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Torn between democracy, the military and Islam

Thursday 10 May 2007

Source : The Independent, 01-05-07

Incredible though it seems, a country that is currently negotiating full
membership of the European Union may be teetering on the brink of a military coup. The political and economic meltdown in Turkey over the election of a new president has brought the generals out of the shadows and the voters on to the streets in their hundreds of thousands.

The crisis began on Friday when Abdullah Gul, who comes from the
Islamic-rooted AK Party, failed to win enough votes in Parliament to take
the symbolic post of president, first held by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. Hours
later the army high command made clear their opposition to Mr Gul, whose wife wears a headscarf - one of the touchstone issues of Turkish politics.

This is Turkey’s biggest showdown between Islam and secularism in recent years; a country that aspires to be the bridge between Europe and the Muslim world is at a critical juncture.

In Turkey, it is important to appreciate, the army sees itself as one of the
main guardians of the secular state. In the current context, the generals
style themselves as protectors of liberalism against those who wish to make Turkey a more Islamic and less tolerant society. Over the past 50 years the military has mounted three coups and helped to oust an Islamist government in 1997. This time, though, their reaction took many by surprise.

The nomination of Mr Gul for the presidency had been widely seen as a
conciliatory sign because it averted the likelihood of the job going to the
more divisive Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan. So why has his
candidature provoked such a crisis? One reason is the alarm among the
secularists about the political programme of the AK Party and its growing
power. Mr Erdogan pressed, unsuccessfully, for the criminalisation of
adultery (backing down only under acute pressure for the EU) and his party has campaigned to restrict alcohol sales.

From Ankara, moreover, the Prime Minister’s decision not to contest the
presidency looks less of a concession than a political tactic. With the
popular Erdogan remaining at its head, rather than in the presidency, AK
stands an excellent chance of winning the next parliamentary elections. It would end up with the posts of prime minister, president and speaker of Parliament - a dominance unrivalled by an Islamic-influenced party.

Perhaps the second reason is the stalling of Turkey’s engagement with
Europe. The prospect of EU membership has been an important element in Turkish politics because it offers something to both sides of the divide. It would mean more rights for those, for example, who wear headscarves, while also guaranteeing the fundamental Western freedoms held dear by the secularists. Turkey’s EU ambitions, however, have been fading fast. With sentiment against Turkish membership hardening in France, Germany and Austria, there is a backlash among secular Turks who feel they are destined never to join the group that Germany’s former chancellor Kohl described as a Christian club.

For Turkey the next few days will be crucial. The country’s top court is
likely to rule today on whether Mr Gul can stand for the second round of
voting in the presidential contest. Whatever the verdict, the army must
refrain from meddling further and accept that democracy sometimes delivers difficult results. Meanwhile the AK Party must do more to reassure its critics that it is not about to challenge the fundamentals of the secular Turkish state. Once the immediate crisis is over, both Turkey and the EU must work harder to make Ankara’s membership negotiations work. The past few days have shown that there is no palatable alternative.

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