Tuesday, September 18, 2007

The Turkish Elections: A Micro View

I recently posted an analysis questioning Europe’s approval of the elections in Turkey that placed an Islamist party in power. In this piece I wish to briefly discuss some of the issues that concern Turks themselves. The bird’s eye perspective was provided by a Turkish colleague.

The degree to which the victorious party, the AKP, was able to use media control to manipulate the electorate, raises some fundamental concerns. There are two major media groups in Turkey. One of them is owned by the AKP, and both of them have shared commercial interests with the AKP. Despite the conservative, Islamic platform of the AKP, these media groups have introduced a wave of obscene programming in recent years that does not appear to have any market rationale. Many intellectuals and artists saw in this an attempt to undermine social trust in the secular elites by tying them to the corrupting influence of global, cosmopolitan culture. The AKP’s solution to this corruption is to introduce religious law in order to protect society from these corrupting forces.

A second and equally important concern is the degree to which the victorious political party is being forthright about its intentions. In the absence of forthrightness, the notion of democratic accountability is rendered moot.

The AKP’s post-election response to an infrastructure crisis that left the capital city of Ankara without running water for several days was to organize public prayers for rain. One prominent AKP figure asserted that similar prayers had been answered by god ten years ago and that 59 million cubic meters of water had been gathered in one day. Party officials also declared water pipe explosions as acts of god. The media reports on these and other statements were sympathetic and stories were run explaining that 2007 is a drought year. What is missing is any serious media consideration of the lack of city planning to assure the reserves necessary to deal with such contingencies.

In spite of these overt religious responses to the water crisis and in contradiction of previous statements critical of the secular basis of Turkey’s democracy and its founder, the new AKP president declared his fealty to the secular constitution. A healthy skeptic would conclude that he is particularly keen to reduce the likelihood that the military would exercise its prerogative as the defenders of that same constitution and remove him and his party from power.

However, it would appear that the AKP hopes to reduce the likelihood of the military engaging in “constitutional coups” in future by changing the manner in which the president is elected. The Turkish constitution provides that parliament elects the president, who is commander in chief of the military. The president is charged with being politically impartial, and he must sever all ties with any party on election. The AKP proposes to have the president directly elected in separate elections from parliament. These elections would tie the president to a political party, politicize the institution, and deliver the military to the control of the AKP.

Should the AKP succeed, they would have the power necessary to turn Turkey from a secular democracy to a religious republic. The country would be permanently isolated from Europe and forced to become more integrated with the authoritarian regimes of the Middle East. While a stronger Turkish presence in that region might serve as a bulwark against Iran, an AKP-led Turkey might only fuel further Islamist urges.

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