- The Washington Times - Monday, May 21, 2007

ISTANBUL, Turkey. — Modern Turkey’s democratization has been driven by the European Union accession process. On July 22, Turks will vote in the first general national election since the talks officially opened — and they are wary of the future of their secular democracy.

Many believe the elections will mark a critical turning point, and others are convinced that Turkey appears to be on the same path that led to Iran’s Islamic revolution. Rumors of government corruption are rampant. But regardless of conspiracy theories, the ruling party has created an environment of serious anxiety and fear. One segment of the population feels threatened by the “with us or against us” mentality — precisely the quality they can’t abide in the Bush administration.

It is impossible to judge how these concerns will affect the election’s outcome. Many people are suspicious of the public opinion polls showing the Justice and Development (AK) Party in the lead at 40 percent. Others clearly believe that a military solution would bring an end to all of Turkey’s progress toward democracy. They complain that the military still views things through the prism of the 1960s — when the military staged the first coup — but they do not appreciate people’s political position against the military.

The ordinary people I spoke to in Istanbul, from taxi drivers to hair dressers to grocery shop owners, impressed me with their analysis that the AK Party made a point of inviting the liberal secularists who have criticized the military’s role in state business to run on their ticket. These conflicted feelings fuel the idea that Turkey is losing its national character.

Whether or not it amounts to garden-variety conspiracy theorizing, Turks tend to believe that today’s trouble is the result of Western policies, since the West’s approach to Turkey has been far from fair and just. But Turks must consider that political and economic turmoil in their country will create unintended consequences and impact European stability. For Europeans, “trouble in Turkey” means the “Eastern question” is still an issue. After decades of investing in this Muslim population’s democratization process, European officials would be wise to use their political capital to focus on the state structure that democracies need to operate properly, rather than constantly narrowing the issue and emphasizing minority rights. A fully functioning democratic system benefits all of its citizens.

The AK Party claims to be the solution to the headscarf issue and the Kurdish relationship. On the surface, it seems closest to EU policies on Turkey. But is that true? As soon as the party chose Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul as its candidate for president, which would have also meant a veiled first lady, millions of Turks poured on the streets to support the secular regime. The Europeans seem to acknowledge that the issue is less about a headscarf and more about a mindset — and as a result they are trying to figure out what it means for the long term. Ironically, both the secularist and the Islamist camps are confused about the EU’s position on the issue.

Things are even more complicated on the Kurdish problem. Each political party is promoting itself as the sole guarantor of democracy in Turkey. But they all agree on one thing: they want to prevent Democratic Society Party (DTP) — a Kurdish political party — from being represented in parliament. Its chairman Ahmet Turk announced that the party will run in the elections with independent candidates. What’s more, he threatened to block the elections by showing more than ten thousand candidates if the others don’t allow them a fair chance for representation. He won’t do such thing, though. But he is right in his criticism. He could, however, have received more support from Turkish people if he were to be able to present projects that benefits the entire country. Yet Turkey will lose a huge opportunity if it refuses DTP representation.

The ruling party, which has a near monopoly on representing Kurds in the east and southeast regions, would lose many seats if DTP won seats. Yet all parties involved ignore the fact that if the Kurds are not represented in parliament as they wish, there will be no peaceful end to this dilemma. The parliament should take responsibility for absorbing these sharp demands so that Kurdish representation by the PKK and the Iraqi Kurdish leadership comes to an end. It’s time for Turkey to get serious about the challenge ahead.

The issue of representation is not exclusive to the Kurds. The law states that parties must win 10 percent of the national vote to win seats in parliament, and many Turks feel their candidates have no chance. They must choose either not to vote or to vote for someone in whom they have little interest. In the end, if Turkey faces a make-or-break situation, it won’t be because of American or EU policies. It will be a result of its own leaders’ failings. It is time to make this failure clear; one should only represent the side of democracy and freedom for all.

Tulin Daloglu is a free-lance writer.

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