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Turning point for Turkey

Turkey is faced with a difficult dilemma. It has to choose between democracy and secularism. The consequencesof the path it takes will have an impact the world over, writes Pran Chopra.
None | By Pran Chopra
UPDATED ON JUL 30, 2007 11:35 PM IST

Writing on this page in the middle of May this year, I had suggested that “far from being too far away to worry about” the situation that was then developing in Turkey, should “concern everyone”. The core of that situation was the elections that were impending in the country. Now, the results have burst upon the scene with such energy that they will not only impact Turkey, but also the whole of West Asia, the European Union, Russia and the United States. In fact, it will affect anyone with a stake in democracy and in the future of secular politics, whether democratic or not.

As in May, so now, the future of Turkey and its role in the region rest upon what happens to the legacy left behind by Kemal Ataturk, one of the country’s most daringly inventive leaders. He set Turkey firmly on the path to becoming a secular society, which would also aim to become democratic. Since then, the domestic polity of Turkey has rested upon a balance between secular values and democratic practices.

But in recent years, democracy has thrown up some political parties, including the present ruling party, the AKP, whose secular credentials have begun to be questioned. This has become more insistent since last week’s elections, as some of the smaller parties are trying to make up for their electoral deficit with a more strident display of secular credentials.

So, on the one hand, there is the AKP, which is still a bit short of absolute majority on its own, but whose electoral credentials are now stronger than after the preceding elections in 2002. On the other hand, there is the main opposition party, which claims to be as democratic but is seen as more secular. Between, behind and above these rivals stands another inheritor of Ataturk Turk’s legacy — the army. It used to be able to pull any party back if it thought that in the name of democracy, the party was straying too far from Ataturk’s standards of secularism. It did that even to the AKP, and that too as recently as in 2003, when that party tried to elect Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul as President. The army stepped in because it suspected his secularism.

But can the army intervene now, in the face of a much stronger electoral performance by the AKP? The political party certainly has the numbers in the legislature to override the army’s intervention. Provisions in the Constitution can come in the way of an intervention by the army, or even in the way of the AKP if it turns upon the army.

But then, what will the defeat of democracy at the hands of the army do to the AKP’s claim that Turkey is now democratic enough to be admitted to the EU? And will Turkey still be accepted by the EU if its secular credentials are dented by what the AKP might do in domestic politics — for example, by electing Abdullah Gul as President?

These are contradictory issues to be weighed in the scales by Turkey as it decides in the coming weeks whether to obey the electoral mandate and change domestic polity the way the AKP may want, or to look over its shoulders at European secularists. But the consequences of what it chooses to do will go far beyond Turkey so long as the country is driven in one direction by its longing to join the EU and in the opposite by the powerful non-secular thrust that the latest elections have given to the country’s emerging politics.

The burden of choosing falls upon Turkey at a time when contrary impulses are making marriages of convenience in parts

of West Asia and the Mediterranean. For example, Palestine has already caused ripples in Arab politics by putting the crown of democracy upon the ultra-radical Hamas. What ambitions will that kindle in the breast of the Muslim brotherhood in Egypt, where the Islamic streak in democratic politics has been held in check only by corruption in Cairo and the power of US patronage? Or in much of north-eastern Africa, where democracy is trying to find its feet in the wake of rebel armies? Or in Iraq, where it is sure already that democracy will not sell if it is secular? Or, above all, in Iran, and in its neighbour Afghanistan, whose own neighbour is Pakistan?

What paths will Europe, the US and Russia choose in wooing possible friends and allies in this increasingly complex market? All three are in an expanding mood, and will happily jettison some of their own values to expand their respective zones of influence. But who will buy what, and in which currency, when the bazaar itself is vacillating between democracy and secularism?

Pran Chopra is a political analyst and former Chief Editor, The Statesman.

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