According to several observers of the Turkish political scene, the current crisis might lead to an unprecedented success of Islamist parties, due to the fragmentation of the secular political groups and to peculiarities of the Turkish electoral system.
Long-time politician and ailing Turkish prime minister Bulent Ecevit clings to power and refuses to leave his position to a successor, despite his obvious inability to continue to lead the country. On July 11, foreign minister Ismail Cem resigned. Several other ministers did the same, and a number of MPs left Ecevit’s Democratic Left Party (DSP). They have founded another political party, New Turkey, under the leadership of Cem. Those developments take place in a context of economic crisis (soaring interests rates, heavy debt), and early elections are now planned for this fall.
Interestingly, Cem has signaled that he would seek to defuse tensions around issues related to Islam which have plagued Turkish politics for years. Faithful to Kemal Ataturk’s policy, secular elites in Turkey — among them the top military and the influential National Security Council — are extremely suspicious of Muslim activism. However, Cem has told Turkish newspaper Sabah that he intended to be tolerant of Turkish women who wear Islamic headscarf (banned for university students and public sector workers) (Associated Press, July 14).
Supposing Cem would come to power – which seems still far from certain at this point – it remains to be seen if there would indeed such a change in governmental policy. But Cem’s statement definitely reflects an awareness that Islamist parties might be those who have the most to benefit from early elections. Under the leadership of Recep Tayyip Erdogan, a popular former Istanbul mayor, the Justice and Development Party (AK) is leading the poll with around 20 percent support (BBC, July 16).
Although this does not seem much, it comes to mean much more when one knows that a recent survey shows that 30 percent of the voters in the capital, Istanbul, would not vote for any existing party and that 54 percent are still undecided (Chicago Tribune, July 31). Moreover, only one of the three parties in the current ruling coalition seems likely to win more than 10 percent of the votes. The Turkish system requires party to reach a 10 percent threshold for gaining seats in parliament. This means the AK party — one of the two parties derived from the Virtue Party (Fazilet), banned in 2001 — might actually get many more seats in Parliament than its 20 percent share would indicate, as a consequence of electoral dispersion.
Unsurprisingly, Ecevit has warned that AK’s possible victory would create trouble for Turkey at a time it urgently needs stability and might provoke the military to block a pro-Islamist government, as they already did in the past (The Scotsman, July 22). However, in the long run, the question might rather be how far the military can prevent Islamist parties to be full participants of the political system, which might then develop into a kind of Muslim political sector similar to what Christian Democratic parties have been in the West.
Several observers consider that such a development in Turkey, if it would be allowed without interference, might have a positive impact on other countries with a Muslim heritage.
— By Jean-François Mayer