- The Washington Times - Friday, February 2, 2007

Prominent among the many questions that surround Turkey’s election year is whether current Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan decides to seek the presidency. Although Mr. Erdogan is not likely to announce his decision until April, in time for a new president to be chosen before the term of current President Ahmet Necdet Sezer expires in May, the prospect of Mr. Erdogan, a moderate Islamist, in the presidency and his Justice and Development Party (AKP), also Islamist, ruling Parliament has caused concern about the possible erosion of Turkish secularism.

It has been widely speculated that Mr. Erdogan will nominate himself — in effect electing himself, because of parliament chooses the president and AKP has firm control of parliament. If Mr. Erdogan were intent on becoming president, then this would be his best opportunity; it’s highly unlikely that AKP would have its current two-thirds majority in parliament after the November election. As president, Mr. Erdogan would face fewer obstacles to pushing through an agenda of his choosing.

The office of the president, although less influential than the prime minister in Turkey, has a greater symbolic importance, and this is also a source of controversy for a potential Erdogan candidacy. Modern Turkey has a strong secular heritage — the legacy of its founder, Mustafa Kemal Atatuk — and the fact that AKP and Mr. Erdogan are both Islamists prompts concerns, and not just from AKP’s political opponents, about the vulnerability of the secular state.

Staunch defenders of Turkish secularism would be watching closely, and that group includes the military, which considers itself the guardian of Ataturk’s legacy and has removed four governments in the past 50 years. In 1997, the military deposed, without force, Necmettin Erbakan’s coalition government. Although Mr. Erdogan is far more moderate, some scholars are concerned about the parallels to contemporary Turkey. “The circumstances that produced that coup are re-emerging today,” wrote Zeyno Baran, director of the Center for Eurasian Policy and a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, in a stark assessment published in Newsweek International in December. “Once again, an Islamist is in power. Once again, the generals are muttering angrily about how his government is undermining the secular state — the foundation of modern Turkey. As I rate it, the chances of a military coup in Turkey occurring in 2007 are roughly 50-50.”

Turkey’s election is set against its EU accession process and broader questions about Turkish identity. The EU process provides a tremendously valuable framework for difficult and much-needed political and economic reforms in Turkey. But the process has not gone the way many Turks had expected, feeding disenchantment with Turkey’s bid and its champions, Mr. Erdogan and AKP. The military, unwilling to compromise its role, is also concerned by EU demands for greater civilian control. If Mr. Erdogan becomes president, that apprehension will further raise tensions during what is already a politically uncertain time in Turkey.

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