Turkey: Secularism, Democracy, Republic

Whatever the Claims, the Islamist AKP Will Slowly Try to Change the System from Within

News | Guerkan Birer | September 2007

Abdullah Gül, the contorversal new president of Turkey (Photo: José Cruz/ABr)

On Apr. 24, Abdullah Gül, then Turkey’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, was nominated by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, as a "candidate" in the presidential elections.

What followed has been a period of "awakening" for secular Turks. Millions took to the streets of Istanbul, Izmir and Ankara in protest, shouting "We don’t want Gül as president!" It was clear that they wanted neither Abdullah Gül as the first president of the Turkish Republic with a political background of radical Islam, nor his wife, who would be the first "first lady" in the Republic’s history wearing a headscarf, representing them and the democratic, secular, social republic that they want to live in.

The opposition parties CHP,  ANAP and DYP protested against his candidacy, the military issued an electronic declaration and as a result it was not possible for the AKP to reach its goal. This was a big relief for the millions on the streets and the end of the nightmare.

Only four months later, after the victory of the AKP in new elections, Abdullah Gül has indeed become the 11th president of the republic, and for many the first president of the 2nd Republic. And this time without any protests. After all those demonstrations, how could AKP increase their percentages from 34% to 47%?

What happened to all those people in the streets? Did they all forget about the nightmare and vote for AKP? Or did they believe Erdogan when he removed 150 old representatives from the list of candidates and promised that the AKP has pulled up its Islamic roots and became a liberal conservative party?

And more important, what will happen now?

I am not as optimistic as most of the columnists in the Turkish press, those who say, "Gül will act according to the rules of the game. He won’t be involved in day-to-day politics and will be even-handed to all parties and all people."

Some columnists even seem to believe he will be a very good president and help to speed up the process for Turkey to join the EU.

To start with, the press is not free in Turkey. This was proven once again with the Aug. 14 firing of leading investigative journalist Emin Cölasan, a columnist for the daily Hürriyet and one of the most famous names in Turkey’s written press, following the appearance of an article severely critical of the government. The print press in Turkey is part of the establishment, supported by the rich elite, which helps explain the election results. With almost perfect support from the media, the AKP was able to convert 13% of the voters in just a few months.

Of course there were other reasons: They had a budget – from sources as yet unrevealed – larger than the sum of all the opposition parties combined. In addition, the AKP availed itself of government autos, helicopters, planes and many other resources for the campaign, in defiance of Turkish law and far beyond the levels of any previous government.

Thus Erdogan was able to hold two to three events per day in different cities. Government funds were also used for a wide-reaching campaign of family support in the form of gifts of coal or packages of food, delivered as presents from the party.

He was bribing the poor with gifts. And he succeeded.

The victory was not only due to these efforts of course. The opposition  parties were also unable to persuade people that they would do a better job. The opposition CHP had no clear plans in terms of economic development or joining the EU.

In addition, the two liberal-conservative parties, the DYP and the ANAP, tried to unite under a new party, DP, and form a block that could be attractive for the liberal voters.

But shortly before the elections, the ANAP pulled out.

This was a fiasco, and as a result ANAP did not enter the elections and the DYP alone was only able to pull 5% of the vote, down from 9.6% in 2002, and thus won no seats.

It is a matter of record that Turkey has experienced a relatively low inflation rate (currently about 8%) and an economic growth of over 5% for four years in a row. When this is compared with the 1990s, with an inflation rate of over 100%, one is force to agree that the AKP has been successful in macro economics. This is, of course, one of the reasons they received such strong support. People cannot consume secularism. They need food, clothes and coal to live.

Whatever the reasons, the AKP won the elections and Abdullah Gül is the new president of Turkey. So what will happen now? Will they try to change the Constitution, or will the AKP really become a liberal conservative party that has no problems with a democratic, secular system?

I don’t believe that they have changed. They have already proposed to change the Constitution, without giving any details. Many agree that the constitution may need some revision; the one we have was written by the army officials in 1980.

But the signs are worrisome. They have announced their intention to remove Mustafa Kemal Ataturk’s Six Principles from the school curricula, which have been a core lesson of every school child in Turkey. These principles – Republicanism, Nationalism, Populism, Elitism, Reformism, Secularism – have been at the foundation of the Turkish Republic, and the explanation that education will "no longer be political but scientific" is simply not believable under a regime of radical Islam.

The proposed changes to the Constitution do not change the definitions of "republic" and "secularism."  But under the circumstances, one has the sense of the fragility of words. The constitution is, after all, nothing but a written document and how things will change in reality is hard to say.

My belief is that they will slowly try to change the regime, starting with education and the law. Not that there will be a law that says alcohol is forbidden or that women must wear headscarves, at least not in the near future.

But they will most likely not give licenses for any new bars and restaurants. And women who wear mini skirts will be harassed by people on the streets and the police will stand by and do nothing.

Slowly but surely, they will try to suppress the secularists.

Perhaps I am a pessimist or perhaps paranoid. But when one reads the history of the Islamic revolution in Iran, it is clear that 20 years before the revolution, no one in Iran would have believed it would happen

With all my pessimism, I still want to believe that the people, especially the women, will fight for their rights before it’s too late. Because as I am a secularist, I am also a democrat, and don’t want another army putsch.

Gürkan Birer is a Turkish national with degrees from Bogazici University and the Viennese Institut für Hohere Studium in mathematics and finance. He teaches economics and finance at Webster Vienna and the University of Vienna.

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