Turkey divided: politics, faith and democracy

About the author
Gunes Murat Tezcur teaches political science at Loyola University, Chicago. He specialises in the politics of Iran, Turkey, and Kurdish nationalism. He is the author of Muslim Reformers in Iran and Turkey: The Paradox of Moderation (University of Texas Press, 2010)

A convulsive crisis is gripping Turkey. At stake is not just the choice of the next president or even the future political direction of the country, but the fundamental identity of the Turkish state and society. How this crisis is resolved will determine the evolution of this pivotal nation for years to come, and will - whatever the outcome - have repercussions far beyond Turkey's borders.

crisis which has exposed the profound rifts in Turkish society began with the decision of the ruling Adalet ve Kalkinma Partisi (Justice & Development Party / AKP) to have the new president elected in advance of the parliamentary elections scheduled for November 2007. Turkey's 1982 constitution specifies that the president in Turkey is elected by parliament; although the prime minister is the main executive officer, the president is the highest political authority and wields some substantial veto powers. This makes the presidency, currently held by Ahmed Necdet Sezer, a coveted political position.

Gunes Murat Tezcur is a native of Turkey who teaches political science at Loyola University, Chicago. He is a scholar of Turkish and Iranian politics, Islam and democracy, and Shi‘a Islam

Also by Gunes Murat Tezcur in openDemocracy:

"The Armenian shadow over Turkey's democratisation"
(13 October 2005)

"Hrant Dink: the murder of freedom"
(23 January 2007)

It has long been speculated that the prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan - an ex-Islamist centre-right politician whose party has been in power since the election of November 2002 - sought to parachute himself to the presidency, a process that would start with a nomination from his AKP party by the scheduled date of 26 April 2007. The AKP leadership was aware of the widespread opposition to Erdoğan's promotion, and decided to wait until the last moment to announce its candidate in order to expedite the project.

The plan failed, as hundreds of thousands of secular Turks rallied against his candidacy in Ankara on 14 April in the first of a series of massive demonstrations. Erdoğan's default move was to promote as an alternative the candidacy of his foreign minister and longstanding ally, Abdullah Gül. This failed to appease the opposition, but the proposal came to the parliament for the first round of voting on 27 April. According to the constitution, Gül needed two-thirds of legislators (367 votes) in the first two rounds and 276 in the third round to be elected president. In the event - after a boycott by opposition MP's who sought to abort the process by making the vote inquorate - 361 parliamentarians participated in the voting, of whom 357 of them voted for Gül. The main opposition party, the Cumhuriyet Halk Partisi (Republican People's Party / CHP) argued that the voting was unconstitutional on the grounds that the constitution requires a quorum of 367 parliamentarians; it then appealed to the constitutional court to rule on the validity of the process.

The very same night, a major player in all Turkish constitutional issues - the army - announced its presence in the drama. On its website, the Turkish general staff published a stern memorandum stating that certain groups were relentlessly exploiting sacred religious feelings for their sinister goals and challenging the state's authority. The memo made clear that the armed forces would not stay neutral: as guardian of the state's secular character, it would uncompromisingly defend the principle of secularism. The government responded by criticising the memorandum while adopting a conciliatory tone towards the military.

Two days later, hundreds of thousands again marched in Istanbul in support of secularism, and denounced Gül's candidacy. On 1 May, the constitutional court considered the CHP's application and ruled that the vote for the president in the parliament was invalid. The government's response was swift: prime minister and AKP chairman Erdoğan, called for early parliamentary elections. On 3 May, the parliament in Ankara supported him by voting to hold elections on 22 July rather than November. On 4 May, Erdogan held a two-hour meeting  with the Turkish military's chief-of-staff, Yasar Buyukanit. At this stage, it still appears that the newly elected parliament will elect the eleventh president of the Turkish republic.

Also in openDemocracy's "The future of Turkey" debate:

Reinhard Hesse, "Turkish honey under a German moon" (11 March 2004)

Alex Rondos, "Cyprus: the price of rejection" (22 April 2004)

Murat Belge, "Turkey and Europe: why friendship is welcome" (15 December 2004)

Fred Halliday, "Turkey and the hypocrisies of Europe"
(16 December 2004)

Fadi Hakura, "Europe and Turkey: the end of the beginning"
(5 October 2005)

Daria Vaisman, "Turkey's restriction, Europe's problem"
(29 September 2006)

John Palmer, "A commonwealth for Europe"
(11 October 2006)

Fadi Hakura, "Europe and Turkey: sour romance or rugby match?"
(13 November 2006)

Katinka Barysch, "Turkey and the European Union: don't despair"
(27 November 2006)

The roots of crisis

The current conflict has its deeper roots in the late Ottoman period when a group of highly educated modernisers identified popular traditions and Islamic practices as the cause of their society's backwardness. Their vision of secularism - more strictly, laicism - entailed not only separation between state and religion, but more importantly strict restrictions on public expressions of Islamic identity and the state's control over Islamic organisations. They consolidated their rule with the establishment of the Turkish republic in 1923 and engaged in an ambitious modernisation project.

The military and the judiciary gradually became the self-declared guardians of the republic. As the new state became consolidated in the 1940s, an alternative elite started to emerge: loyal to the republican order, but promoting a more inclusive and tolerant version of secularism. The introduction of free multiparty elections in 1950 brought this elite to power. Over time the conflict between two competing versions of the role of Islam in Turkey's socio-political affairs crystallised into the division between centre-left and centre-right parties.

Centre-right parties have been predominant in Turkey; they won nine of the fourteen elections held between 1950 and 2002. But during the 1990s - partly under pressure of frenetic social change and economic dislocation - the support-base of the centre-right parties started to erode, and religious and xenophobic nationalistic parties rose to fill the vacuum. The electoral victory of the Islamist, but not extreme, AKP in the 2002 elections seemed to restore the pivotal position of the centre-right in Turkish politics, but it did not mend the great rift of Turkish politics.

The AKP and the secular republic

The AKP government has a successful record in many respects. It inaugurated an era of political stability that translated into sustainable growth rates, major democratic reforms, increasing linkages with the European Union, and growing influence in the middle east. However, the AKP also came to resemble the decaying centre-right parties it had replaced. It rapidly matured into a patronage-distributing and hierarchical organisation with very limited pluralism and grassroots participation in decision-making.

Moreover, the AKP has proved unable to overcome the military's hegemony over Turkey's Kurdish policy and take bold initiatives that would contribute to the peaceful solution of the endemic Kurdish problem in the southeast of the country (and accentuated by developments in Iraq). It refused to reduce a 10% threshold of guaranteed seats, which had the effect of excluding Kurdish nationalists from the Turkish parliament and making the body unrepresentative of the full spectrum of political loyalties in the country. This uneasy relationship to democracy also became apparent in its consistent rejection of the idea of having the president elected by direct popular vote of the Turkish people - until it became clear that Abdullah Gül would not be elected by parliament, when it executed an immediate u-turn.

The implications of the events of the last week are twofold. First, it has become clear that Turkish democracy is far from being consolidated. Consensus on even the basic constitutional rules is non-existent and major political actors have little trust in each other. The military left no doubt that it would not tolerate the assumption of the presidency by an ex-Islamist activist and founder of the AKP whose wife (as does the prime minister's) wears a headscarf. It did not matter to the army that Abdullah Gül has been a staunch advocate of Turkey's democratisation and membership of the EU since the early 2000s.

Second, the Turkish citizens who marched in the streets and are backed by the guardians of the state are fearful of the AKP not because of its perceived undemocratic agenda but because of its perceived majoritarianism. They are anxious in a political system where the AKP leaders occupy the three top elected positions - presidency, prime ministry and the speaker of parliament - they would be completely marginalised. It may seem hard to understand that these citizens are afraid of a party that enthusiastically supports Turkey's membership of the European Union, has acted within the parameters of the republic's laws, and is committed to political and economic liberalisation.

But their attitude also fits the logic of Turkey's modern political development, where the main categories of identification - state and society, left and right, secular and religious - resist easy or rigid classification. In this light, it would be too easy to dismiss the protestors' concerns as being unfounded. In their view, secularism does not only mean the separation of state and religion but also a mindset that categorically resists religious communalism and conformism. They may not be right in associating those tendencies with the AKP. Nonetheless, the strength of laicism in Turkey has been a strong factor in taming illiberal forms of Islam. Freedom from religion would have better prospects in the Muslim world if defenders of "secularism" were to march also in Cairo, Islamabad, or Tehran.