Path is not a rosy one as AK turns two

ANKARA – With the exception of the post-coup elections in 1983, never in Turkish political history has an infant party risen to power before Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Justice and Development (AK) did. Last week, AK celebrated its second birthday with the pomp of power and glory. As a birthday present, it received two lawmakers who defected from opposition seats to join AK and give the ruling party enough of a majority to amend the Constitution – 368 of 550 seats. That’s a bit too lucky for a party that won only one-third of valid votes in last November’s general elections, or one-fourth of the entire electorate. In other words, with three in every four Turks opposing it, AK represents two-thirds of the Turkish legislature. Turkey should re-think its election rules. Staunchly secular Turks still view Mr Erdogan as an Islamist militant. Milder secularists think he is a pragmatist – but still dangerous. In fact, he is a pragmatist with strong Islamist sentiments. The man who called himself «Istanbul’s Imam» (January 8, 1995) says he has broken with his extremist past. His self-declared transformation from «green» to «lighter shades of green» is impressive. Take, for example, his statement: «Marriage certificates should be issued by Imams, not by municipal officials,» (January 8, 1995), or this: «We won’t sell alcoholic drinks at restaurants run by the (Istanbul) municipality because of our religious belief,» (January 8, 1995), or this: «The system we want to establish cannot contradict God’s orders. Our reference is Islam,» (September 23, 1996). And some historic longing: «We need (Ottoman Sultan) Abdulhamid Khan’s mindset,» (February 3, 1996). Once in power, Mr Erdogan and his men radically changed their rhetoric to avoid open confrontation with the secularist establishment. Their top priority is to strengthen their grip on power, not to rush Islamist practice into governance. Luckily, things have gone smoothly for the political amateurs with many hot potatoes in their hands: a (then) looming war in Iraq, the division of Cyprus, EU reforms, an economy on the verge of both recovery and collapse, and a hostile military set-up. The war was relatively painless, apart from bruises and scratches in Turkey’s ties with Washington. Fortunately, Mr Erdogan now has a chance to win American hearts if he can display, unlike the March 1 vote, strong leadership and send peacekeepers to Iraq. Once again, Mr Erdogan is in the same boat with the powerful generals who are keen to send troops to their war-torn neighbor. To avoid a scandal, Mr Erdogan may this time impose party discipline on voting, possibly in September. The economy is progressing fairly smoothly too, not because Mr Erdogan’s economists did anything, but, actually because they did not. Very wisely, Mr Erdogan stepped back from a pre-election pledge to revise a $18-billion recovery plan sponsored by the IMF. Presently, inflation is falling, the lira is strong and stable and the economy is growing fast – all the fruits of economic reforms, under the IMF’s surveillance, in 2001 and 2002. Cyprus has been left entirely to establishment policy-making, the AK has successfully legislated a slew of political reforms to win, at the end of 2004, a date to start accession talks with the EU. Surprisingly, the reforms, including moves to scrap some of the anti-terrorism laws and prune the powers of the military, were passed smoothly in Parliament, with more to follow. Hostilities with the military have always been there but both Mr Erdogan and his opponents in the military ranks have played the silent war game very cleverly. Mr Erdogan has avoided radical moves and serious frictions and the military has avoided any undemocratic move to intimidate him. Yet swords could be drawn if Mr Erdogan decides to go ahead with his plans to reshuffle the entire higher education system to pave the way for graduates of clerical schools to take up other (governmental) jobs. Presently, graduates from clerical schools can only have a clerical career in government. The military may not be too tolerant should any new draft make governors, police chiefs and other state officials out of clerics. Ostensibly, «things couldn’t be any better,» as Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul stated. The party is in a spring-like mood. Its popularity, according to recent polls, stands at around 42 percent. It has a massive majority in Parliament but are these not the conditions that led to the downfall of all solid governments in the past? AK’s parliamentary majority may be its «soft underbelly.» The lawmakers, hastily picked up before the November polls, are deeply split on ideology, ethnic origin and personalities. The party is exposed to the risk of breaking into several fragments in the future. It is also time that the AK institutionalize itself. It should get rid of its image as «Erdogan’s party,» and gain a strong party identity to avoid in-house chaos. The party convention in October could be a useful platform to set up new structures and rules for clearly defined goals, especially at a time when senior party officials, despite a monolithic public appearance, are engaged in various battles for power. Meanwhile, the AK leadership is preparing itself for a new chess game. The Supreme Election Board may cancel the November polls at any time should the chief prosecutor take legal action based on a Supreme Court of Appeals decision to approve sentences for former officials of the pro-Kurdish Democratic People’s Party (DEHAP), a move that would legally invalidate the past elections. If that happens, Turkey may head for a fresh round of early elections at the same time as local polls next spring. This is not an entirely nasty option for a party confident of its electorate support. But there is another test case. President Ahmet Necdet Sezer may call for a referendum on whether to allow the sale of deforested government land, one of the pillars of Mr Erdogan’s revenue-raising plans. In expectation of as much as an over-ambitious $25 billion from the plan, the government passed the necessary legislation which has been vetoed twice by President Sezer. Its critics say the law is politically incorrect. The president agrees. There is every indication that he may call for a referendum. Ankara is quiet these days. Yet, it may not remain so for long, with local polls in sight and an early general election and a referendum possible.