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Competing visions for Turkey's future

On Sunday, voters weigh the ruling party's strong economic record against fears of a growing Islamist agenda.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / July 20, 2007



Istanbul, Turkey

The political and cultural chasms are large in Turkey, as Islamist and secular visions of the future vie for votes in parliamentary elections on Sunday.

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But there is little that separates two women standing on the front line of a vast rally in Istanbul this week for the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), which has its roots in political Islam.

They could not appear more different: Sultan Belli wears knock-off Versace sunglasses, hoop earrings, and a tight orange T-shirt. Saime Daglar is shrouded all in black, except for her eyes and the blue AKP flag she waves with fervor.

But both profess their love for Turkey's Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

"I love Tayyip Erdogan more than any other!" shouts Ms. Belli, standing on the police barrier with silver-painted toenails, ticking off reasons like hospital reforms and lower taxes.

Thronged by hundreds of thousands of AKP supporters, many wearing headscarves, she says she doesn't worry – as many of her secular compatriots do – about a creeping Islamist agenda.

"I don't believe it," says Belli, as politicians rev up the crowd. "The other parties are using this as propaganda."

Also not swayed by the "propaganda" is Ms. Daglar, who pulls down her veil just enough to say that government should keep out of religion. She "loves" Mr. Erdogan, she says, because "he serves his public and his state. We tried many other parties in the past – none of them worked."

Secularist worries

Indeed, the AKP has been campaigning on nearly five years of solid economic improvements that have nearly doubled gross national income, boosted growth, and brought inflation to its lowest point in decades.

The AKP political machine has used its wide grass-roots network and countless building-sized posters of Erdogan to spread its message across the country.

The AKP's challenge is overcoming secularist fears that it's using its growing influence to infuse Turkey – founded as a secular republic by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk in the 1920s – with Islam. In fiercely secular Turkey, where headscarves are banned in state offices and institutions, and the presidency is seen as the guardian of secularism, the AKP set off a firestorm this spring by nominating Abdullah Gul – the foreign minister with an Islamist past and a headscarf-wearing wife – for president.

Amid a series of huge pro-secular rallies that precipitated early elections, the military issued a warning that the armed forces "are a side in this debate" for secularism, and that "no one should doubt" it would display its position – igniting speculation about another military coup.

With a single deployment of tanks in 1997, the military forced the Islamist government of the time – the forerunner of the AKP, to which Erdogan and Mr. Gul belonged – to step down.

But there are limits, analysts say, to what the military may be prepared to do. "[The military] are the founders of the state, but this will not go on and on" explains Hasan Koni, a professor at Bahcesehir University in Istanbul, who says such intervention has made Turkey a "kind of military democracy."

But he adds that a fifth "coup" is unlikely.

"The military follows public opinion and doesn't do anything without [broad] approval," says Seyfi Tashan, head of the Turkish Foreign Policy Institute at Bilkent University in Ankara, noting unmistakable signs during the pro-secular rallies that read: "No sharia [Islamic law]. No military. No coup."

On the campaign trail

Under that shadow of uncertainty, parties are promising everything from slashing fuel prices to executing the captured Kurdish guerrilla leader Abdullah Ocalan.

AKP politicians cast themselves as the party of the people, noting that the main opposition, Republic People's Party (CHP), is against a popular vote for president. Currently, the parliament chooses the president.

The presidential palace "belongs to the public, not me or anyone else," Gul said, as the crowd chanted, "We are proud of you!"

But opposition politicians have taken issue with the premier. "Which Turkey is proud of you?" asked Devlet Bahceli, of the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), on the campaign trail this week. "The people who put lots of dollars into their assets? Or the people who are going door-to-door for a piece of bread?"

Such criticism carries little weight at the rally. "The salaries of the people have increased; there are so many opportunities," says a white-haired AKP supporter, who gave only his first name, Ugur. "For other parties, it's only talk, but [AKP politicians] really do it."

He says fears of an Islamist agenda are overblown. "This party wants to bring balance," says Ugur. "With Erdogan, Turkey will not be like Iraq, Iran, and Afghanistan."

Turkey's business elite are more equivocal.

"Today our bourgeoisie are [torn]," writes columnist Taha Akyol in the Milliyet newspaper. "Their heads are for economic improvement. But their hearts are near the CHP, because they believe that secularism is in danger."

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