While the EU has generally applauded the recent elections in Turkey as a victory for democracy, many within Turkey are convinced otherwise. The elections were won by the AKP, a religious party, which took 62 percent of the parliamentary seats (341 of 550 seats) with 46.7 percent of the vote. All electoral systems are overly generous to the party with the largest (plurality) vote. The high threshold of ten percent in the Turkish system is particularly so. Apart from questions of the degree to which the results reflect the popular will; however, the elections have raised fears that Turkey may be jettisoning its secular constitutional system.
The only functioning democracy in the Islamic world, Turkey has long been held up as a model for political development in the Middle East. But Turkey’s democracy rests on a shaky foundation. Unlike Europe, where democracy is rooted in the enlightenment, Turkish democracy was imposed by military officers and high civil servants in order to carve out a state from the remnants of the Ottoman Empire. While these elites were deeply committed to the ideals of the enlightenment, particularly secularization, there was no middle class to provide them with a social base of support. Indeed, the mass of Turkish society remained, and remains, loyal to religious views of the state.
It is this shakiness that has led Europe to deny Turkey accession to the Europe Union (EU). To be sure, the lack of convergence on values between Turkey and the EU is not the only rift between the two. Very large segments of Turkish society are illiterate and poverty grips much of the country. The latter, in particular, fuels pressures for Turkish emigration, which both provides a source of cheap labor for the EU and contributes to the continent’s illegal immigration problem. As in the United States, the social reaction among EU citizens is decidedly adverse to both the immigrants and their country of origin.
In this context, it is difficult to understand why the EU would applaud the Turkish election results. The victory of a religious party not only undermines Turkey’s commitment to a secular state, it threatens political instability by incentivizing social and economic elites to pressure the military to intervene (as it has done on several other occasions) to protect the secular constitutional order. While a conspiratorial theorist might find this evidence of Europe’s determination to protect jobs and pensions from cheap Turkish labor and to keep Muslims out of the Union, to my mind there is something more at play here.
Europe has lost its ideals. While it derives a great deal of satisfaction from lecturing the United States on issues from Kyoto to the WTO to Iraq, its lectures only mask its own moral failures. The fears of immigration that fuel the opposition to Turkey’s accession most certainly demonstrate how far the EU has drifted from a commitment to human rights, the enlightenment, and the rule of law. But those fears are compounded by Europe’s fear of Islam and, more to the point, Islamic terrorism. The EU applauds the victory of a religious party in the Turkish secular state in the hopes of assuaging Islamists and turning their ire away from Europe. That the victory of a religious party might serve as the pretext to keep Turkey out of the EU is simply icing on the cake.