Geopolitics: Fears that Turkey’s AKP may push the Islam agenda

Geopolitics: Fears that Turkey’s AKP may push the Islam agenda

This report examines the internal situation in Turkey. It looks at the role of the military in politics, the impact of Islam in society, the Kurdish issue and the country’s policies which affect its relations with the European Union. Reforms will be brought about only through consensus and a new constitution.

TURKEY has experienced far-reaching changes over the last ten years and the driving force has been the Justice and Development Party (AKP).

The key figures are Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who took office in March, 2003, and Abdullah Gul, the president since August, 2007.

The AKP regards itself as a party which emphasises the importance of Islamic values in private and public life

Their party won 34.2 per cent of the vote in the general election in November, 2002, having been founded only a year earlier.

Five years later, in the elections of July, 2007, it increased its share to 46.58 per cent, and boosted this to 49.84 per cent on 12 June, 2011.

The Republic of Turkey was founded in 1923 on the ruins of the Ottoman Empire. Politics and society were essentially revolutionised according to the ideas of Mustafa Kemal known as Ataturk from 1934.

Army and politics

To him modernisation was synonymous with Europeanisation. Three of the six principles of his revolution - republicanism, nationalism and secularism - were of particular importance and were embodied in the programme of the Republican People’s Party (CHP).

The single-party system developed into a multi-party system at the end of the Second World War and the CHP’s influence waned, but the army saw itself as the upholder of Kemalist values.

The army intervened repeatedly directly in politics, most recently in 1980. And the 1982 constitution, which is still in force, bears the hallmarks of a military which has had great influence on Turkish politics through the National Security Council.

The AKP regards itself as a party which emphasises the importance of Islamic values in private and public life.

But it also upholds the constitutional principle of the separation of religion and politics, social pluralism and democratic institutions. Its leadership remains keen for Turkey to join the European Union.

The AKP follows in the footsteps of the Islamist movement in Turkey, which is linked to the name of Necmettin Erbakan, who died in March, 2011.

Joining EU

He was suspected, from the time he entered politics in the 1960s, of violating the secularist principles of Turkey’s founder Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. He was accused instead of setting out to establish an Islamic system in Turkey.

The parties he founded were repeatedly banned, most recently the Virtue Party, which was banned in 2001.

But unlike Mr Erbakan, who was ambivalent to the Kemalist Turkey, leading figures in the AKP are fully committed to the constitutional order of the country.

Far-reaching reforms in society and the legal system were at the forefront of the AKP’s political activity during its first years in government.

The party clearly aimed to prepare Turkey for negotiations to join the EU and accession talks began in October, 2005.

Observers believe that, in view of the reforms passed by parliament between 2003 and 2007, Turkey is heading towards a post-Kemalist society.

Reform agenda

True sexual equality was enshrined in penal and civil law. The death penalty was abolished. The approach to the Kurdish question was revolutionary.

Rigorous Turkish nationalism since the founding of the Republic of Turkey, had denied that Kurdish people live in Turkey.

The basic tenet was that only Turkish people live in Turkey and there is only one Turkish language and anyone speaking of Kurds must mean ‘Mountain Turks’.

The Kurdish Workers Party (PKK) fought an armed struggle from 1984. This was, at times, almost a civil war against the suppression of Kurdishness. Kurdish political parties were repeatedly outlawed.

Kurdish question

The Erdogan government performed an about face on the Kurdish question. It recognised that there is a Kurdish question and it also liberalised the use of the Kurdish languages in public, allowing language courses, albeit with restrictions.

The prime minister inaugurated a Kurdish-speaking channel on Turkish television (TRT-6) in January, 2009, and the Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) is represented in parliament by independent candidates.

The role of Islam in Turkish society has also lost its taboo status. There is public discussion today about the importance of Islam and Islam is also outwardly present in Turkish society with the fasting month of Ramadan now being recognised with social pressure to observe fasting in public.

The most visible and open example of Islam is the growing number of women wearing Islamic headscarves

Islamic headscarves

The most visible and open example of Islam is the growing number of women wearing Islamic headscarves. This almost sparked a national crisis in 2007 when the AKP announced that it would field foreign minister Abdullah Gul, whose wife wears a headscarf, as a candidate in the presidential elections.

The prospect of a first lady wearing a headscarf and living in the presidential palace - the most hallowed of the Kemalist republic - mobilised the Kemalist secular state elite to strongly oppose Mr Gul’s election.

The two most tenacious bastions of Kemalism, the military and the judiciary, were alarmed and used legal tricks and propaganda to impose public pressure against his election.

Weakened military

The conflict ended only after a new parliament with a strong AKP majority was elected and Mr Gul was voted in.

The election of Mr Gul also made it clear that Prime Minister Erdogan had managed to weaken the military, the upholder of Kemalism.

An effective element of that strategy was a trial nicknamed ‘Ergenekon’, based on a mythical place in the history of the Turks in Central Asia.

The trial largely concerns plans being hatched by military officers since 2004 to overthrow the government. It is the first time serving soldiers have had to answer to a civil court. More than 100 currently serving and retired officers and non-commissioned officers have been arrested.

The prime minister was also keen to intervene in promoting the most senior officers. This had been the preserve of the army until now.

When the entire general staff resigned in protest in August, 2011, it was a signal that the army had lost its independence and was now under the control of the politicians.

Widespread fears

The AKP, with 49.84 per cent of votes, nearly managed to obtain an absolute majority in the June, 2011, elections. The success was a combination of the AKP platform, the prime minister’s charisma and the country’s economic boom despite a world financial crisis.

Turkish society has undoubtedly experienced liberalisation and pluralism under the AKP and broad sections of society are willing to vote for the party.

But many people regard the current situation with concern.

There are widespread fears that the prime minister could have a hidden agenda amounting to the further Islamification of Turkey.

Mr Erdogan does not treat political opponents with kid gloves and human rights organisations report that dozens of journalists critical of the government have been jailed.

Constitutional change

A referendum over a series of constitutional changes in September, 2010, made clear that deep ideological fault lines run through Turkish society.

One of these concerned a proposal to change procedures for electing constitutional court judges, which would give parliament and the government greater say in their appointment.

There was fierce division before the vote with only a minority of those involved actually concerned about the issue itself, let alone the detail. A ‘yes’ vote meant agreement with Mr Erdogan’s social project, while ‘no’ meant rejecting it and sticking to the traditional Kemalist ‘project.

The prime minister won the referendum with 57.9 per cent support.

Old wounds

The greatest concern, however, is the future of the Kurdish question, which has bubbled up again.

Mr Erdogan was concerned in 2009 to find a comprehensive solution in the context of the democratisation of Turkey. But he changed tack before the June, 2011, elections with the remark that there is no Kurdish question.

He reopened old wounds by stating there are only questions of Kurds who have a problem with the Turkish state.

The prime minister’s rhetoric has lent impetus to radical forces in the PKK, who have taken up the armed fight against the Turkish military again.

EU relations

But past experience indicates that neither side will win but it could threaten Turkey’s inner stability and progress on reform. This would have a knock on effect on relations with the EU.

The greatest concern, however, is the future of the Kurdish question, which has bubbled up again

It is against this background that observers are noting how the country’s most important future political project - the replacement of the constitution of the generals by a new constitution - is being driven forward.

The new constitution is designed to place the principles of democracy and civil rights ahead of Kemalist principles of state.

The electorate did not give the AKP government a two-thirds parliamentary majority, to go it alone in June, 2011. That means the new constitution will need consensus between the most important political and social forces in Turkey. That is cause for optimism.

Turkey facts

President: Abdullah Gul since 2007

Prime Minister: Recep Tayyip Erdogan since 2003

Ruling government: Islamist-leaning The Justice and Development Party (AKP) since 2002

Population: 75.8 million (UN, 2010)

Capital : Ankara

Largest city: Instanbul - population 13.2 million

Major religion : Islam

Main exports: Clothing and textiles, fruit and vegetables, iron and steel, motor vehicles and machinery, fuels and oils

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