Bridging Europe and Asia, Turkey again tests whether Islam can coexist with democracy
But Turkey's tremendous strategic importance is not limited to tangibles. Fairly or not, Turkey is now seen as the great test of the compatibility of Islam, democracy, and Western liberal values, "the emblematic country in regard to the great challenge today," as Pope Benedict XVI called it on his trip to the country last November. How well Turkey weathers its current crisis will be a crucial measure of how that test is going.
The troubles got started in early spring, when Ankara gossip began to focus on Erdogan as the likely successor to the largely ceremonial presidency. Although popular for his business-friendly economic reforms, Erdogan still aroused fears among secularists who remembered his association with a now banned Islamist party when he was the mayor of Istanbul. In addition to having a head-scarf-wearing wife, he had as prime minister backed legislation that some considered overly religious, including a bill to criminalize adultery and another to accredit theologically oriented high schools.
To defuse rising tensions, the ruling party came up with a compromise candidate, Abdullah Gul, the party's affable foreign minister. But though he won a majority of the votes in the first round of the parliamentary process, the CHP, whose members had boycotted the election, petitioned the Supreme Court to annul the vote for lack of a quorum. Veiled threats from the militarywhich had overthrown four governments during the past 50 years-were posted on the general staff website, and the Supreme Court invalidated the vote the next day.
Turkish politics as usual? To some extent. But the stakes seemed suddenly higher. The AKP called for a general election on July 22, five months ahead of schedule, and then pushed through a bill to provide for popular election of the president. For their part, the diverse voices of the opposition mounted large urban demonstrations, most recently in the coastal city of Samsun, while some top party leaders set about forging coalitions to counter the influence of the AKP.
Unfair rap? What is really at stake in all this positioning depends, not surprisingly, on which Turks you happen to talk to. "I accept the label Islamist for the AKP," says Onur Oymen, deputy chairman of the CHP. "They openly say that you can have a democratic society without secularism, even with Muslim laws." Oymen also objects to the unfair rap that the AKP-friendly media have given to his party, including charges that the CHP is the narrowly self-interested party of the old elite and that it now has even cooled on Turkey's entry into the EU. "We say we are the party that most cherishes European values," Oymen says. "My party was the engine of reforms."
Oymen is confident that his party will pick up more seats in the next election. But that confidence is not supported by recent polling data. Ertan Aydin, president of Pollmark Research in Ankara, says that his newest survey finds 39 percent going for AKP, almost 45 percent after the distribution of undecided voters is factored in. That compares with 16 percent for CHP (20 percent after distribution).