* An op-ed by Suat Kınıklıoğlu in International Herald Tribune

May 3, 2007


Ankara/ The Turkish Constitutional Court's decision to block the election of a new president was an unfortunate and unnecessary intervention in Turkey's political process by the powerful secular elite.

The secular establishment - which has the powerful support of the military - claims that the election of Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul, a member of the moderately Islamic governing AK (Justice and Development) Party - would challenge the secularism that is at the heart of the modern Turkish state.

But if the record of the last five years under AK Party rule is any indication, those fears are misplaced. Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan and his government have shown themselves to be shrewd pragmatists willing to operate within Turkey's secular democracy. In fact, the very popularity of the AK Party is due to its success in distancing itself from the Islamist Virtue Party.

The governing party's moderation and success have become an inspiration for a wide range of moderate Muslim elites in the Middle East.

Those outside Turkey who view the recent mass rallies in Turkey in support of secularism as an expression of Western values should think twice. Most militant Turkish "secularist" are in fact suspicious of Turkey's aspiration to join the European Union, often strongly anti-American and generally uncomfortable with globalization.

By contrast, the AK Party has led one of the most impressive pro-democracy drives in Turkish history and has brought the country into accession negotiations with the European Union. The Turkish economy has grown on an average of 7 percent over the last five years, and has attracted close to $50 billion in foreign direct investment in three years.

Not surprisingly, polls indicate strong support for the AK Party while a weak opposition is struggling to pass the 10 percent threshold quota.

By blocking the election of Gul, a politician who has kept Islam largely out of public policy, the secularists are denying Turkey a critical opportunity to further moderate the AK Party. What is lost on the militant secularists is that the AK Party will eventually transform into a German-type Christian Democratic Party if it is allowed to do so.

The Turkish establishment must understand that it cannot intervene in the political process forever. It must allow Turkey's Muslim democrats to moderate themselves by learning and experiencing power and responsibility within the democratic process. This is the only way Turkey will find its elusive domestic political consensus.

In any case, the primary reason behind the intervention of the secular establishment was not fear that Turkey would become Islamic. Their fear was that the democratization drive, led in part by hopes of entering the European Union, will erode their power.

In this respect, Gul's nomination touched a key nerve of Turkey's fragile democracy -relations between the civilian government and the military, which perceives itself as a guardian of secularism and has ousted four elected governments since 1960.

The Turkish president not only appoints all judges and university rectors, but is also commander-in-chief of the armed forces, with the authority to appoint the uniformed chief of the army.

Erdogan has now declared that he will seek early elections, as well as sweeping constitutional changes that would make the president popularly elected, rather than elected by the Parliament.

Thus the real question behind the crisis is what sort of democracy will prevail in Turkey - one under a secular elite with an authoritarian flavor, or an open and transparent democracy under Muslim democrats.

Suat Kiniklioglu is director of the German Marshall Fund of the United States' Ankara Office. His views are his own and do not represent the views of the German Marshall Fund.