Turkey will hold its parliamentary election in July, four months earlier than scheduled, thereby narrowly avoiding a constitutional crisis over the choice of the country’s next president. Nonetheless, Turkey’s bout with political instability has damaged its foreign policy and international standing.
At the center of the storm are Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, head of the moderately Islamist Justice and Development Party (AKP), and Yasar Buyukanit, Chief of the General Staff of the Turkish military, which regards itself as the guardian of the secular republican tradition established by Kemal Ataturk. When Erdogan contemplated moving from the prime minister’s job to the presidency earlier this spring, the military and secular political parties indicated profound dissatisfaction. General Buyukanit said in April that the country’s new president must be secular “not just in words, but in essence.”
Having met and conversed with Erdogan on more than one occasion, I found him a moderate and reasonable man. Moreover, the AKP has broad support among Turkish voters and an admirable record of economic growth, human rights legislation, and improvement in the treatment of Turkey’s Kurdish minority. Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul, a close associate of Erdogan in the AKP, pressed Turkey’s application to join the European Union. So when Erdogan decided to nominate Gul as the AKP candidate for the presidency, I was surprised by the strength of the secularist opposition.
The secular establishment argues that the AKP’s moderation thus far reflects the checks and balances implied by secularist control of the presidency. They argue that if the AKP comes to control the presidency, it may no longer pursue moderate policies. Secularists point with concern to other AKP, such as Speaker of the Parliament Bulent Arinc, who are noted for their pronounced religious and social conservatism.