- The Washington Times - Monday, April 30, 2007

The news that Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan will not seek the presidency should have caused some relief in Turkey, but the streets of Istanbul were swarmed by as many as 1 million protesters Sunday after the announcement that Mr. Erdogan’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) would support Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul for the job. Although widely viewed as more moderate and less divisive than Mr. Erdogan, Mr. Gul is still seen as a challenge to that highly guarded legacy of Kemal Ataturk — Turkey’s secularism.

That Mr. Gul was not elected in the first round of voting is not surprising; a presidential candidate must receive two-thirds of the vote in parliament — a margin the AKP is just shy of meeting. If Mr. Gul is not elected in the second round, a third round of voting, which requires only a simple majority, should easily move the moderate Islamist into the presidency. This prospect brought out the huge crowd of protesters this weekend, which underscores the sharp division in Turkish society.

Tension between the Islamists and the secularists stems not so much from specific policies than from the broader question of national identity. Mr. Gul has promised to adhere to secular principles, but with the president wielding a veto (as the current president has over some of AKP’s more Islamist-leaning legislation) and appointing judges, that promise has not allayed fears, as the recent protests show. The changes in Turkish politics and society, as well as foreign policy, do not receive the attention they warrant in Washington. Nor does the centrality of Turkey to U.S. strategic interests in the region. (The Washington Times began running a column by Turkish journalist Tulin Daloglu in August 2005 because of that deficit. See accompanying article)

The threat of intervention by the Turkish army, which is not without precedent in Turkey, has also emerged and caused justified alarm. A statement released by the army is as blunt as it is ominous: “it should not be forgotten that the Turkish armed forces is one of the sides in this debate and the absolute defender of secularism,” and that “when necessary, it will display its stance and attitudes very clearly.”

Turkey’s division is not simply a matter of domestic policy. The question of identity extends to Turkey’s geopolitical role. Turkey has a history of strong alliances with the United States and of a generally pro-Western outlook. That attitude, however, is changing. Pro-Western, and specifically pro-American popular sentiment has decreased dramatically, in part a response to the U.S. led invasion of Iraq and what is perceived in Turkey as U.S. refusal to address the violent Kurdish separatist group, the PKK. Under the AKP and Mr. Erdogan’s leadership, Turkey has turned increasingly to the East, standing more with Muslim causes and strengthening ties to majority Muslim countries at the expense of its traditional allies. Should AKP control the presidency and subsequently renew its majority in parliament, Turkish secularism may not be the only tradition facing a serious threat.

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