TURKEY'S VOTERS didn't necessarily intend to marry Islamic values with Western democracy when they gave a parliamentary majority to the upstart Justice and Development Party in Sunday's general elections. By most accounts, Turks mainly wanted to punish the entrenched political establishment for leading the country into a deep economic crisis, attended by seemingly endemic corruption. Yet the alternative the voters chose amounts to something of a political experiment. With roots in earlier Islamic parties outlawed for testing Turkey's secular order, Justice and Development describes itself as a center-right movement that aspires to create a Muslim-world analogue to the Christian Democratic parties of Europe. Many Turks fear this platform is doomed to fail, or that it may be mere camouflage for a more fundamentalist agenda. Yet, for Turkey's sake and for that of democracy in the Middle East, it should be given a fair chance.
Justice and Development and its leader, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, would face a daunting political landscape even if they were not subject to pressure from the Turkish military and legal establishment. Turkey is on the brink of economic collapse. Its bid for membership in the European Union appears likely to be rebuffed shortly, and it could face a crisis on Cyprus, where a rump ethnic Turkish state may be stranded by an EU invitation to the government that rules the Greek side of the island. Meanwhile, the United States is preparing for a possible military campaign against Iraq, Turkey's neighbor.
Mr. Erdogan has outlined a moderate and careful approach to these challenges. He has strongly supported Turkish membership in the EU and the political reforms needed to achieve it, and says he will implement economic reforms. On Iraq, he has hewed to the Turkish mainstream, voicing concern about war but signaling that he would defer to the United Nations or to a decision by the Turkish military. Though as mayor of Istanbul Mr. Erdogan pursued an Islamist agenda, he says he has changed his approach. His party has taken in secular conservatives and nominated many women; Mr. Erdogan says his aim is to broaden Turkish democracy and make room for more free expression of all kinds, including moderate Islamic practice.
It's important that Mr. Erdogan be held to this agenda: Turkey cannot afford a radical change of foreign policy or a domestic revolution at this moment of crisis. The Turkish military, which ousted a previous Islamic government in 1997, can be expected to intervene again in the event of such a shift. But the military and the Turkish legal authorities, who have prohibited Mr. Erdogan from holding office and are trying to ban his party, should give Justice and Development an opportunity to perform. The Bush administration, too, should seek to build a partnership, while continuing to urge European governments to begin negotiating Turkey's EU membership. While Mr. Erdogan may fail, he could succeed in creating a model of democratic political practice sorely needed in the Muslim world.