Recent elections in Turkey returned the ruling Justice and Development Party, or AKP, to power, with nearly 47 % of the vote, giving them 341 seats in the 550-member Parliament. Many political analysts say the huge victory represented more of a desire for economic stability than a turning away from secularism.
Henri Barkey, chairman of the department of International Relations at Lehigh University, calls the elections a test of a moderate Islamist party, which had achieved most of its political objectives but was nonetheless challenged by the opposition parties and the Turkish military. Speaking with host Carol Castiel of VOA News Now’s Encounter program, Professor Barkey says that AKP increased its share of the vote 12 % from the last election. Ian Lesser, senior transatlantic fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States, says he thinks one of the reasons for the ruling party’s success is that the opposition was fragmented and “highly nationalistic” whereas the AKP displayed much more skill in garnering votes from a large cross-section of religious and secular Turks.
Henri Barkey says the AKP victory poses “absolutely no threat to Turkey’s secular democracy.” And the AKP has now established itself as the center-right party in Turkey. He says the opposition proved “hapless” in aligning itself with the military. Similarly, Ian Lesser does not believe that the strong showing of the Islamic-rooted AKP indicates that Turkey might be moving away from secular tradition. Lesser acknowledges that some people worry about its “ultimate agenda,” but he believes the AKP is in fact a “pragmatic movement.”
Henri Barkey stresses AKP’s goal of becoming part of the European Union, which will not “tolerate any form of Islamism.” And, even though the leaders of the party may have had their roots in “far more radical Islamist groups,” Mr. Barkey says they have changed over time. For example, on the eve of the elections, the AKP got rid of 150-160 MP’s who were part of the “radical Islamist fringe,” replacing them with moderates.
Regarding the choice of a president in Turkey, which is the next step in Parliament, Ian Lesser says that the AKP will have to make a choice. It can try again to nominate Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul, whose wife wears a headscarf, and risk stirring up the staunchly secular opposition. Or, it can decide to consolidate its position by selecting a more moderate candidate who will clearly not pose any threat to the secular order. Professor Barkey says that, because the right-wing National Action Party has announced it will participate in Parliament’s opening session, if AKP decides to push Mr. Gul’s candidacy, he will likely be elected president with a two-thirds majority. Professor Barkey suggests that a far better alternative for Turkey would be to wait until the referendum scheduled for October 21, which will determine whether or not the President will be elected directly by the people. And in that case, Mr. Gul could “present himself in those elections,” although in the meantime there would be an “interim president” against whom others might run.
Ian Lesser suggests that there is now an opportunity to “focus” on U.S.-Turkish relations in a way that Washington has “neglected.” The biggest problem is that of “mutual suspicion,” which includes instability in Iraq, U.S. failure to focus on the PKK (Kurdistan Workers Party) insurgency in the cross-border area, and Iran. Henri Barkey stresses that the Turks want to see neither an independent Kurdistan nor a “robust Kurdish federal entity” in northern Iraq. Professor Barkey notes that the AKP is far more moderate than the Turkish military, the civilian bureaucracy, or the opposition, which has called for a “cross-border operation.” And he notes that for the first time Kurds in Turkey voted more for the AKP than for their own Kurdish party. And 21 Kurdish independents elected to Parliament will be able to form a party, which will provide an opportunity to start a dialogue domestically.
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