Turkey faces a critical test today in its national elections, and the results could have wide implications for the entire region. The government has remained unsettled since the attempt to elect Abdullah Gul president and the threatened military coup that scotched Gul’s rise. Now the Turks will recast its parliament, and the West waits to see whether Islamists can grab enough power to change the relentlessly secular government (via Michelle Malkin):
Turks voted for a new Parliament on Sunday in a contest viewed as pivotal in determining the balance between Islam and secularism in this nation of more than 70 million.
Many people cut short vacations to head home to cast their ballots, and lines at some polling stations were long as people voted early to avoid the summer midday heat. In Istanbul, Turkey’s biggest city, traffic jammed some main roads and police officers stood guard outside the gates of schools serving as polling stations. …
The new Parliament will face a host of challenges, including a presidential election, violence by Kurdish rebels and a growing divide over the role of Islam in society.
The election was called early to defuse a political crisis over the Islamic-oriented ruling party’s choice of presidential candidate, and the three-month campaign was peaceful. Turkey has made big strides after the economic and political chaos of past decades, but some feared the vote could deepen divisions in the mostly Muslim nation.
The current government has provided a rather stable economic and political environment, although the latter began to erode after the attempt to put Gul in the presidency. Gul is a committed Islamist, who was seen as a threat to push religious dictates into law. His party also espouses Islamist values, but until Gul’s candidacy, had been careful to make those more or less guiding principles rather than legislative goals.
Turkey has been a singular success in the region as a Muslim democracy. (In the South Pacific, Indonesia would be the other.) That success comes from the constant threat of a military coup; the army has taken control of the government on several occasions when it felt that the secular nature of modern Turkey was threatened. That threat keeps Islamists like Tayyip Erdogan from attempting to create an Iran-like state at the juncture of Europe and Asia.
Erdogan’s party will likely win the elections today. The question will be how large their share of Parliament will be, and therefore how emboldened they may feel to push for deeper changes. The nomination of Gul suggests that they may feel strong enough to push the military, and these elections could provide some substantiation for their confidence.
The outcome could have tremendous repercussions for the region, especially Iraq. The PKK has created a lot of tension near the Iraqi border, and the Erdogan government has threatened to send the military into Iraq to target the PKK bases from which the Turks claim the attacks originate. That kind of military incursion could pit the US against Turkey and certainly would enrage the Kurds on both sides of the border, leading to an eruption of fighting in the region. We can’t afford to have Turkey turn against us, not when we have our hands full with Iraq, Iran, and Syria. We can hardly afford to lose our best success in the Kurdish north, either.
The count should be completed shortly. We shall see what direction Turkey has chosen.
UPDATE: Erdogan has won an impressive victory today:
Turkey’s Islamic-rooted ruling party won parliamentary elections Sunday, taking at least 331 of 550 seats despite warnings from the secular opposition that the government was a threat to secular traditions.
The state-run Anatolia news agency said the ruling Justice and Development Party had won with 85 percent of the votes counted. Two secular parties, the Republican People’s Party and the Nationalist Action Party, won 124 seats and 76 seats respectively, Anatolia said. Independents won 19 seats.
The Justice and Development Party now can form a single-party government, with a clear mandate for continuing its current policies. That may not be very good news for the US, Iraq, or Europe, but it isn’t all that bad, either. At least so far, Erdogan and his party has resisted the urge to impose Islamist policies on Turkey, out of fear of the military response. These elections, while a clear victory, do not eliminate that boundary.