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A VOTE FOR DEMOCRACY IN TURKEY
by Amir Taheri
Gulf News
July 25, 2007

By Amir Taheri, Special to Gulf News
Published: July 24, 2007, 23:05

By all accounts, Recep Tayyib Erdogan should be a happy man these days. As prime minister of Turkey, he has just had his record of the past four years endorsed in the most hotly contested general elections known in that country.

His political grouping, the Justice and Development Party (AKP) increased its share of the vote from 34 to 47 per cent. The voter turnout was also the highest ever: nearing 81 per cent, compared to 79 per cent four years ago.

And, yet, Erdogan would be making a big mistake if he were to interpret the election results as a blank cheque for AKP to do as it pleases with Turkey's institution and way of life.

To start with, he would do well to remember that a clear majority of the voters voted against AKP. His party's landslide win in terms of seats in the parliament is due to Turkey's bizarre electoral system that favours parties that collect the largest number of votes.

Had the Turks voted with a system of proportional representation, as is the case in many European countries, the AKP would have ended up with just over 260 seats, rather than 341 under the existing system, and thus would not have enjoyed the majority needed to control the Grand National Assembly (parliament).

There is also the fact that the People's Republican Party (CHP), the most ardent champion of secularism and AKP's most vocal adversary, increased its share of the vote even more dramatically. By winning more than 20 per cent, the CHP will have a bloc of 112 seats in the parliament.

Erdogan should also bear in mind that his party will face two other blocs in the new parliament. One consists of the ultra-nationalist National Action Party (MHP) set to end up with 70 seats.

The party is not only opposed to AKP's "Islamic accent" but also rejects Turkish membership of the European Union. Instead, it preaches a milder version of the classical pan-Turkism - the idea that Turkic nations should unite under Ankara's leadership and create a new "superpower".

The pan-Turkists believe that Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and the Chinese Turkestan (Xinjiang) should join Turkey to create the "broad Turkic space" that would also include Finland and Hungary, two European nations that they regard as of Turkish origin.

The "broad Turkic space" could also be extended to northern Iraq, where a few hundred thousand Turkmen live, and northwest Iran that is home to some 15 million Azeri speakers. In a sense, the surprise return of the pan-Turkists is a reaction to fears that the AKP is harbouring pan-Islamist ambitions.

New bloc

The second new bloc with that Erdogan would have to contend in the next parliament consists of 27 Kurdish politicians who stood as independents and won.

Their surprise victory shows that the AKP, which had initially appealed to ethnic Kurds with thinly disguised pan-Islamist themes, is in retreat in the face of rising Kurdish nationalism.

Erdogan would do well to remember that a good part of the support he won is due to Turkey's brilliant economic performance over the past five to six years.

With annual growth rates averaging around 7 per cent, Turks have seen their living standards rise while inflation, a national disease since the 1960s, has been brought under control.

Turkey also leads all Muslim-majority countries in terms of job creation and the emergence of new small and medium businesses.

But even Erdogan has never denied that part of the credit for Turkey's economic success should go to the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank that started fixing policies from the late 1990s onwards.

However, when all is said and done, AKP has achieved a resounding victory in a clean election that does credit to Turkish democracy. This is the first time in Turkish democratic history that an incumbent prime minister and his party are returned to power in a general election.

What will Erdogan do with his victory? He could, as he has threatened, use it as a mandate to push through constitutional reforms that could threaten the delicate balance of power within the nation's political institutions.

That would be a major mistake, especially bearing mind the fact that the election, though triggered by a dispute over choosing a new president of the republic through the parliament, was not about constitutional change.

According to all opinion polls, a majority of those who voted for AKP did so in recognition of the nation's impressive economic performance and not because they wished to change the institutions or inject a dose of Islamism into the Turkish state.

On guard

Erdogan should also be on guard against those within his own party who press for the Islamisation of school curricula and the lifting of the ban on the wearing of the hijab at universities and government offices.

Any attempt at Islamisation could drive more Turks towards pan-Turkism on the extreme right or militant atheism of the extreme left.

The AKP should also tone down its anti-Kurdish rhetoric and stop threatening to order an invasion of northern Iraq, ostensibly to crush the rebellious Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK).

Such belligerent rhetoric could only encourage those within the military who are already pressing for a coup to prevent the AKP from forming a new government. Their argument is simple: the nation is in danger and only the army can save it!

The AKP owes its victory to democracy. Thus it would be courting political suicide if it were to encourage anti-democratic currents whether in the name of Islam or pan-Turkism.

Erdogan's best bet is to form a broad government that includes non-AKP figures. He would do well to create a multi-party commission to tackle the Kurdish issue, one that has poisoned Turkish life and cost tens of thousands of lives over the past three decades.

In Sunday's Turkish election, democracy won. By doing anything that might undermine Turkish democracy, the AKP would be sawing the branch on which it has built its power.

Iranian author Amir Taheri is basedin Europe.

 

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