Bridging Europe and Asia, Turkey again tests whether Islam can coexist with democracy
Talk to some of the young Turks who attended the huge pro-secularist demonstrations, and you get an idea of why Ataturk's old party now fails to win them over. "The CHP is a dinosaur," says Gokhon Bolcioglu, 26, a part-time student who works in a popular Beyoglu cafe and attended the Istanbul rally. For him and others, the CHP is a party of arrogant old men who have long exploited their power to secure their wealth and position at the top of Turkish society.
The prospect of a military intervention to rein in the AKP is just as unsavory to most young urban Turks. Erdem Sezer, 20, vice president of the student council at Istanbul's Bahcesehir University, believes secularism is just as important as democracy, but he firmly supports the slogan that was shouted at all of the big rallies: "Neither sharia nor coups." Yet Sezer despairs when he thinks about the coming election and the ideological differences that splinter the opposition into small, ineffectual parties: "Which party can we vote?" Sezer asks. "We can't find anything close to our minds."
For a few years after the general election in 2002, the AKP did manage to win the trust of many young, upwardly mobile Turks, even those of a secular bent. Bahcesehir University sociologist Nilufer Narli calls it a "marriage of convenience." The AKP emphasized its free-market reforms to shore up its image as a conservative "center right" party, and urban professionals ignored the religious trappings to embrace the AKP as the party of economic opportunity.
Shifting focus. But the AKP changed its tune after a few years in office. "We don't know what exactly happened in early 2006," says Haluk Tukel, secretary general of Turkey's oldest and most prestigious business association. But Tukel suggests that the AKP's shift in focus might have had something to do with the first signs that key European powersparticularly Germany and Francewere growing cool on the idea of Turkey in the EU. And this was not the only blow to Turkish national pride. The failure of America to crack down on Kurdish terrorists operating out of northern Iraq seemed to be not only a hypocritical betrayal of the global war on terrorism but also a threat to Turkish security. The huge box-office success of a virulently anti-American film, Valley of the Wolves Iraq, captured the rising chauvinistic mood.
As Turkish political parties took a more nationalist turn, the AKP, with its conservative religious base in the provinces, began promoting Islamic principles in legislation and religious symbols in public life. Indeed, the party's growing concern with religious symbolism seemed at times to take precedence over effective governance. When the popular and successful governor of the Turkish central bank was replaced by a deputy governor whose wife wore a head scarf, the motivation, AKP critics charged, was purely religious. "The marriage of convenience collapsed," says Narli.
Leaders of the AKP themselves now admit that mistakes were made, even though they insist that the opposition exaggerates them to polarize the voters. "We will choose more candidates from the center," says Saban Disli, the AKP's deputy chairman for foreign affairs, adding that everybody in the party now knows that "religious issues cannot be legislated." AKP leaders are fully aware that the peculiarities of Turkey's parliamentary system (including a 10 percent threshold for a party to win seats in the parliament) allowed them, with only one third of the popular vote, to claim a legislative majority. "We will seek to reformulate our policies," Disli says. "We will try a more compromising approach to the delicate issues."