This week-end saw another enormous demonstration in Istanbul of opponents of political Islam. According to the police there were well over a million people there.
A couple of weeks ago there was a smaller demonstration of only 300,000 also in favour of retaining Turkey’s prized secular status. At the time there were dark mutterings of the demonstration having been organized by the army and possibly it was not entirely untrue. Developments this week-end show that the support for secularism is more widespread than just in and around the military.
The immediate cause of this excitement is the forthcoming presidential elections and we have written about this before. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan of the Islamist AK Party was thought to have been eyeing the presidency for himself but was put off by the first demonstration. Instead he promoted the present Foreign Minister, Abdullah Gül, a close ally and also an Islamist. One of the complaints against Erdogan and his decision was that he did not consult the opposition parties as is customary over the question of presidential candidates, relying, one assumes on his majority in parliament to get his man in.
The opposition Republican People's Party has presented the Constitutional Court with a petition to suspend the presidential election, claiming that Erdogan had acted unconstitutionally and that putting someone like Gül into the presidential palace would undermine the secularist state of Turkey.
Prime Minister Erdogan, on the other hand, has claimed that far from introducing political Islamism, his government has been very pro-Western and reformist. Though, as he did not add, this may well have been because of the barely hidden threat by the army to overthrow any government that pushes Turkey towards an Islamic state and because of a secularist President who managed to control or overrule many of the proposals.
There have been various attempts to criminalize adultery, restrict the sale of alcohol and lift the ban on the wearing of headscarves in government offices. The fear is that with an Islamist President and an Islamist Prime Minister these attempts will be successful.
In fact, Abdullah Gül is finding it more difficult to achieve the presidency than it had been expected. In the first round he failed to win the necessary number of votes and, it is expected, that he will not get in till the third round, due to take place (Constitutional Court permitting) on May 9.
The army, which considers itself to be the guardian of Atatürk’s settlement, has quite openly threatened to deal with the situation if the government moved towards political Islamic structures and this has caused an immediate flap among the great and the good in Europe.
One effect of the crisis was almost predictable:
The turmoil unsettled traders in Istanbul, where the benchmark index, the IMKB-100, was down 4.01 percent at 44,984.45 points by closing, after opening down 7.99 percent. Turkey's currency, the lira, slid against foreign currencies and was trading at 1.36 against the U.S. dollar, compared to Friday's close of 1.33.The Turkish press, as Deutsche Welle reports, is not taking sides but calling on both the government and the military to sort the problems out for the country’s sake. The point several journalists make is that, while the military may be there to protect the secular structure, the idea that it should do so by overruling a democratically elected government (as it has done on several occasions in recent years) is not all that appealing either.
Turkey, a candidate for European Union membership, has been steadily recovering from a financial crisis in 2001, curbing inflation and pushing ahead with banking reform and other initiatives backed by the International Monetary Fund. The country has huge foreign debt but is attractive to foreign investors.
Analysts said the markets will likely recover if the government defuses tension by agreeing to early elections for Parliament, a move that could appease critics and clear the way for more vigorous implementation of economic reforms once a new government is in place. But they warned that sustained political uncertainty would take its toll.
The Turkish press on Sunday was unanimous in calling on the government and the army to resolve their differences democratically and said early elections were the only way to prevent the country from plunging into chaos.
"Turkey either giving up on secularism or suspending democracy are two doomsday scenarios impossible to choose between," the popular daily Vatan said.
The liberal daily Milliyet said the army's warning had "cast a shadow on the credibility and respectability of civilian institutions."
"The latest developments show that the current term of parliament has reached the end of its natural life. Elections should be held at once," it added.
Prime Minister Erdogan has addressed the nation, appealing for unity and calm. However, it seems that, although the address was broadcast today, it was actually recorded on Saturday, that is, before the mass demonstration. Earlier the government’s spokesman, Çemil Çiçek, said this:
It is inconceivable in a democratic state based on the rule of law for the General Staff, which is under the orders of the prime minister, to speak out against the government. The primary duty in protecting the basic tenets of the state falls on the government. The Chief of the General Staff is answerable to the Prime Minister.It is a difficult situation to understand and the EU having not helped matters by creating endless difficulties over negotiations for Turkey’s membership of the EU (while not making it clear that this is an impossible idea, either) and having behaved with less than total honesty in Cyprus, is now making grandiloquent statements.
Both the European Union and the Council of Europe have rushed in to demand that the army stay out of Turkish politics, an impossible notion, given modern Turkey’s history. Terry Davies, the Council of Europe’s Secretary General said:
I am very anxious about this statement from the Turkish military. It sounds like an explicit attempt by the armed forces to influence the outcome of the presidential election.Then again, these days the Council of Europe has members like Azerbaijan and the Russian Federation, so its attachment to human rights may not be as strong as it used to be.
For the European Union Ollie Rehn, the Enlargement Commissar opined:
It is important that the military leaves the remit of democracy to the democratically elected government. This is a test case if the Turkish armed forces respect democratic secularism and the democratic arrangement of civil-military relations.He is quite wrong. The test case will come if Turkey, the only more or less democratic secular Muslim state is taken over by political Islamism. What will all the great and the good say then? The European Union, one assumes, will heave a sigh of relief. All negotiations with Tukey can be abandoned. The Council of Europe will bleat on. But a reliable Western ally will disappear.
Of course, the crisis may pass and Erdogan may stay on a secularist path, not least because he still has some hope that the EU will open its doors to Turkey. The most likely reason for that, however, will be the threat expressed by the army and a large part of the populace.