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HOBSON'S CHOICE IN TURKEY
by Amir Taheri
Asharq Alawsat
July 6, 2007

As the Turkish election campaign draws to a close, many Turks believe that what they face is at best a Hobson's choice. They are likely to end up with another five years of rule by the Justice and Development Party (AKP). And that, in turn, means five years of tension in a society that is increasingly unsure of its political and cultural identity.

Since it won power four years ago, the AKP has done well, in fact better than most Turkish governments since the Second World War. The economy is booming with direct foreign investment at an all time record and inflation, the bane of Turkish life for generations, finally under control. Even the job market has improved to the point that, for the first time since the 1950s, Turkey has stopped exporting large numbers of workers top Europe and the Middle East.

Yet, a majority of Turks, perhaps up to two-thirds are unlikely to vote for AKP because of suspicions that it has a hidden agenda to keep the state's secular appearance but slowly Islamicise the Turkish society.

Opinion polls that show the AKP is in the lead with up to 40 per cent of the votes. Because of Turkey's peculiar electoral system, the AKP could end up capturing two-thirds of the seats in the Grand National Assembly, thus controlling the country's unicameral parliament, with only a third of the votes. With that kind of majority, the party would be able to amend the constitution to extend its hold on power.

The AKP came to power four years ago by winning just over 34 per cent of the votes. Four years of economic boom, the longest in Turkish history, and a set of popular reforms have prevented the AKP's opponents from pushing it into the defensive on its record.

Nevertheless, even some of those who express sympathy for AKP admit that they cannot be sure that the party does not have a hidden agenda. Such suspicions are inspired by the fact that most of the 17 groups that formed the AKP, along with many of its prominent leaders, have histories of involvement with radical Islamist outfits dedicated to restoring the Caliphate and/or turning Turkey into an Islamic republic.

To be sure, AKP leaders keep repeating that they are committed to Turkey's secular system and do not intend to mix religion with politics. Their opponents, however, fear that AKP maybe a wolf disguised as lamb to confuse its opponents while waiting to make its final deadly move.

Although there is little evidence of AKP involvement in conspiratorial politics, there is plenty of evidence that the party is engaged in a silent purge of its political opponents, and placing its cadres in control of the machinery of state and the state-controlled public sector of the economy. Over the past four years, many judges of secularist persuasion have been pushed into retirement, or demoted, and replaced by AKP sympathisers.

A slow purge has also hit the nation's educational apparatus with an unknown number of teachers, branded as "not Islamic enough ", replaced by individuals close to the party. A similar change of personnel has been taking place within the armed forces that have always acted as guarantors of the secular republic. As far as appointments to key posts in the public sector of the economy are concerned, the AKP has gone beyond the limits of normal grace and favour or even straight nepotistic politics.

The AKP has also built a strong business base by creating a new class of private entrepreneurs who advertise their attachment to Islam and generously contribute to the party's finances.

Most of these self-styled "Islamic tigers" have made their immense fortunes under AKP rule and thanks to government contracts and quotas in the import-export business.

The joke in Ankara is that while the International Monetary Fund (IMF) sets the policies that produce prosperity in Turkey, it is the AKP that distributes its fruits.

Slowly but surely, the AKP has also eased some of the restrictions, in force since 1924, against religious practices in public. Wives of leading AKP figures wear the religious-political kapali headgear to advertise their desire for the creation of a "pure Islamic society."

Some privately owned TV stations licensed by the AKP have entered the market with cultural programmes with thinly disguised religious message and serials fanning the fires of anti-Americanism and anti-Semitism. One serial, "Valley of the Wolves", features Jewish doctors extracting organs from the bodies of Muslims for sale by unscrupulous American businessmen linked to the CIA.

More importantly, religious themes have crept into Turkish school curricula in various ways, while the government subsidises religious cultural activities, inside and outside Turkey, through the Endowments Office and the businesses under its control.

AKP leaders dismiss all this as "political paranoia" by their secularist opponents. They claim that what looks like an anti-secularist purge in the civil service, the judiciary, education and the armed forces is nothing more than the rectification of a decades' long injustice in which "pious Muslims" were kept out in the cold.

Nevertheless, to some Turks, all this looks like a creeping coup d'etat by a party that, backed by a third of the electorate, is trying to control all organs of state. The AKP has made no secret of its determination to appoint the next President of the Republic thus removing a key check on its exercise of power. Given another four or five years, the AKP would also have a majority in the Supreme Court while pro-AKP officers move up the ranks to dominate the armed forces.

As polling day approaches talk of another coup, this time by the armed forces, is spreading fast. Despite four years of negotiations, the secularist parties have failed to unite to oppose the AKP. Thus of the 21 parties in the race only two, the AKP and the left-of-centre People's Republican Party (CHP) appear likely to win seats in the parliament.

Many Turks believe that the armed forces, though they may allow such a result to stand, will intervene to prevent AKP from using its new majority to seize control of other organs of the state, especially the presidency of the republic.

Since 1960, the Turkish army has staged a coup once every 10 years, either to curb the radical left or to stop the Islamist right from seizing control of the state. A new coup could trigger a bitter power struggle and push the more radical Islamists towards violent, even terrorist, methods. And this is the last thing that the Middle East, already mired in violence, needs now.

Only by tempering its appetite for power could the AKP retain the reins of government without provoking a new military intervention. As the polling day approaches, there is little evidence that AKP would exercise such self-restraint.

 

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