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Turkey Elections and Pakistan

By Imtiaz Gul

Weekly Pulse, June 17, 2011

Huge bill boards all over Turkey with portraits of Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan carry a three-word promise: Hazir Hadef 2023 (Present Target 2023). 

Strangers keep wondering what this means. But once reminded of the political confidence and objectives of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AK), it is easier to understand what lies behind the slogan; Kemal Ata Turk founded the Turkish Republic in 1923 with a political system that has survived thus far – secular, parliamentary democracy. Now, riding a wave of popularity and boasting economic turn-around since 2002, when the party first got into power, Erdogan and his colleagues want a different constitutional framework for the republic i.e. they may not tinker with the secularism of Ata Turk but consider a Presidential form of government better than the present one. There has been speculation that Erdogan would seek to ultimately become the president himself. And he believes to possess the public support for that as well. 

The resounding third consecutive election victory with nearly 50 percent of the total vote on June 12th reinforced Erdogan’s confidence but on is still short of the two-thirds majority that is required for pushing ahead with a planned new constitution. Although the vote marked AK's highest electoral score since it first came to power in 2002, but failed to win Erdogan enough seats to call a referendum on a planned new constitution. 

Preliminary results based on 99.8 percent of the vote show AK winning 49.9 percent, or 325 seats, just below the 330 required for a plebiscite, and less than the 331 of the 550 seats it had in the last parliament. 

The secularist opposition Republican People's Party (CHP), which scored its best result in more than 30 years with 25.9 percent of the vote, warned Erdogan that he would be watching his movements closely. 

"We wish all success to AKP, but they must remember there's a stronger main opposition party now," Kemal Kilicdaroglu, CHP’s new leader cautioned. 

Erdogan’s AK has undoubtedly transformed Muslim Turkey into one of the world's fastest-growing economies – with close to eight percent growth - and ended a cycle of military coups. His shrewd politics seems to have also rendered the all-powerful military irrelevant in the current circumstances. 

A sustained campaign since 2002 has seen thousands of pro AK jurists, bureaucrats, academics and intellectuals edge out an entire generation of secular intelligentsia – commonly known as Kemalists , prompting fears the AK might steamroll the opposition and herald a new era marked with conscious Islamistation of the society. 

Most people – diplomats and officials – play down these fears, saying secularism is anchored in the constitution and no Turkish leader – however strong – would touch that fundamental principle. 

Since crushing old establishment parties on a wave of support from a rising middle class of religious Turks, Erdogan has gradually challenged the secularist military and the judiciary with reforms aimed at winning Turkey membership in the European Union. 

He also has set the country, a long-time NATO member and U.S. ally, on a more assertive foreign policy course, forging closer ties with Middle East countries, including Iran. Despite close relations with Israel, Erdogan’s party has also been vocal in its criticism of Israeli policies vis a vis Palestinians. 

The election results mean AK will now be forced to compromise with other parties to press on with plans to replace the existing charter, written almost 30 years ago during a period of military rule. 

Present Turkey bears some resemblance to Pakistan as well; the country suffered political instability and economic hardships in the 1970s and 1980s, long periods of military rule, until all parties agreed on a new charter by according a formal role to the military in governance. 30 years ago. The secularist nature of governance as well as the gradual rise of the AK party under Erdogan has clearly led Turkey into political l and economic stability. 

Analysts said Erdogan will also need to focus on reviving Turkey's faltering EU bid and on unrest in neighbouring Syria, which has sent thousands of refugees spilling over the border as Syrians flee an increasingly bloody crackdown.

But, according to many observers, although Turkey remains a European Union candidate , yet strong sense of nationalism and self-confidence among the AK and allies has made the quest for EU membership unattractive – for the time being at least. The real goal now seems to assert Turkey as country that may provide leadership to the polarized Muslim world as a role-model; a Muslim society, driven by faith but ruled by secular democratic ideals , a combination that has turned Turkey into an attractive and reliable partner for all and sundry. Its proactive role in finding a solution to Afghanistan, and the hosting of the International Contact Group on Afghanistan (at Istanbul recently) or the facilitation it provided for meetings between the foreign ministers of Pakistan and Israel in September 2005, offer some examples of the lead role that Turkey is performing as a bridge between the West and the East, as well as a neutral venue for other countries to settle their disputes. 

And the sense that we as got from Turk officials and common citizens is one of overwhelming concern for Pakistan as well. We could discern the empathy for Pakistan wherever we went. Is it the Islamic bond, or a punctuated by military interventions or both? This is a subject for another column. (To be continued.

The writer heads the Centre for Research and Security Studies, Islamabad

Email: imtiaz@crss.pk