Economy trumps religion in Turkey

The ruling Islamic-rooted party won a landslide victory Sunday, raising more questions about the future of Turkey's officially secular state.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

A landslide victory for this country's Islam-rooted ruling party on Sunday – and the sharp defeat of its secular opponents – shows that Turks are more worried about economic instability than the threat of more Islam in government.

But as the celebrations of the Justice and Development (AK) Party calmed Monday, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan must turn to challenges ahead: naming a new presidential candidate, stopping attacks by Kurdish militants, and kick-starting stalled membership talks with the European Union.

Also uncertain is the reaction of Turkey's military – which cast themselves as the staunch defenders of the country's secular tradition, and has ousted four elected governments – to the fact that the AK Party increased its share of the vote by more than a third from the last elections in 2002, to 46.5 percent.

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"This was a vote of confidence on the AK Party's record, and was certainly a democratic rebellion against military meddling," says Soli Ozel, a political scientist at Istanbul Bilgi University.

"The AK Party – for all its faults … and all its nondemocratic inclinations – stood for opening up the Turkish system, widening the base of the regime, and remaining open to the rest of the world," says Mr. Ozel.

Buoyed by the result, the Turkish stock market soared, and the currency jumped to a two-year high against the dollar.

The AK Party kept hold of an absolute majority, with 340 out of 550 seats – fewer than it had before, due to a twist in allocation rules. The opposition Republican People's Party (CHP) barely improved its 2002 vote share, with under 21 percent; a nationalist party reentered parliament with over 14 percent of the vote.

Mr. Erdogan immediately sought middle ground with conciliatory words, promising to protect secular traditions to calm fears of an overt Islamist agenda. His wife wears a head scarf – still forbidden in state institutions – as does the wife of Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul, whose candidacy to be president last April sparked a military warning, mass secular protests, and early elections.

"We will never make concessions over the values of people, the basic principles of our republic. This is our promise," Mr. Erdogan told celebrants outside the party headquarters in the capital, Ankara. He vowed to lift the nation "to the levels of modern civilization," invoking the name of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the revered secular leader who founded Turkey in 1923.

"Democracy has passed a very important test," said Erdogan, calming his supporters while addressing the nation. "Whoever you have voted for…. We respect your choices. We regard your difference as part of our pluralist democracy. It is our responsibility to safeguard this richness."

A new presidential candidate must be put forward within a month, and experts say that the inclusionary tone of Erdogan's comments point toward a compromise choice that will be acceptable to the establishment. But armed with the second-largest electoral mandate in more than half a century in Turkey, the AK Party could force Mr. Gul into the presidential palace if it wished.

"Erdogan's speech gave two important messages: 'We are the center party,' and 'we understand the message of 54 percent who didn't vote for us,' " wrote Asli Aydintasbas in the Sabah newspaper, predicting that the premier would ease tension.

Still on the table is a possible strike by the military – which has an uneasy relationship with the AK Party – into northern Iraq, to go after an estimated 3,000 fighters of the Kurdistan Worker's Party (PKK) across the border.

Before the vote, the military pushed the government to approve such a strike, though numerous cross-border operations in the 1990s did not stop PKK attacks. Erdogan said that Turkey will take steps at the "right time."

"From 1960 until today, Turkish voters do the same thing: On the street, they clap for military interference, but they punish [the military and parties that favor such 'undemocratic interference'] at the election box," writes Ms. Aydintasbas. "Turkish voters … showed they first think [of] their pocket."

The value of what is in those pockets has rising steadily under AK rule, because of pro-business policies that encourage foreign investment, and a string of EU-inspired and other reforms that have opened Turkey more toward the West.

Despite a string of setbacks that have turned many Turks cold on the EU as it grates against some European resistance against permitting a largely Muslim nation into what has been a Christian "club," Sunday's vote will give new impetus to the EU process.

British Foreign Secretary David Miliband said Europe should "reach out" to the new government of the NATO ally because a "stable and secure Turkey is massively in our interests."

"The electorate [did] not take the arguments that Turkey's secularism was at serious risk seriously," says Ilter Turan, a political analyst also at Istanbul Bilgi University. Opposition parties that "pursued the strategy of ideological polarization based on secularism now will see that people are more interested in issue-based, pragmatic politics."

It was a "major misjudgment," says Mr. Turan, because five years of AK Party rule "did not provide sufficient evidence that these people are out to build a religious state."

Voters displayed all of Turkey's varied political stripes with an 80 percent turnout during scorching weather Sunday, and indicated their wish for stability. In the secular Istanbul stronghold of Bakirkoy, voters warned that an AK Party victory would bring unrest. It "will bring chaos to society," says Haluk Dogan, a sales manager and CHP voter who warned of this "radical Islamic agenda."

"Difficult days are waiting for us," says Omer Kormaz, a car salesman and opposition supporter. "It is impossible, Turkey will never be like Iran. But in the hands of this government, they will try."

But AK Party supporters, now numbering almost half of Turkey's voters, counter that such fears are overblown. They note that past AK efforts to loosen restrictions on head scarves and other changes have stopped.

"I defend secularism, but secular people are not on the same side as us," says Ahmed, who only gave his first name. "For example, if a Muslim person wants to go to university wearing a head scarf, [secularists] do not allow it. Which one is democracy, I ask you?"

And those freedoms are what have caught Turkey's secularists in a bind: where to draw the line when weighing democratic rights against secular tradition?

"Turkey will become a radical Islamist country" frets Sevtap Guru, a sales consultant in Bakirkoy, whose designer sunglasses sport a twisted snake design. "If this [AK Party rule] continues, we will become Arabistan."

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