Of Kerchiefs and Kurds

The leading candidate for prime minister in Turkey’s post-election government is Abdullah Gul, Chairman Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s number two at the top of the AKP, Justice and Development Party, that won a landslide victory in the November 3 elections. After sweeping out the political elite that misgoverned the country and led it into its worst economic crisis since World War II, the incoming party poses some enigmas:

One: How far will the next Turkish government support an American offensive against Iraq?

Two: Is the AKP an Islamic party masquerading as something else?

Three: Where does the army stand in the new regime?

Four: How does the next government propose to contain the rampant inflation, financial near-collapse and staggering unemployment it has inherited?

Five: How to provide for the Kurdish minority whose single party failed to win a place in the new parliament?

DEBKA-Net-Weeklys expert on Turkey clears up a few of these questions.

The Sunday vote was first and foremost a protest vote against the Ecevit government, a center-right/center-left coalition under an aging (77) and ailing PM, who refused to let go.

Past Islamic parties (MSP, RP, FP – all inspired by Necmettin Erbakan) never attracted more than around 20% of the voters. Most observers agree that the 34% AKP showing (which has given this new party nearly two-thirds of the new parliament) is not due to an upsurge in pro-Islamic sentiments, but rather to the strong desire to punish a discredited administration and move onto the next generation.

AKP leaders, especially the charismatic Erdogan, former mayor of Istanbul (1994-1998), skillfully packaged their party in pro-Western, democratic, free market and Kemalist-constitutional terms. They thus made it much easier for the non-Islamic majority to see AKP as a fresh, reasonably moderate alternative.

Is AKP an Islamic party in Kemalist clothing? An analysis of AKP leadership reveals that, unlike previous Islamic parties, it is in fact a mini-coalition of conservative politicians from various parties, including secular center-right ones (eg, DYP and ANAP). Erkan Mumcu, Koksal Toptan, and Bulent Arinc, to name just a few prominent examples, joined forces with progressive and moderate members of past Islamic parties, most notably Erdogan himself, his deputy Abdulah Gul, Abdulkadir Aksu, and Abdullatif Sener.


Kemalism or “Soft” Islam?


Both panel and platform convinced disgruntled secular voters to gamble on AKP’s brand of Kemalism cum “soft Islam.”

Who is likely to become PM? Due to his 1999 conviction for anti-constitutional conduct, Erdogan spent eight months in jail and has been barred from elective office. He has since publicly retracted his more objectionable statements, but is perhaps the biggest enigma of the new political order in Ankara. Even if his sincerity is questionable, the environment in which he and AKP will be operating makes this a much less important issue. Because Erdogan cannot serve as PM, it will be up to him and Turkey’s President, Ahmet Necdet Sezer, a highly respected, popular former Chief Justice, to thrash out a compromise candidate.

Abdullah Gul leads the slate that also includes Vecdi Gonul and Abdulkadir Aksu.

It is also possible that AKP will seek to amend the constitution, for which 367 votes are needed, to enable Erdogan himself to serve as PM. A less likely course is a struggle among the AKP candidates, leading to a constitutional crisis and presidential intervention.

The candidate most widely tipped for prime minister, Abdullah Gul, said two years ago that Turkey’s main problems are kerchiefs and Kurds. He comes from the reformist wing of the Islamist Virtue Party and publicly favors an open society and a democratic Turkey. All the new men may have Islamist roots but none disavow the secularism laid down by the republic’s founder, Kemal Ataturk. However, Mrs. Gul wears a headscarf and never appears with her husband at public functions.

On the other hand, Gul, unlike Erdogan, speaks fluent English and is known for his financial experience and his familiar ties with the diplomatic and foreign investor communities of Ankara.

His main problem could be the popular party leader who, disqualified from the top slot, is likely to remain a leading force as the country’s main power broker.

AKP leaders have promised to take care of the interests of the Kurdish minority of some 10-12 million, whose DEHAP party failed to pass the threshold to parliament. The main problem is Southeast Anatolia, 80 percent of whose population are Kurds. Under the Turkish electoral system, a party needs to ballot 10 percent nationwide to win a place in parliament. That is a sore point that bears watching.

AKP has already committed to EU admission and the IMF-brokered economic rescue package.

These two policy pillars bind the new administration to a pro-Western, democratic, and free market agenda. All these are essential for an EU option (denied to the previous government), and any chance of economic recovery. AKP, even if insincere in its election platform, will have very little leeway on these crucial policy issues.


Army’s Role is Crucial


Certain key issues will be left to the army, such as backing for America’s war on Iraq, which is almost certain to be forthcoming. However, the new administration in Ankara may raise its price. Abdullah Gul pointed out in an interview after the election that Turkey suffered heavy financial losses during and after the first Gulf War, for which it still carries a heavy debt load.

DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s Turkish expert predicts Ankara will insist on firm US commitments for financial support in advance of any action, including help for an IMF crisis package.

The chief of Turkey’s powerful armed forces, Chief of General Staff, General Hilmi Ozkok, wasted no time in flying to Washington two days after the election, arriving Tuesday, November 5. He was there both to reassure the Americans that the army remained the guardian of Turkey’s secular constitution and to wind up the details of the promised American aid package.

The ultimate check against possible AKP transgressions is the Turkish army, now commanded by the American-educated, pro-Europe General Ozkok.

Over the past two decades, the army’s capacity to intervene directly in politics has diminished. A military coup can hardly be contemplated in today’s Turkey, but indirect intercession to block any serious attempt to implement an Islamic agenda is not only possible, but virtually guaranteed. AKP leaders know that very well. The army draws up an annual list of some 100 Islamic-leaning officers to be discharged, which the PM has to endorse. Even the Islamist prime minister Erbakan did not dare withhold his signature in 1996/7, and it is highly unlikely that an AKP PM will either.

The army will continue to promote strong NATO membership, provide quiet support for a pending US intervention in Iraq, and maintain the special relationship with Israel, particularly on defense and intelligence matters.

The AKP leader Erdogen spoke for his Islamic roots when on November 6 he criticized Israeli policies towards the Palestinian as “terrorism”. He declared that Ankara would not link its close economic relations with Israel to “popular anger”, but did not rule out scaling back military ties. Turkey and Israel have held joint air force exercises together and they align their defense policies closely. Any new government in Ankara is not likely to change this.

In this regard, the Turkish Foreign Ministry on Wednesday, November 6, condemned the Palestinian suicide bombing at the Kfar Sava mall in Israel this week, urging the parties to explore all possible means to end the violence. Although still under the outgoing minister, no such statement would have been issued if there was even the slightest doubt that the new government might oppose it.

In the event of some AKP leaders and constituents resolving to promote Islamic issues under the new administration, the areas of potential challenge to the secular status quo are limited to the domestic. Temptation may lurk in such ministries and agencies as education, where the secular school system could be adjusted, support for the religious elementary schools, influence on state universities, extra funding for mosque construction and religious services and amending family laws.

However, failure to resist such temptations could lead to the rapid loss of support among the secular majority and elites.

The risks of Turkey “going Islamic” are therefore fairly low, given the hard choices facing the new AKP government. Turkey will continue to maintain its foreign alliances, and work to satisfy EU requirements on democracy, human rights, and the economy. Even in the lower ranks among new AKP members of parliament, non-Islamist opinion is well represented. Thus, for example, Egemen Bagis, who heads the US-Turkey Association, had lived 17 years in America, is not religious, admits to drinking alcohol occasionally, and seeks to “loosen up” Turkish politics along the American model. AKP leaders, especially Erdogan, are now using him as liaison and English translator in their post-election contacts with foreign officials.

Nonetheless, AKP performance should be continuously monitored, and risk assessment periodically re-evaluated.

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