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Turkish Ruling Party Wins National Elections

July 23, 2007 at 6:40 PM EST
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RAY SUAREZ: Turkey’s military has long acted as a guarantor of the predominantly Muslim country’s secular constitution. The army has deposed four governments it saw as infringing on the rigid separation of mosque and state, and did so as recently as 1997.

But yesterday’s parliamentary election was a sweeping victory for the moderate Islamist Justice and Development Party of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

RECEP TAYYIP ERDOGAN, Prime Minister, Turkey (through translator): After this period and after the reformation of the new parliament, I believe that we will take the most progressive steps for our country, our nation, and the Turkish democracy.

RAY SUAREZ: The elections came about after an April confrontation between the prime minister and the secular elite and military, after Erdogan tried to push through parliament his choice for Turkish president. Erdogan picked foreign minister Abdullah Gul, whose wife wears the Muslim headscarf. A show of piety to some was seen as a fundamental and fundamentalist threat by others to Turkey’s secular tradition.

SABAHATTIN KARA, Turkish Citizen (through translator): The president’s wife’s head must be uncovered for sure. We are not ruled by Sharia law; we are not a backward state.

HANIFE UZUM, Turkish Citizen (through translator): If someone whose wife is uncovered can be president, than someone whose wife is covered can also be president. It is a democracy.

Weight of election results

RAY SUAREZ: A principal crossroads between Europe and Asia for centuries, Turkey is a member of NATO and is being considered for membership in the European Union.

For more, we're joined by Henri Barkey, professor of international relations at Lehigh University. He served in the State Department from 1988 to 2000 working on Turkey and the Middle East. [Correction: Henri Barkey served in the State Department from 1998 to 2000.]

And Zeyno Baran, senior fellow at the Hudson Institute and director of its Center for Eurasian Policy, born in Istanbul, she is a Turkish citizen.

And, Zeyno Baran, the AKP party, Justice and Development, commonly called in Turkey the AKP party, won something short of a majority, but it's the largest party in parliament. Should they be as happy as they seem to be, declaring themselves tremendous victors yesterday?

ZEYNO BARAN, Senior Fellow, Hudson Institute: Well, it was a tremendous victory, and they have really shown that they have taken the center in the country. And people who were not just concerned about Islam or Islamism, but a lot of the liberal democrats and a lot of the secularists voted for them, because, compared to the opposition parties, they've actually done a better job in terms of political, economic reforms on the E.U. path and really mostly on the economy. So it is a tremendous success for them, indeed.

RAY SUAREZ: Professor, an important result?

HENRI BARKEY, Professor, Lehigh University: Oh, absolutely. I mean, this shows, a, that democracy is solid in Turkey. This party has now emerged as the most important center-right party. It is a party that is represented in every single province they've won in Turkey. Turkey has 81 provinces. So they're a national party compared to the other parties.

And the losers in this particular case are the opposition, the Republican People's Party, the secularist party, and the military, because the military tried very, very hard to dislodge this party from AKP party from power one way or the other, through memorandums, by publishing threats essentially on their Web site, by continuously putting pressure on this government.

And in that sense, it is a remarkable victory. In Turkey, no party gets the majority. The last time I think a party won more than 50 percent of the vote was in 1965. So by winning almost 47 percent, but also a majority of the seats of parliament, this is a terrific victory for them.

Re-nominating Abdullah Gul

RAY SUAREZ: Well, this began as a fight over who was going to be the next president of Turkey, and that person in the Turkish system is elected by the parliament. Now, with his hand strengthened this way, will the prime minister re-nominate Abdullah Gul?

HENRI BARKEY: I suspect he will not. He will not for two reasons. One is because he has said that he wants to go for a compromise candidate to reduce tensions. And, second, he needs 367 votes in order to be able to start the proceedings on the presidency, and he only has 340. And it's unlikely he can gather that sort of votes from the other parties.

I think eventually the Turkish system will be changed. They probably will elect their president directly. So there may be a compromise candidate now who then resigns in a year or so to make way for Mr. Gul, if he manages to win a popular election countrywide.

RAY SUAREZ: Do you agree with that, Zeyno Baran, a compromise candidate for now to build down the tension?

ZEYNO BARAN: I do. And, in fact, the prime minister since the election has given that sign, although he did say that he's going to leave it up to Foreign Minister Gul to decide, because it would be difficult for him not to nominate Foreign Minister Gul if he wants to be, because of the inter-party dynamics.

But I think everyone in Turkey has learned from the tension in April. And I think the prime minister, with a renewed mandate, wants to really continue with the reform path and not really go back to basically square one of creating tension with the secularists.

RAY SUAREZ: During the campaign, the other parties running against the AKP party warns that it had a secret agenda, that it was far more Islamist than it was letting on to the country. Help us understand what the AKP party really is. You can tell that the Western press has trouble describing it.

ZEYNO BARAN: Yes.

Candidates who are Islamists

RAY SUAREZ: Is it an Islamist party in the way we think of it in other countries?

ZEYNO BARAN: Well, Turkey is really unique, so it's really -- I would say, really, to think about it, it's the institutions and the party system, and the constitution is very much based on the French model. But the people are majority Muslim, so there's inevitably some tension between the two.

Prime Minister Erdogan and Foreign Minister Gul and some of the leadership in AKP party come from an Islamist background. They have been Islamists in the past, and they didn't just enter politics now. They have a background. But, since coming to office in 2002, what we have seen prime minister do is take much more pragmatic policies.

And, in fact, I suspect one of the reasons they got so much -- 47 percent -- is that he did not re-nominate some of the people that were in the previous parliament that were Islamists and really went for center-left candidates, people who are very secular. So it really is more of a coalition party, where it is a center-right, so you do have inevitably Islamists in the party.

But in Turkey, the real Islamist party only got about 2.3 percent or 2.4 percent, which is the previous prime minister, Erbakan's, party. And, yes, Americans have a hard time understanding this; so do Turks and many other people, actually.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, Professor Barkey, why did Hayrunnisa Gul's headscarf cause such a debate in the country? The president's wife covers her hair. And this was considered something that would block his entrance to the presidential palace. Why?

HENRI BARKEY: Because you have to look at Turkey's ideology. Turkey is an ideological state. And here the ideology comes not so much from the parties themselves as we have seen in other societies, but by the military. The military enforces an ideology, what it thinks is the founders' Kemalist ideology.

Now, when you look at the presidency, the presidency is the one position that was occupied by Ataturk. To have somebody whose wife is covered live in Ataturk's house, so to say, would have been unacceptable for the military. And for them, it is really an erosion -- psychologically, an erosion of all the secular safeguards, if you want, that they think they had put in the constitution in 1982.

But it is really symbolic. It has really nothing to do with whether or not Mr. Gul is competent or not. In fact, a lot of very hard-line secularists thought Mr. Gul was very competent because he's been around for a long time, he has a lot of experience.

But the headscarf issue is a very divisive issue in Turkey. Women with headscarves cannot work for the government; women with headscarves can not even go to university. And as a result, this has been an issue, where you have very, very divided opinions, and the military was not going to let this happen.

ZEYNO BARAN: May I add on that?

Balance between state and religion

RAY SUAREZ: Very quickly.

ZEYNO BARAN: Sure. In addition to the military, we have seen millions of people, mostly women, also protesting and saying no Sharia, no coup. So people really are concerned. Yes, it is a very symbolic issue, to have a president whose wife wears a headscarf, but we have now a situation, not just in Turkey -- again, I'll go back to France and Europe, where a headscarf has taken on a political symbolic value.

So it's not only a personal choice issue. And people who are concerned about keeping the balance between state and religion, how much do you combine the two, it's really a concern of a slippery slope. And Turkey may not have the perfect formula, but, you know, a lot of countries are struggling with it.

RAY SUAREZ: Zeyno Baran, Henri Barkey, thank you both.

HENRI BARKEY: Thank you.

ZEYNO BARAN: Thank you.