the clich? that every Muslim is at heart a fundamentalist.
Yet Turkey has relied for decades on draconian rules concerning freedom of speech and dress code, as well as the periodic intervention of the military, to keep undemocratic or religious forces at bay. Thus, a Turkey that is more tolerant of religion has the potential for developing a synthesis between Islam and democracy. A secular-ruling, Islamic-based party could be the next step for Turkey in its role of showing other countries how political freedom and Islam can coexist.
The Turkish attachment to secularism runs deep, primarily among the urban and middle-class elites, providing a significant balance to religious, non-democratic impulses. Indeed, the widespread secular opposition to the short rule of Necemettin Erbakan (1996-97), an Islamist prime minister, taught many of his colleagues greater caution. In this case, the Turkish military, which regards itself as the ultimate guardian of the secularist democratic tradition of modern Turkey’s founder, Kemal Ataturk, elegantly eased Erbakan out of power.2 It is clear that the generals will not hesitate to step in again, if necessary, to preserve Turkey’s status as a predominantly Muslim, yet secular and democratic, nation belonging to the Western camp.3
A Fundamental Western Orientation
Turkey is also economically dependent on European markets, as well as on American goodwill in the International Monetary Fund. Any improvement of Turkey’s economic situation requires a Western outlook. Erdogan’s first visit abroad was to Greece, in contrast to Erbakan’s first visit to Iran. In accordance with the AKP’s declared positions, the basic contours of Turkish foreign relations will remain intact as the new government develops its own policies. The great majority of Turkey’s Islamists are nationalists, trying to further Turkish national interests, rather than pan-Islamists.
Indeed, the new Turkish leadership has been working hard to convince the EU to announce a date for the beginning of accession talks. Despite Europe’s lukewarm attitude toward Turkey’s joining the EU, the AKP government preferred to portray the Copenhagen EU summit (where Turkey was not given a definite date for accession talks, in contrast to several Eastern European nations) as a partial success and an additional step in Turkey’s journey into Europe. Erdogan also went to Washington to reassure the U.S. of Ankara’s goodwill. In fact, the new Turkish government has expressed its willingness to allow the Americans to use its territory and airspace for an impending attack on Iraq, despite the fact that a majority of Turkish public opinion opposes an American war with Iraq.
In this context, the good relations and strategic partnership between Turkey and Israel are likely to continue. Ankara and Jerusalem still share a common prism on international relations, in general, and on the Middle East, in particular. Both nations see themselves as living in a violent and unstable Middle East, maintaining an adversary relationship with Syria, and having growing concerns about the security risks emanating from Iraq and Iran, particularly in relation to weapons of mass destruction. Both nations also share concerns over the future of Central Asia, must contend with a problematic relationship with Europe, are suspicious of a resurgent Russia, and, above all, maintain a common pro-American orientation.4
Therefore, Israeli-Turkish cooperation with regard to many important regional conflicts and global issues, including the war on terrorism, is likely to be sustained. Not surprisingly, in December 2002, Turkey accepted several high-level and well-publicized visits from Israeli leaders, including Yoav Biran, the Acting Director General of the Foreign Ministry, and Lt. Gen. Moshe Yaalon, the IDF Chief of Staff. Moreover, in January 2003, two Turkish frigates participated in a joint U.S.-Turkey-Israel search and rescue naval exercise in the eastern Mediterranean.
While Israel and others will be keeping an eye on developments in Turkey, there is good reason to wish the new Turkish government success, because a strong and democratic Turkey is a vital Israeli and Western interest. While the integration of Turkey into the Western camp is much dependent upon domestic forces, American and European policies could make a difference.5 In today’s world, anchoring Turkey in the West is a challenge that is more important than ever.
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1. For a recent analysis of the elections, see Ali Carkoglu, “Turkey’s November 2002 Elections: A New Beginning?” MERIA Journal, Vol. 6, No. 4 (December 2002). For the appeal of Islamic parties in Turkey, see Birol Ye÷ilda, “The Virtue Party,” Turkish Studies, Vol. 3, No. 1 (Spring 2002):62-81.
2. For this period, see Philip Robins, “Turkish Foreign Policy Under Erbakan,” Survival, Vol. 39, No. 2 (Summer 1997):82-100.
3. For the generals’ involvement in politics, see Nil?fer Narli, “Civil-Military Relations in Turkey,” Turkish Studies, Vol. 1, No. 1 (Spring 2002):107-27.
4. See Efraim Inbar, The Israeli-Turkish Entente (London: King’s College Mediterranean Program, 2001).
5. Heinz Kramer, A Changing Turkey. The Challenge to Europe and the United States (Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution Press, 2000), pp. 236-48.
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The author is a Fellow of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs and Professor of Political Science and Director of the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies at Bar-Ilan University.