Saturday, July 28, 2007

The turkish dilemma

Montreal Gazette (subscription), Canada - Jul 22, 2007
MATTHEW FISHER, CanWest News Service
Church and state are separate in Turkey. some will fight to keep it that way. others want a more intrusive islam. today's election is about that - and a lot more

Turks voting in today's parliamentary elections are focused on issues such as how to keep the vibrant economy racing ahead, preventing the rise of Kurdish power in northern Iraq from spilling over into Turkey's Kurdish areas, and whether to continue trying to win membership of the European Union.

But the most emotive issue by far is whether this country of 70 million, which forms a bridge between the Middle East and Europe, should remain secular and Western-oriented, as it has been since Kemal Ataturk founded the republic on the ruins of the Ottoman Empire more than 80 years ago, or draw closer to its Islamic roots.

And if Turkey decides to turn toward Islam, will the staunchly secular Turkish military launch another coup?

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Font: ****Didem Mercan plans to vote for the Republican People's Party, which was founded by Ataturk, because she fears the Islamist connections of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP).

She worries that, if the AKP wins a second majority in parliament, it could force women to wear headscarves. Clad in blue jeans and a summery blouse, her fingernails painted bright red, the 23-year old communications student is a walking advertisement for her belief "religion should have no place in my personal life, and I am prepared to fight for that right."

Mesut Topcu, on the other hand, said he intends to vote for the AKP because, since it won power in November 2002, the authorities have stopped hassling men in the deeply conservative Istanbul suburb of Fatih about wearing the skullcaps, baggy trousers and long beards of pious Muslims.

Topcu, an electrical engineer, was unequivocal about the value of headscarves, which remain banned in schools and government offices but are commonly worn by women in Fatih, as are black, Iranian-style full-body chadors. "I am sad for a woman who does not cover herself. She will go to hell on judgment day."

The public expression of such sharp differences in opinion is relatively new in Turkey, but the debate is actually many centuries old.

The country's population is about 98 per cent Muslim, but its history has been profoundly influenced by geography. In the northwest and northeast, Turkey is bordered by Christian Greece, Bulgaria, Georgia and Armenia, while in the east and south, it sits alongside Muslim Azerbaijan, Iran, Iraq and Syria. It is also the only Muslim nation in NATO.

Istanbul, Turkey's largest city with a population of 12 million, has always felt the pull of east and west particularly keenly. Famously divided by the Bosphorus Strait into European and Asian parts, Constantinople, as it was called until 77 years ago, is home to spectacular mosques and minarets as well as the Orthodox Church's oldest patriarchate.

Although he was Muslim, Ataturk replaced sharia law with a Swiss-style legal system. Women were given the vote, veils were banned, drinking alcohol was permitted and Latin script replaced Arabic letters.

Many secularists are convinced some of those fundamental changes are now at risk if the government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan wins another parliamentary majority.

"They are really Islamists and we believe that they wear a mask right now, trying to pretend that they aren't," said architect Eliz Ofil, 25, sitting in a smart cafE, watching huge tankers and freighters from Russia, Kazakhstan, Iran and many other countries gingerly navigate the narrow Bosphorus artery between the Mediterranean and Black seas.

Metres away, Egeman Bargis, an AKP deputy and Erdogan's chief foreign policy adviser, did not hide his contempt for such views.

"That's bullshit," he said.

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Font: ****"This is not a difference of opinion between Islamists and secularists. It is a difference of opinion between those who want more democracy or less. The opposition has tried at every chance to create tension."

Kemal Giloglu, a Republican People's Party campaign manager, said this election may be the most important ever. He warned of "creeping Islamization" if the AKP wins again. Indeed, the future of a church and a synagogue near his house is in danger because of what he describes as his opponent's lack of respect for Turkey's history of religious co-existence.

Although some of the AKP's most prominent members have Islamist ties, the party has not spoken much about religion since it emerged as a grassroots movement a few years ago. It has positioned itself on the centre-right and concentrated, with considerable success, on pursuing internationalist economic policies.

Turkey's GDP has risen more than seven per cent per year since 2003, per-capita income has more than doubled, and inflation has been reduced to single digits for the first time in decades.

But the AKP crossed a line with the military when it proposed foreign minister Abdullah Gul, a practising Muslim whose wife covers her head, as its choice for president. In what was dubbed an e-coup, the military derailed the plan last April by posting on its website a warning about a "growing threat" to Turkey's secular practices.

Erdogan's response, however, was to seek a new mandate by calling early parliamentary elections.

There are indications the military may have misjudged the public mood, or perhaps didn't care what it was. Polls suggest the AKP's share of the vote will increase to more than 40 per cent from 34, largely because of a backlash against the military's stance.

Paradoxically, though, although the prime minister's party is more popular than ever in religiously conservative rural areas, and is gaining support in urban areas because of its economic policies, the AKP may actually win fewer seats. That's because of an awkward electoral system that only allows parties with more than 10 per cent of the vote to have representation in the 550-seat parliament.

The AKP and Republican People's Party were the only two that met the 10 per cent threshold in 2001, with the AKP winning 364 seats. This time a third party, the secular Nationalist Movement, also is likely to get more than 10 per cent of the vote, and a number of independent Kurdish candidates could win seats, cutting the AKP's strength by at least several dozen seats.

This makes it unlikely Erdogan's next government will be able to get the two-thirds majority required to introduce direct elections for the presidency. But, in a game of brinkmanship, it will probably have the numbers needed to get its presidential candidate elected by parliament.

Either way, there's a strong possibility of a military veto or a coup by the generals to block Gul from the presidency.

Asked about the generals' likely reaction, the prime minister's senior adviser replied angrily:

Either we have a democracy, where the will of the people prevails, or we don't."



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