Turkey's Democracy Crisis
The 'secular' opposition and military try to prevent the free election of a new president.

Tuesday, May 1, 2007

TURKEY'S ATTEMPT to consolidate a liberal democracy in a predominantly Islamic country has reached a turning point. The parliament is due to elect a new president this month, and the ruling AK party of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan holds a commanding majority of seats. Mr. Erdogan has led the most successful government in recent Turkish history; polls show that his party remains by far the country's most popular. His nominee for president, Abdullah Gul, has served capably as foreign minister and is well regarded in Western capitals.

In a fully mature democracy Mr. Gul's election would be a foregone conclusion. Instead, Turkey entered this week in crisis, with the Supreme Court considering an opposition attempt to stop the vote on procedural grounds and the military issuing an ominous warning that it might intervene. The reason is the background of Mr. Gul and Mr. Erdogan: Both have political roots in moderate Islamic parties and are supported by many Turks who would like to see the country relax the rigid secularism its governments have practiced since the end of World War I. The fear that control by the AK party over both the posts of president and prime minister might allow for such a change prompted the military's pronouncement and a demonstration by hundreds of thousands of people in Istanbul on Sunday.

The record of the past few years strongly suggests that Western governments have no grounds to support the attempt to stop the election, much less a military coup. Far from pursuing an Islamic agenda, Mr. Erdogan has led Turkey's effort to join the European Union, implementing numerous progressive reforms that previous governments failed to accomplish. An economic basket case five years ago, Turkey now is rapidly growing and modernizing. In the teeth of fierce anti-American sentiment stirred by the Iraq war, Mr. Gul has been a friend of the United States. He and Mr. Erdogan have promised repeatedly to respect the secular constitution; to assuage the opposition, Mr. Erdogan chose not to follow previous prime ministers who had sought the presidency, though he is the country's most popular politician. The fears about Mr. Gul boil down to mostly symbolic matters, such as whether his wife will wear a head scarf in public.

If the Supreme Court rules in favor of the opposition challenge, the result would probably be a new general election, which could give the AK party a new mandate, or force it to compromise with the opposition. Mindful of its low standing among Turks, the Bush administration has tried to avoid being drawn into the political conflict while quietly urging the Army to remain in its barracks. But U.S. support for a democratic outcome -- an election untainted by military pressure -- should be unambiguous. Turkey stands to benefit if the millions of people who support the AK party can be fully included in a political system that for years was controlled by an elite tainted by incompetence and corruption. In a region where Islam and democracy have yet to be fully reconciled, fears about mixing the two are reasonable. For now, however, the principal threat to democracy in Turkey comes not from the AK party but from its opponents.

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