Beyond wishful thinking – Can AKP transform itself and Turkey?


Saturday, July 28, 2007, Turkish Daily News

Orhan Kemal Cengiz

There is a saying I like a lot: “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger!” I think this motto would be a fantastic summary of a possible explanation of the unprecedented success of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) in the elections held on July 22. I believe there are various factors in the AKP’s success, a significant one being its victimization by the civil and military bureaucracy in Turkey. The blows that did not kill the AKP made it stronger than ever. These blows also turned into the cement holding together the coalition of diverse identities and wide spectrum of ideologies that supported the AKP. In this election people whose worlds have never crossed voted for the same party. From high society members to shanty town dwellers, from devout Muslims to atheists, liberals and communists all came together to vote for the same party. Some voted for the AKP because this was how everyone in their local mosque was voting. Some did it for democracy, some for stronger ties with the EU, some in protest to military intervention in the political arena, some for economic growth attributed to the AKP’s policies, and some for many of these reasons combined. The result was a huge coalition that attracted 46.5 percent of the total votes.

Can the AKP continue to hold this large coalition together? Can the AKP transform itself and Turkey? Can the AKP create and sustain a model of religious and secular people living together in peace? I think there are some elements decisively affecting the answers to these questions. Let us look at them in brief.

Presidential election

In Turkey, “wishful thinking” is one of the common diseases we all share. The Turkish military strongly guards the political system and it would be quite unrealistic to think that the AKP’s election success will have a magical and instantaneous effect on these complex power relations.

If the AKP insists on Abdullah Gül or someone else from a Milli Gorus (national view, conservative religious) background, the presidency issue will be a constant source of conflict between the government and the military. This is so not only because the military is allergic to the headscarf that Mr. Gül’s wife wears but also because the Turkish presidency has very strong veto and appointment powers provided by the coup de etat’s Constitution of 1982. The wisest and most democratic step that the AKP can take in this area is to seek consensus with all political parties, and after electing the president, to curtail presidential powers by constitutional amendment in order to bring the office within the bounds of a parliamentary democratic system.

Pushing for the election of Mr. Gül as president will not create a democratic revolution in this country. Democratic revolutions are not realized by power struggles but by creating and reinforcing democratic institutions and by following the virtues and values of democracy. Democratization lies in getting the office of the president in line with a democratic parliamentary system, not in its occupation by a “democratic person.”

AKP’s newcomers

The AKP revamped its candidate pool before the elections. These newcomers are part of the reason for the increased diversity of the AKP’s support base as they come from a wide political spectrum, from liberals to veteran social democrats. I strongly believe that the litmus test of the AKP’s assertion that it is now a central party will be its relations with these newcomers. Some of them have just joined the political arena but some of the social democrats and liberals have long been known in Turkey for their democratic stance toward problematic issues. If the AKP achieves the absorption of these people, using them for their ideas not just their image, then it will not only be successful in reassuring the masses that the AKP is no longer a religious oriented party but will transform itself into a huge central power in Turkish politics. However, if the AKP cannot manage to keep these people as members, its loss will be much greater than what it has currently gained from their inclusion. Some of these politicians have joined the AKP believing it to be the only party defending a civil and democratic Turkey en route to joining the EU. If the AKP loses its vision or fails to make them feel they are part and parcel of the party and their words are taken seriously, divorce will be inevitable. The AKP’s relation with this handful of newcomers is key to both its internal transformation and its ability to transform Turkey.

Interferences with life styles

Republican rallies sent the message to every corner of Turkey that some citizens of Turkey see some other citizens as second class. The grassroots of the AKP watched these rallies with gritted teeth. In Turkey we now have a considerable number of secularist/republican people who have no tolerance for any public appearance of Islam. They wish that the public appearance of Islamic symbols would disappear from their sight. This of course, creates its counterpart; after this victory, one of the deadliest mistakes that the AKP’s supporters could make would be to try to interfere with the life styles of nonreligious people by doing such things as revoking alcohol licenses. These kinds of gestures would create and reinforce prejudices, which would deepen the already existing divisions in Turkish society.

In short, if the AKP can resolve this presidency crisis with a democratic outcome, if it manages to absorb its newcomers and make them a part of its decision making, if it can assure the masses that it will not interfere with their life styles, if it continues the reform process of harmonization with the EU and by these reforms deepens the democratization of Turkey and improves the nation’s human rights standards, the AKP will not only maintain its election success but will transform Turkey and show the world that a Muslim country can be democratic and in peace with the West and Western values. If the AKP can achieve all of these, then this would be a real revolution for Turkey affecting the entire Muslim world. I hope the AKP will start to deal with the essence of the matter rather than preoccupying itself with tiny details. And the essence of the matter is democracy and more democracy, nothing else!