Tensions between Turkey’s pro-Islamic government and the secular establishment have reached a high point. The turmoil began weeks ago following the ruling party’s decision to nominate Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul as its presidential candidate to replace the staunchly secular Ahmet Necdet Sezer. Pro-secular forces took to the streets of Istanbul and elsewhere to protest Gul’s candidacy. Despite his solid record as foreign minister, the fact that Gul’s wife wears an Islamic headscarf is seen as a symbol of religiosity that disqualifies him to hold the highest national office.
The most recent protests in Izmir illustrate the frustration over what secular Turks see as “creeping Islamism.” But supporters of the ruling Justice and Development Party – known by its Turkish initials AKP – argue that it has supported important economic and judicial reforms. At issue is a power struggle between Turkey’s moderate pro-Islamic government and the secular forces controlling the military and the political opposition.
Since the Turkish Parliament failed to approve Foreign Minister Abullah Gul as a presidential candidate, even after a second-round of balloting, Mr. Gul withdrew his candidacy. To break the deadlock, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan proposed an amendment to the constitution that would enable Turks to elect a new president directly, rather than via the parliament, which is currently the case. The impasse over Gul’s candidacy has also precipitated early parliamentary elections slated for July 22. The amendment to the constitution is a key provision in a package of electoral reforms that Parliament is debating in the run-up to elections. Although Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul withdrew his candidacy, he has more recently said that he will indeed run – if the president is ultimately elected by popular vote.
Speaking with host Carol Castiel of VOA News Now’s Press Conference USA, Turkish-born analyst Henri Barkey, chairman of the Department of International Relations at Lehigh University, says that the current political situation in Turkey is ironic because, despite its Islamist roots, AKP has done exceedingly well in liberalizing the economy and in promoting Turkey’s membership to the European Union, a very secular entity. As a result of its success on the economic front, Barkey says, the AKP is likely to do very well in the July elections. However, on April 27, the Turkish military threatened to intervene, issuing a statement on its website that, as the “absolute defender of secularism,” it was prepared to display its “attitudes and actions very clearly.” If Turkey’s “very meddlesome military” actually does so, Professor Barkey says, it will be the fifth intervention since 1960. But, he adds, this is the first time that a government in Turkey has stood up to the military.
What is not yet clear, Professor Henri Barkey says, is whether Prime Minister Erdogan represents the “face of a new moderate Islam” or the “moderate face of a radical Islam.” Regarding Turkey’s bid to join the EU, Professor Barkey says he thinks that France’s new conservative President, Nicolas Sarkozy, who is opposed to Turkey’s entry, will pose no long-term threat to Turkey’s eventual accession, which would not happen in more than 10 years in any case. But, he adds, it’s important for Turkey to continue its economic and political reforms so as to become “more attractive” to Europe.
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