Turkey’s Election: Complications and Blowback?

The first thing Ivan Eland, the Cato Institute’s Director of defense Policy Studies, said to me about the election in Turkey was that the victory of a putatively moderate Islamicist party is at least partly attributable the increasingly aggressive tone of U.S. foreign policy regarding the region. Domestic factors, especially the inability of the current corrupt ruling factions to offer anything resembling hope for pulling out of an economic downturn, undoubtedly played a role. But the apparent determination of the Bush administration to achieve “regime change” in Iraq, with or without allies, no doubt pushed many Turkish voters toward the Islamicist party as the most effective or visible way to register their disapproval.

Unquestionably, the electoral victory in Turkey of the Justice and Development Party, a party with Islamicist roots that still bills itself as moderate, oriented to the West and cooperative with the International Monetary Fund, will complicate the Bush administration’s plans in Iraq and unsettle almost every relationship in the region. The impact on Europe will be extensive also, and fascinating to watch.

The new ruling party, despite having enough parliamentary members to rule without forming a coalition, may also have a hard time staying in power.


Turkey, of course, has had an explicitly secularist government since the 1920s, when Kemal Ataturk and his “young Turks” in the officer corps took power in the wake of the breakup of the old Ottoman Empire. The military, which views itself as the guardian of the secular constitution, has deposed leaders it viewed as “too Islamic” in the past (most recently in 1997) but has never ruled directly for any appreciable period.

Turkey has managed to maintain an essentially democratic (though sometimes more than a bit despotic) regime since the 1920s, which is more than any of the countries in Europe that will be ruling on Turkey’s suitability to join the civilized world as a member of the European Union can say. As a not-bad piece in National Review Online discusses, the ability to remain democratic has roots in a longer history.

Turkey was the center of the Ottoman Empire, which ruled parts of Europe for a while – and was never as absolutist as legend might have it. So the Turks knew the West better than did other Muslim-majority countries, and feared and hated it less, in part because Turkey was never conquered by a European power. The fact that the Turkish sultans were not as absolute in their power as, say, a 20th-century dictator like Hitler or Stalin, also paved the way for the idea of a government of at least somewhat limited powers.

Barbara Lerner, who wrote the NRO piece, also argues that the tradition of the Turkish military to serve as guardians of the secularist, modernizing 1920s constitution, has also been a key, contributing stability and a powerful force in society committed mainly to the constitution and to secularist government. Whatever the reasons, the secularist tradition in Turkey is rooted fairly firmly, and none of the parties contending in the recent elections did anything to challenge that aspect of Turkish governance.


This the Justice and Development Party (AK in Turkish, which also means “clean” or “white”) pledged that it didn’t want to change the secular character of Turkey’s government. It said it wants to be admitted to full membership in the European Union as much as the previous ruling party did, and will go along with an IMF austerity program. The party might eventually face pressure from some of its constituencies to inject more Islamism into domestic life or to resist foreign influences more aggressively. But for now it is working to divorce itself from any perception that it will rule like the mullahs in Iran or the Taliban in Afghanistan.

The AK also (like the other parties) has declared opposition to a U.S. attack on Iraq and has raised questions about whether it would allow bases in Turkey (which are being used now to enforce the “no-fly” zone in northern Iraq) to be used in such an attack. Almost all the parties in Turkey are concerned about the effect of a U.S. or Western conflict with Iraq on Turkey’s Kurdish minority, which periodically demands something more resembling autonomy or even independence and could be invigorated by more effective autonomy for Iraq’s Kurds.

For the moment the party and its leader, Recep Tayyip Erdogan (a former mayor of Istanbul who was barred from running for parliament himself because of his history as an Islamicist activist, specifically reading an “anti-secular” poem in 1998) want to get into the European Union and want to appear moderate. So they’ll be downplaying the Islamicism of the party.


Turkey is also experiencing a serious economic downturn. And despite great pride in being the only Muslim-majority country with a functioning democracy, the former ruling parties had become corrupt and out of touch while presiding over the economic meltdown.

The Democratic Left Party of outgoing Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit, 77, scored only 1 percent, and none of the three parties in the current ruling coalition got the 10 percent required to be allocated parliamentary seats. That suggests deep dissatisfaction with those who have ruled for the last several decades.

But while it has a working parliamentary majority, the AK party got only 34 percent of the vote. It will probably have to compromise – with the military, with other interests, and with the “international community” – to establish a stable regime.


Despite a desire to appear moderate and unthreatening by the AK, the United States is almost sure to face more opposition to the use of the Incirlik Air Base in Turkey during a military campaign against Iraq from the new bosses than it would have from the old bosses. The old bosses raised questions about such use too, of course, but would probably have knuckled under eventually.

It would be very difficult for the U.S. military to contemplate a campaign against Iraq without the use of assets in Turkey. Almost every scenario trial-ballooned so far involves at least a two-pronged attack on Baghdad, from north and from south. An attack using only Kuwait and maybe Qatar for land-based forces might well be successful eventually, but it would be more difficult than military folks would prefer.

The fact that Saudi Arabia has announced that it won’t allow bases on “its” soil to be used in a war against Iraq, even if the United Nations passes a resolution that seems to authorize such an attack, is likely to embolden the Turks even further – assuming that it holds.

The question is, what real leverage – aside from a history of close military-to-military cooperation – the United States has in the matter. Assume that Turkey, under its new leadership, still desires mightily to get into the European Union. Is the United States in a position to promise that the EU skids will be greased in exchange for use of the military bases in Turkey? Or will the Europeans view the matter as another way to give the sole superpower a little slapping around?

One can imagine a scenario in which denying use of the military assets to the U.S. becomes a condition of E.U. membership, at least conveyed quietly and behind the scenes. But the most likely outcome for the near term will be delays disguised as a need for clarification of certain key issues by the bureaucrats in Brussels.

The European Union will meet in December to consider the next phase of Turkey’s membership application. The new regime will probably work to look moderate until then, but that decision could affect its future course.


Then there’s the question of whether Turkey and Israel will maintain the kind of relationship they have had for some time. Turkey has been the closest thing to a de facto ally that Israel has had in the region. The two military and intelligence services have cooperated closely, and there are extensive economic ties.

Will an ostensibly Islamicist regime, even a moderate one, maintain those kinds of relations with Israel? Or are those relations based enough on the self-interest of the two states as states that they would be continued in spite of the perception of contradiction or hypocrisy?

All in all – assuming that the new ruling party can stay in power long enough to have an impact, which is hardly a given since like most political parties it doesn’t seem to have the slightest notion of what would really be required to establish a modicum of prosperity – it should be fascinating and somewhat unsettling to watch Turkey for the next few months.

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Author: Alan Bock

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Alan Bock is senior essayist at the Orange County Register. He is the author of Ambush at Ruby Ridge (Putnam-Berkley, 1995).