Like all good actors, politicians destined for greatness know when it is time to bow out. Those who mess up the timing are punished by history, often harshly. It is, therefore, not surprising that Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyib Erdogan should be preparing his exit with the same determination that has helped him score several firsts.
To begin with, his Justice and Development Party (AKP) is the first Islamist, albeit moderate, formation to win a straight parliamentary majority in a Turkish general election. AKP is also the first Turkish party in a generation to be able to do without coalitions and form a government on its own. More importantly, from Erdogan’s point of view, he is the first Turkish Premier in decades to face no credible challenge from within his camp.
Add to all this the fact that Erdogan’s record in office is quite impressive by any standards, and you might wonder why is he trying to bow out. The answer is simple: like all parties that spend years in power the AKP may be facing a reversal of electoral fortunes.
The AKP was swept to power four years ago with the support of just 34 per cent of voters. But, thanks to a peculiar electoral system, it ended up with two-thirds of the seats in the Grand National Assembly (parliament). Plagued by division, all but one of Turkey’s secularist parties, including some with decades of history, failed to capture a single seat.
That lesson, however, has been learned by most secularist leaders. The Republican People’s Party (CHP) leader Deniz Baykal is already working on a centre-left grand coalition for next year’s general election. The right-of-centre Motherland Party (ANAP) which, under the late Turgot Ozal, started the process of economic and political modernisation in Turkey in the 1980s is also working on a strategy of union under its leader Erkan Mumcu. It might well be able to work out a common project with the True Path Party (DYP), under Mehmet Agar, which also targets the right-of-centre electorate.
Whether or not a grand anti-AKP coalition becomes a reality no one knows. But most observers of the Turkish scene agree that next year the AKP is unlikely to win enough seats to form another government on its own. Erdogan seems to share that analysis. Thus he thinks that he has less than 18 months in which to secure a number of enduring footholds for the AKP within the Turkish power structure.
To achieve that goal he has started to fill as many key posts as possible within the civil service and state-owned corporations with people close to the AKP. He has also conducted a quite purge of the judiciary, replacing secularist judges who retire with those with pro-AKP Islamist sentiments. Even the military, the bastion of secularism, has been forced to accept an in-take of officers suspected of harbouring pro-AKP sentiments.
A second element in Erdogan’s strategy is the loosening of the tight grip that the Turkish state has had on religious activities since the foundation of the republic more than 80 years ago. He has done so partly under the cover of European Union “values” which include “freedom of faith” without state intervention.
In other words Europe’s secular values are used to help AKP wrest away control of Turkey’s religious institutions, including over 100,000 mosques and waqf (endowment) businesses with billions of dollars in annual turnover, from the state. The fact is that Turkish secularism does not mean a separation of mosque and state but the control of the former by the latter. Erdogan hopes to free religion from government control and, in time, build it into a counterweight for secularised state structures.
Erdogan’s strategy has a third element: winning the post of the President of the Republic for himself.
The term of the incumbent President Ahmet Necdet Sezer, a left-of-centre secularist, ends next year, just months before parliamentary elections. And since the president is elected by the parliament, Erdogan could easily win the post thanks to AKP’s two-third majority which remains valid until a new Grand National Assembly is elected.
If fully implemented, Erdogan’s stratagem would enable the AKP to slow down, if not actually prevent, any reversal of its policies that a new secularist coalition government might try to introduce. Although a non-executive post, the Turkish presidency is, nevertheless, important insofar as its formal consent is needed for the parliament and government’s decisions to be implemented smoothly and speedily.
Erdogan thinks that AKP may never a get a second chance to form a government on its own. He is thus trying to make sure that, long after the AKP government is gone, the Turkish state will continue to retain a certain Islamist flavour, to say the least.
The secularist leaders, of course, know what Erdogan is up to and are trying to throw in as many monkey wrenches as they can in his machine.
Former President Suleyman Demirel, who had for decades, as party leader and prime minister, used Islamist themes to boost his image, especially in the rural communities of eastern Anatolia, is transforming himself into an unabashed champion of secularism.
Using his “second youth” at the age of 80 he is on the campaign trail to warn the Turks that playing with religion in politics could lead them into the same “tragic impasse” that Iran finds itself under the mullahs. The first move to stop that from happening, according to Demirel, is to prevent Erdogan from winning the presidency.
Necdet Sezer, the incumbent president, echoes that view. He is getting ready to abandon the tradition under which the head of state stays out of partisan politics in order to fight Erdogan’s attempt at becoming his successor.
All in all the stage is being set for what could become the longest, and possibly the ugliest, electoral fight the republic has experienced.
And both sides share the blame.
Erdogan has abandoned the statesmanlike posture that helped him score major successes at home and abroad, to recast himself as a political street fighter, ignoring the Marques of Queensbury’s rule. His tone has become angrier by the day with his cool elegant style all but gone. He has accused his critics of being “atheists” disguised as secularists.
“If Erdogan continues on this path he may soon sound like the Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad,” says a leader of the Nationalist Action Party (MHP). “Inciting religious hatred against opponents has no place in a democracy.”
Erdogan’s opponents, however, have done their own bit of dirty fighting. Demirel, for example, says that anyone who wants an “Islamist” life should emigrate to Saudi Arabia or Iran.
One theme hammered in, mostly by the Turkish left, is that Erdogan is trying to “Arabise” Turkey, and put the clock of history back by more than a century. There is, of course, little truth in such charges.
Erdogan has done more than any other Turkish leader to speed up his country’s hoped-for membership of the European Union. And, although he has visited Arab capitals more often than his predecessors, Erdogan has done little to reorient Turkish policy towards the Middle East.
With the attention focused on Iran and Iraq it would be wrong to ignore political developments in Turkey, the other major player that can affect the bigger regional picture – for better as well as for worse.