* Commentary by Morton Abramowitz and Henri J. Barkey in the Wall Street Journal

April 24, 2007


By midnight tomorrow, Prime Minister Recep Tayip Erdogan will decide the ruling Justice and Development Party's (AKP) candidate for president of Turkey. Ten days ago, in an unprecedented gathering demonstrating the polarization gripping that country, hundreds of thousands marched in Ankara against Mr. Erdogan choosing himself. They chanted such slogans as "no imam in Cankaya" (the presidential palace) "and the army should do its job"(getting rid of Mr. Erdogan).

Ironically they insist that he remain in the more important job of prime minister. Given the growing clamor, as well as concern from many in his own party wanting their best vote-getter to remain prime minister, this cannot be precluded.

The rising popular tensions and talk of military coups reinforce the perception that the upcoming presidential election and parliamentary ones likely to quickly follow represent a historic turning point. For the first time in Turkey's modern history, an Islam-influenced political party will control the two most important institutions of the state, the presidency and parliament. This would be true even if Mr. Erdogan remains prime minister, because the president is elected by the parliament which the AKP dominates. Many fear a decline in Turkey's secular state and a reorientation of its foreign policy, away from the West and toward the Islamic world.

Control of the executive and legislative branches gives AKP the ability to appoint university rectors, bureaucratic administrators, and to alter important pieces of legislation and social conventions. With the power to appoint many judges, the AKP will in effect control all branches of Turkey's democracy. Even the military—Turkey's most autonomous body—fears that an AKP president may interfere with promotions.

The principal concern for most secularists is not the introduction of Shariah law, but rather the greater infusion of religion into all aspects of Turkish life. Many elements of the party have been pushing hard to enhance the position of religious schools and particularly relax the ban on headscarves, especially in universities. In short the nature of Turkish life will change.

One cannot be oblivious to such concerns because they also are based on secularists' firm belief that Mr. Erdogan cannot be trusted and whatever his words and policies—e.g., his dedication to European Union membership—they are a smokescreen for darker purposes.

Still, judging by Mr. Erdogan's record the past four years, his agenda will be far from "Islamist." The AKP came to power democratically, and by most indications has governed well: The economy is booming, industry flourishing, EU-oriented reforms are in full swing, and Turkey is a rising power in the region.

Regardless of who becomes president, the AKP will still have to worry about the Turkish military looming large over politics, its own desire to enter the EU with all the socioeconomic concessions that entails, and the enduring democratic imperative: to produce results and retain the confidence of the population to win elections. Hopefully, continued AKP domination will finally lead to the growth of a serious opposition party, missing in Turkey for years.

While the new president has to assume an above-party persona, this will clearly not satisfy the strongest secularists for whom the AKP, Mr. Erdogan and his headscarf-wearing wife remain anathema. Still, whether Mr. Erdogan remains prime minister or becomes president, there is little realistic threat to Turkey's democracy. Surveys show Turkey's people becoming more religious, but also adamantly opposing an Islamic state. The correctives of a rapidly growing civil society, a press increasingly fond of freedom and democratic accountability will remain.

If Turkey achieves this transition peacefully, it will signal the normalization and maturation of its politics—especially because Mr. Erdogan's success will come against the military's wishes. In the last 47 years, the Turkish military—the protectors of Ataturk's secular legacy—initiated four coups against elected leaders. In a country where a chief of staff's press conference gets more interest than one by the president or prime minister, it will take sustained political and economic
stability, a combination which has so far eluded Turkey, to remove the fear of military intervention from politics once and for all. The AKP and Mr. Erdogan, anxious not to rock the boat and confirm they are the reliable conservative party they claim to be, may well prove their critics wrong and oversee just such a period, particularly if the EU helps.

Mr. Erdogan's Turkey has become a more confident and active international player, and its foreign policy is no longer American-centric, a result of changing geostrategic realities, the blossoming of its economy and a floundering U.S. policy in the region. Most importantly Mr. Erdogan, despite all the European obstacles, has realigned Turkey closer to the EU, continues to pursue membership, and offered dramatic concessions to resolve the Cyprus conflict.

While the U.S. and Turkey have many common policies, they continue to have differences on matters such as Iraq, Iran, Syria and Hamas. Under Mr. Erdogan, Turkey has established an independent voice in the Middle East, but both countries have tried to minimize or overlook their differences and recognize a common interest.

Turkey today is not the Turkey of 20 years ago—largely a U.S. supplicant, threatened by Moscow and suffering economically. Turkey's strength and new assertiveness can complement U.S. strategic interests and should be welcomed, even if Americans have to work harder to manage the bilateral relationship.

Iraq, however, looms large as a problem, even as Turkey's leaders fervently hope the U.S. succeeds in keeping Iraq together. Turks feel they have lost much from America's military involvement in Iraq. It has brought them face to face with a long dreaded nightmare: a Kurdish state next door and its political impact on Turkey's own Kurds. Coupled with shoddy EU treatment and rising anti-Americanism, this has re-aroused xenophobic nationalism.

Present Turkish concerns focus on two issues: a proposed 2007 referendum on whether oil-rich Kirkuk is to be included in Iraqi Kurdistan, which they vehemently oppose; and the unwillingness of the U.S. or the Iraqi Kurds to eliminate the anti-Turkish PKK insurgents based in northern Iraq. Both issues are straining relations with Washington and can quickly develop into a full-blown crisis. Recent threats by some Iraqi Kurdish leaders have prompted ominous counter-threats from Turkish generals. If the situation is not managed prudently, it may portend a dramatic shift in the balance of the U.S.-Turkey alliance and is, perhaps, the biggest danger to continued
AKP rule.

Whether Mr. Erdogan becomes president or remains prime minister, Turkey will not be "lost" as some in Washington—not the U.S. government—fear. The Turkish people's ties to the West, democracy and secularism are hard to sever and capable of withstanding great challenges. Nor is there any indication that Mr. Erdogan or his party will attempt a dramatic excision. Turkey's growth and dynamism lies with the West.

Morton Abramowitz, a Senior Fellow at The Century Foundation, is a former American ambassador to Turkey. Henri J. Barkey is professor of international relations at Lehigh and concurrently public policy scholar at the Wilson Center. This article first appeared in The Wall Street Journal.