Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and its leader, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, won a substantial victory in parliamentary elections over the weekend. Though it lost seats in parliament, the party won 47 percent of the vote in an election where more than 80 percent of voters went to the polls. No longer can Turkish secularists claim, as many did after the 2002 election, that the party’s control of parliament was not truly representative because only one other party crossed the 10 percent margin to win seats.
In contrast to the party’s strong showing, its former sole opposition in parliament received only slightly more support than in 2002. In addition, a hardline nationalist party that capitalized on frustration with the current government’s perceived inability to deal with radical Kurdish terrorism received 14 percent — higher than in 2002.
The victory by the prime minister's party is seen as a rebuke to Turkey’s generals. One of the most trusted and highly regarded institutions, the army considers itself the protectors of Kemal Ataturk’s legacy of rigid secularism. When Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul, whose wife wears a headscarf, was nominated as the party’s presidential candidate, the general staff effectively blocked the nomination.
The first task before the new parliament will be to elect a president, which it will have 30 days to do. Although the party has enough seats to form a single-party government, it fell short of the two-thirds majority needed to either elect a president or reform the constitution. This means that the party must look for someone who has broad appeal, which likely means someone whose wife doesn’t wear a headscarf.
In his victory speech, Mr. Erdogan vowed not to tamper with secular institutions. He evoked Ataturk’s legacy in a different context: “Our goal is to realize the aim of Ataturk, to carry our country to the levels of modern civilization.” Ataturk saw secularism as a prerequisite for creating the kind of modern republic that could catch up to the West. Under Mr. Erdogan, Turkey has seen economic improvement — an average annual growth of 7 percent — and a package of Western-oriented reforms. Mr. Erdogan used the promise of accession to the European Union, and the framework it provides, to push through many reforms. Facing a larger opposition in parliament, that stalled momentum may be tough to recover.
How the new parliament addresses violent Kurdish separatists, which operate from northern Iraq, is also hard to gauge; the the party rejected military action. It’s clear, though, that Mr. Erdogan returns to office with an unquestionably strong mandate. He has a history of mixing religion and politics, and this election result is not an encouraging sign for the United States and the West.