- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 2, 2007

For months, opposition parties in Turkey have been calling for the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), and its leader, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, to delay the presidential election until after the parliamentary elections so that Turkey’s next president would be elected by a new parliament. At the time, Mr. Erdogan rebuffed such enjoinment, but yesterday, after a turbulent week, his party took the step of calling for early parliamentary elections. The original fear was that Mr. Erdogan would nominate himself; in an attempt to assuage concerns, AKP instead nominated Abdullah Gul, its foreign minister. The attempt fell flat.

Several factors undoubtedly weighed heavily on AKP leadership: two well-attended protests in as many weeks, with one drawing close to 1 million people, a ruling from the Constitutional Court that invalidated the first round of voting in parliament, and, perhaps most influential, a caustic statement from the Turkish General Staff, read as a not-so-veiled threat of military intervention should an Islamist politician assume the presidency.

The European Union was quick to chastise the Turkish military, and the State Department, at first quiet, also echoed that criticism this week. Other editorials we’ve seen follow the same line: Military influence over a democratically elected government is antithetical to the tenets of democracy. That’s certainly true, but the Turkish military should not necessarily be regarded as the most serious threat to Turkish democracy.

The substantial AKP majority in parliament is, in a sense, artificial, and it shouldn’t be read as truly representative of AKP’s popular support. In the 2002 election, for the first time since 1954, only two parties received at least 10 percent of the vote — the threshold that entitled them to seats in parliament — leaving large sections of the Turkish population without political representation. Thus, AKP spun 34 percent of the popular vote into a near two-thirds majority in parliament. Even that 34 percent may have overstated AKP’s true support, argued Zeyno Baran, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, because AKP benefited from voters who were simply displeased with the previous government.

“The Turkish people have become lazy and vote irresponsibly, believing that if anything goes wrong, the military will put it right again,” said Miss Baran on Monday on Capitol Hill. Clearly the wrong way to approach democracy, but just as clearly not a sweeping mandate for AKP’s political agenda, which it would be better able to advance with control of the presidency. So far, its agenda hasn’t been aggressively Islamist — indeed, Mr. Erdogan’s government can claim steady economic growth and progressive reforms, guided by the EU accession process. But AKP does not fully adhere to the secular principles on which Turkey was founded and which are vital to Turkish democracy. The firewall between state and religion is paramount in majority Muslim countries, as Ataturk realized more than 80 years ago. Its erosion threatens democracy in Turkey.

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