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Cook: Turkish Elections Positive for Democracy, Relations with U.S.

Interviewee: Steven A. Cook, Hasib J. Sabbagh Senior Fellow for Middle Eastern Studies
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor
July 23, 2007

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Steven A. Cook, an expert on Turkey, says the overwhelming victory of the Justice and Development Party in Sunday’s parliamentary elections has proven “beyond a shadow of a doubt that you can have democracy in a Muslim-majority country and that an Islamic party can be a democratic party.” Cook says the ruling party’s win, which exceeded expectations, is good news for Turkey’s democracy and for relations with the United States and the West.

When we last talked, you were very concerned about the deterioration in U.S.-Turkey relations. What does the parliamentary victory by the ruling Justice and Development Party do to that problem?

As long as the situation in northern Iraq remains uncertain from the Turkish perspective and the cross-border Kurdistan Worker Party (PKK) violence against Turks continues, there will continue to be a problem in U.S.-Turkey relations. Iraq is the bone in the throat of U.S.-Turkey relations. But of all the possible outcomes that you could have had in this election, the victory of the Justice and Development Party, beyond what anybody had actually expected, is actually good for the United States.

The Justice and Development Party has done more for Turkish democracy than any government prior to its coming to power in 2002-2003. It has done more to push Turkey toward European Union membership, and although this transition to democracy has very little to do with the Bush administration’s forward strategy of freedom in the Middle East, it does prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that you can have democracy in a Muslim-majority country and that an Islamic party can be a democratic party. In addition, in comparison to its secularist rivals, which are nondemocratic parties, Justice and Development is more pro-Western and more pro-American than either the Republican People’s Party or the Nationalist Movement Party, known by its acronym MHP.

Why do you say those other parties are not democratic?

They have supported the military’s meddling in politics to undermine the Justice and Development government; they supported the military’s ultimatum of late April, which was one of the main reasons why Justice and Development could not elect a member of the party as president, when it was supposed to happen in May. They have been willing to sacrifice democracy in order to prevent Justice and Development from gaining a parliamentary majority once again.

I should point out that the European Social Democrats have sought to remove the Republican People’s Party [which was founded by the founder of the modern Turkish state, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk] from among its ranks, accusing the leader of the Republican People’s Party, Deniz Baykal, of wanting to establish a Tunisian-style democracy in Turkey, which is to say no democracy at all. The Nationalist Movement Party, which is a far-right nationalist party, which has come in third in the elections with 14.3 percent of the vote, has a world view which does not accord rights to minorities in Turkey, specifically the fourteen million Kurdish citizens of Turkey.

So what was the final result?

As we are speaking, the Justice and Development Party has won 46.6 percent of the vote, which is almost five percentage points higher than even the most optimistic polls had predicted.  The Republican People’s Party won 20 percent, and the Nationalist Movement Party won 14.3 percent, and they’re estimating about 80 percent of eligible voters actually went to the ballot box.

That’s a large turnout.

There was a lot at stake in this election for Turkey. This has motivated large numbers of people to vote. Justice and Development has done as well as it has primarily for two reasons. One, people vote by their pocketbook and their wallet, and the economy has done extremely well. There was also a significant amount of backlash against what happened in late April when the military—along with the secularist camp, along with the judiciary, along with elements within the bureaucracy—conspired to prevent Justice and Development from electing Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul as president.

There are interviews with Turks on the street who said, “Look, I’m not an Islamist, I don’t share an Islamist agenda, but I’m pretty angry about what happened in April. I want to live in a democracy.” There are loads of new members of the Justice and Development party, people who now enter the Turkish Grand National Assembly who are relatively young—in their thirties and forties, who are liberals, who share nothing of an Islamist agenda. But they’ve thrown their lot in with Justice and Development because they want to live in a pluralist, modern, democratic Turkey.

That’s quite interesting. Now the next significant election is supposed to be a constitutional referendum, which may take place as early as in a few weeks.

It’s unclear when this referendum is going to be held. It could be actually as late as October. The vote is a referendum on a constitutional amendment that the Justice and Development Party pushed through in the spring that changes, as you said, the way in which the president of the republic is elected. The way the constitution now reads, the parliament elects the president. Justice and Development wants to change it so that there’s a direct election of the president. What will happen now, if you go by the results of this election, is that it’s likely that that referendum will be approved, and you’ll have a direct election of the president the next time.

Now does that mean the Foreign Minister Gul could be put up again to run?

He absolutely can. Either way—if the referendum is defeated, and they go back to the way in which the constitution now stipulates the president is elected—they could renominate Gul. If the referendum passes, they could nominate Gul to run in this popularly elected presidential election. Now it all depends on the way in which the Justice and Development leadership is reading this just-held election. If they are feeling their oats and they really believe they have a mandate, which in many ways they do, and they want to push the political system as far as they possibly think that they can go with their mandate, they may renominate Abdullah Gul.

Of course the military remains powerful, and in April, it said in no uncertain terms that someone like Gul with his background and his wife who wears hijab [head dress] would be unacceptable to enter the presidential palace. If Justice and Development renominates him, and it looks like he’s going to win, this could cause a clash between the military and the government—something that is clearly not unprecedented in Turkish politics. But there’s reason to believe that that’s not going to happen. If you look back at what Prime Minister Recep Tayip Erdogan and Gul did in the run-up to the parliamentary election, they cleared out a lot of those people in the party—including many who were sitting in the parliament and who were closely aligned to the Islamist movement and the Islamist agenda—and replaced them with these younger, more liberal people in an effort to cool the political temperature in Turkey.

So there are people in that party whose wives are not wearing hijabs?

Absolutely. This is hardly a party of Islamist firebrands. Some of the leadership’s wives wear hijab, some of them don’t.

The hijab causes a problem because there’s a law that stipulates that no religious clothing can be worn in an official government building?

Right. In Turkey a woman cannot wear hijab in the parliament. It’s symbolic. What seems mundane in other parts of the Muslim world, in Turkey, because of the enforced secularism of the political system, takes on symbolic importance beyond the real intrinsic importance of someone wearing hijab, for example. To many arch-secularists in Turkey, the wife of the president wearing hijab in the presidential palace conjures ideas that an Islamist bureaucracy is on the way.

The Justice and Development Party wants to normalize religion in Turkish politics. They want a truly secular system in which people can pray and wear whatever religious garb they want and remove it as an issue in the political arena. In the same way in the United States, you can wear a cross or a yarmulke or a hijab in Congress and this would not cause much of a problem for people. In Turkey this causes tremendous problems.

Now in the weeks leading up to the election, there were constant warnings about buildups of Turkish troops on the border with northern Iraq, that the military was ready to go into Kurdistan to get the PKK forces there. Was that a political gesture by the military to try to swing votes?

The PKK threat continues. And it goes without saying that what the military and others had done was to use the PKK  to weaken the Justice and Development Party government—by demonstrating that this government was weak on this most important of national security issues for average Turks. When the chief of staff says the military is ready to invade northern Iraq and it believes that it would benefit the Turkish nation but it requires a political decision, this was not an indication to my mind that the military was subordinate to the civilians, but was a political move on the part of the general staff to apply pressure on the civilian leadership.

So it backfired, it would seem.

Oh, it certainly backfired. But that’s not something unprecedented in Turkish politics. The military has often signaled things that it wants, and the Turkish public decides to do something completely opposite. The Turkish military is powerful, but it’s a myth that it’s omnipotent. It has often been rebuffed by the Turkish public.

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