What Happened In The Turkish Elections

Many qualities could be ascribed to the recent parliamentary elections in Turkey, but dullness is certainly not one of them. To begin with, ever since the inauguration of the secular regime imposed by Kemal Ataturk in 1923, a party of Islamisist orientation (however moderate) has never before even come close to winning an absolute majority in parliament. On the contrary, the entire establishment- especially the military establishment, tended to consider the Islamic religion, particularly the attempt to articulate it politically, as a major threat to the foremost pillars of state and nation. Both the military, as well as those parts of the political spectrum that support it, have at times resorted to implementing highly undemocratic measures in order to suppress the politicization of Islam and the islamicization of official politics.

It may seem paradoxical that many democratic western countries, including those where parties with an ideological religious orientation act or even participate in government, have silently supported this undue influence of so-called "non-parliamentary factors" in the elimination of pro-Islamic Turkish parties from the ruling coalition. For instance, prior to the 1999 elections, a blatant circumvention of the most powerful Virtue party took place in forming the government, without arousing much concern from the western public, responsive as they usually are to ultimatums issued by generals. It was instigated by military leaders, and the reason for the west’s tolerance of such blatantly undemocratic suppression was the Islamic orientation of the party in question. Its leader, Neccmetin Erbakan, was removed from the office of Prime Minister as a result.

The present situation is significantly different, since the Islamic Party of Justice and Development led by Tayyip Erdogan won close to a two-thirds majority (363 of 550 representatives) by uniting the votes of all Islamic groups. In order to prevent the party from coming to power at this juncture, the military would have to abolish democracy and parliamentarianism entirely, and they would be unable to obtain the support of even those circles in the most important countries that are highly suspicious of political Islam.

Another peculiar feature of these elections is the incredible oscillation in voter support to traditional parties, particularly if we compare these results with those of 1999. The moderately left, quasi-social democratic party formerly led by Bulent Eccevit was reduced to a humiliating 1.2% from the former 22.3% of the votes. Had this not occured, the humiliation would have been reserved for their coalition partners – the Party of Nationalist Action (from 18.1% to 8.3%) and the conservative Fatherland party of the former Prime Minister Mesud Yilmaz (from 13.3% to 5.1%). The opposition Party of the True Way led by the only woman Prime Minister in Turkish history, Tansu Ciller, had somewhat better results, dropping from 12.1% to "only" 9.6% – but it was still left out of parliament. The only party aside from Erdogan’s Islamists to attain parliamentary status was the Republic National party, the support for whom increased from 8.9% to 19.4%.

The panicked opposition to political Islamism has found little consolation in the fact that the founder of the party was also the founding architect of the Turkish secular republic Kemal Ataturk. Oscillations on the political scene as volatile as this indicate that Turkish democracy, so glorified in the mainstream press, is essentially unstable and only superficially structured.

Finally, some of the peculiarities of these elections are tied to specific features of the Turkish political system, the authorship of which can in no way be ascribed to Islamic influence. In particular, the proportional electoral system has been rendered nonsensical and transformed into its own caricature by an extremely large threshold (10% of the vote) for entry into parliament. Under such circumstances, many parties whose importance and influence on the political scene is unquestionable often don’t make it into parliament, while the votes they receive remain unrepresented and "scattered". On the other hand, those parties that manage to pass the threshold for parliamentary status gain representation and power that is highly disproportionate to their actual support and influence among the electorate.

Under such circumstances, the relative majority party in the electorate is often "stretched" by the electoral system to attain absolute majority status in parliament. This is why Erdogan’s party won close to a two-thirds majority in parliament with only 34.3% of the votes. Adding to the absurdity of such a situation all the more, the architects of such an electoral system likely originally structured the electoral system in this way so as to prevent the Islamists from ever coming close to an absolute majority. They likely assumed that one or two secular parties would always have at least a small advantage over the Islamists, so they tried to disproportionably enhance this advantage in their very design of the rules of the game. In other words, the guardians of the secular order achieved exactly the opposite of their intended effect through this type of institutional engineering.

One of the most frequently asked questions of the moment relates to the new Turkish government’s intentions with respect to both their internal, and especially their external political agenda. During the pre-electoral campaign, Erdogan did his best to reassure the domestic and foreign public that he had no intention of introducing an Islamic revolution to the country of Ataturk. He is clearly aware that the consequences of such an attempt would be disastrous for the nation, the party and himself personally. Instead, he will likely work to make the Turkey of "Islamic democracy" legitimate and acceptable

Samuel Huntington, the ambitious ignoramus and the author of "The clash of civilizations," once used the term "kemalism" as the label for that classical theory and practice in which the state, particularly military powers, play a decisive role in crushing and eradicating traditional identities and so-called "backwardness." It will certainly be interesting, given the current preparations for the attack on Iraq, to follow the reactions of American strategists regarding Turkey’s new route to the "politicization of Islam."

* Andrej Grubacic is a historian and political activist from Belgrade , Yugoslavia. He can be reached at zapata@sezampro.yu


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