- The Washington Times - Monday, April 16, 2007

Islamists in Turkey are calling for a debate about secularism, but perhaps Turks themselves should first have a debate about what democracy means. Soon Turkey may have its first Islamist president; Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is expected to announce his presidential candidacy within a week. Never before has a presidential candidacy been so controversial.

The outgoing president’s term ends on May 16, and candidates began announcing their bids on Monday. But the secretive environment surrounding the presidential nominee from the Party of Justice and Development (AKP) would be troublesome in any democracy. The Turkish constitution stipulates that the parliament — controlled by AKP since the last election — chooses the president, not the people.

Mr. Erdogan said just a few days ago that he had not yet decided whether to run. While he is pretending that he is taking his time to decide, what he should really be concerned with is how and whether he is living up to the democratic ideal. It’s one thing to throw that word around and quite another to live it. It’s nearly impossible to prove that you really do represent that ideal until you’re being put to a test — which may prove too late for the people of Turkey. And let’s make no mistake that his one-term premiership is not enough to understand the answer.

Recently at the Brookings Institution, Mehmet Ali Bayar, former Turkish President Suleyman Demirel’s former adviser, noted that Mr. Erdogan did not prepare the country for the alternative if he does not run. Mr. Bayar predicts that the coming presidential election may turn into a constitutional crisis which would then make anyone wonder how the system may resolve it.

In February, however, Matthew Bryza, Deputy Assistant Secretary for European and Eurasian Affairs, said at a roundtable with Turkish journalists, “Turkish democracy is strong. It’s really strong… there’s no fear that the fundamental secular democracy that is a cornerstone of the Turkish republic, [is] going to go away.” Yet many Turks doubt the strength of their democracy — including the country’s most prominent pro-secular president, Ahmet Necdet Sezer.

Last week, Mr. Sezer warned that the country’s secular system is facing its greatest threat since its founding, and that any challenge to Turkey’s secular regime was not a step forward to a moderate Muslim state, but a step backwards toward radical Islam. He is technically right. But what he is not sharing is why Turkey is still fighting this “dark ages” mentality today.

In the meantime, hundreds of thousands of people poured into Ankara’s streets on Saturday to defend secular democracy, even though they know that no political establishment will truly be the answer to their concerns.Unfortunately, political stagnation — not Mr. Erdogan — is challenging the secular regime in Turkey today. There is no true rival to challenge the AKP’s stand in Turkish politics. People feel that they are being forced to choose the least bad among a group of untrustworthy political parties and leaders. And not enough Turks are convinced that AKP is trying to bring Shariah back again.

Yet while American officials speak with confidence about Turkish democracy, the radicalization of the Middle East remains absolutely key. On the other hand, Turkey’s European Union prospects are also key. Mr. Erdogan is the first Turkish prime minister to attend the Arab League summit, and has a unique access to the leaders of the United States, Israel, Germany, Britain, Syria, Iran, Saudi Arabia, the Palestinians and others. This can indeed benefit Turkey. But democracies are fragile. The moment Turkey is set loose from its E.U. hook, no one can guarantee that the AKP will continue with pro-Western policies. Yet Mr. Bryza said, “I don’t see that level of social tension being present in Turkey. We still see the most popular political party being the AKP party… I think the AKP party’s election was a reflection of a positive form of Turkish nationalism which is embracing Turkey’s traditions. Islam and democracy are core traditions of Turkish political society.”

The State Department may have the true expertise on democracy. But there is also this: Mehmet Ali Bayar reminded that democracy is a means of assuring accountability in government. People with power should be accountable to the people, and that can’t happen if those in power get too much power. Mr. Bayar noted that there is no system of checks and balances in Turkey. An Erdogan presidency would raise the stakes, consolidating authority over all three branches of government — executive, judiciary and legislative — in the hands of AKP.

In the United States, President Bush can keep or fire federal prosecutors, but that decision should not be made out of political expediency. In Turkey, an Islamist president would be able to influence the judiciary. The outgoing president had stopped this kind of influence before. And the latest bizarre example coming out of Turkey is that the city council of Alanya, a tourist town on the Mediterranean coast, unanimously voted in favor of polygamy — based on Islamist reasoning. Mr. Erdogan, the outspoken prime minister, pretends not to know about it. It is impossible at this point to know how an Erdogan presidency would change Turkey — but these are the days heading certainly to a historic change.

Tulin Daloglu is a free-lance writer.

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