By Samuel F. Mueller
Since the religiously-rooted Justice and Development Party (AKP) came to power in Turkey in 2002, Islam and secularism have become particularly controversial topics.
Political and academic debates are now more often than not framed by questions such as whether a religiously-based party can seriously support a secular democratic order, or even whether Turkey might become a second Iran.
Questions about the relationship between religion and politics and the ideology of the AKP are surely important, and many AKP policies must be seriously critiqued. However, these debates do not address the key issues in Turkey’s democratization process.
The basic and most crucial problem for Turkish democracy is not political Islam, but the lack of a serious political opposition—a must for every democracy. The recent local elections on March 29 brought no substantial change to the dangerously unsettled balance of power.
Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, head of the AKP, is a goal-oriented pragmatist who knows how to use religious political language to reach the masses. Islamic symbolism frames Erdogan’s politics—he abstains from alcoholic beverages at state receptions, for example.
However, Erdogan’s strength is that he has long been aware that while populist gestures win plaudits, sound policies win votes. When Erdogan was mayor of Istanbul in the mid 1990s his popular support rested not on his attempts to introduce, for example, gender-separated seating arrangements in public transit, but on his efforts to improve urban infrastructure.
Today, the AKP scores points with a neo-liberal economic approach and international-focused policies. Islam is thereby a means of communication and an articulation of specific political interests. This religious symbolic frame should not be confused with an attempt to turn Turkey in a theocracy. An Islamic state in Turkey is not a political goal in itself and therefore not something we need to worry about—at least not now.
However, the balance of political power is a major concern. The AKP has become so powerful that we must worry about the democratic culture of Turkey’s party system. Currently, the AKP holds 338 of the 545 seats in parliament. The Republican People’s Party (CHP) holds the second biggest bloc, though only 98 seats. On the local level, though the AKP lost some votes in the recent elections to the CHP and missed its target of 47 percent, it remains basically unchallenged.
Apart from the CHP, there is no one else to challenge the AKP’s predominance. But why does the main opposition party lack any real chance at unseating the reigning power?
The CHP was co-founded by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk in 1923–24. It speaks a different political language—that of progress and secularism—from the AKP. But this political ideology doesn’t play with the masses; to them, it represents the worldview of secular elites. Considering Turkey’s turbulent political history, they have a point: instead of proposing convincing policies, the CHP uses the military—the long-standing secular bulwark—as a politics of last resort.
The most recent examples of such political actions are the military’s indirect coup threat in response to the nomination of AKP politician Abdullah Gul as Turkish president in 2007 and the effort to ban that party via the Constitutional Court over the AKP’s attempt to institute a new headscarf policy. The ongoing investigation of the shadowy Ergenekon conspirators (a clandestine, ultra-nationalist organization with ties to high-ranking military officials) has revealed further attempts to stage a coup in the name of a secular, Kemalist, nationalist agenda.
A serious opposition party is badly needed. Indeed, as the second most powerful party and as the natural opposition to the AKP, it is time that the CHP reinvent itself. First and foremost, they must propose real alternatives to incumbent policies. The CHP must abandon ideological disputes about Islam and headscarves and focus on current political needs, bringing fresh ideas to Turkey’s laborious and contentious EU accession and the current economic crisis.
Furthermore, one of the most urgent obstacles to a more democratic Turkey is still the Kurdish issue. The AKP has dealt with this problem mainly as a national and international risk, rather than as part of a larger discussion of civil and minority rights. Except for the pro-Kurdish Democratic Society Party (DTP), no party has shown any serious interest in the concerns of Turkey’s Kurdish citizens.
Is there perhaps a chance for the CHP to suggest alternative policy approaches and innovative solutions to one of Turkey’s most serious deficits? The idea might seem preposterous, since it was the CHP that essentially founded Turkey on the ruins of the Ottoman Empire, in the process developing and later perpetuating Turkey’s primal fear of separatism and decline—as well as the myth of a culturally homogeneous nation.
But one way or another, the CHP, alone or in conjunction with other parties, must develop new approaches to balance the power of the AKP, in order to further a democratic system in Turkey and prevent future political crises.
Samuel F. Mueller is a research assistant at the World Policy Institute, focusing on comparative politics and political theory, Turkish politics and culture, Islam, nationalism, and macro-violence. He has held researching and teaching positions at Humboldt University, the Social Science Research Center in Berlin and the Berlin Risk Institute.