The Turkish elections on June 12 will determine our neighbor?s political future and Recep Tayyip Erdogan?s place in history. Sinking in our own crisis, we are at risk of ignoring significant developments around us — including the Turkish prime minister?s emergence as his country?s most important political figure since its founder, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. He has risen triumphant over the secular regime that Kemal established and is head and shoulders above every other Turk politician of his generation.
Under Erdogan, Turkey has made great strides toward reform — from the hegemony of the military and economic problems it has become a regional economic and political power. The question is whether Erdogan?s increasingly autocratic ways will help or hinder his country?s further progress. Turkey has changed radically since Erdogan?s Justice and Development Party (AKP) was elected in 2002. The religiously inclined leader had to draw on great reserves of courage and determination to face down the establishment?s efforts to ban both the party and its leader, and he gained the public?s support. In the 2007 elections the AKP got 46.7 percent, and, in September?s referendum, 58 percent of voters backed Erdogan?s calls for constitutional reform. The national assembly that will emerge from the June 12 elections will draft the first Turkish constitution that is not the product of a military government (as in 1924, 1961 and 1982). And yet, no party has unveiled its proposals for the new constitution. Erdogan, whose party is expected to win 45-54 percent of the vote, is holding his cards close to his chest, but he will no doubt propose the further weakening of the military and judicial authorities? influence. Kemal?s party, the Democratic Popular Party, is expected to garner about 30 percent of the vote. If the nationalist MHP falls below the 10 percent threshold for entry into Parliament, Erdogan?s party may just have the reinforced majority that it needs to change the constitution alone. The MHP was mortally wounded by the emergence of videotapes purporting to show four of its candidates involved in extramarital affairs. (Suspicion for their publication has focused on the AKP.)
Erdogan made reforms that no one after Kemal had dared to. Like Kemal, he is dynamic and determined, but he is also conservative and religious. His roots are not in the elite but in the class of marginalized, pious Turks who only began to join the mainstream of public and economic life in the 1980s, when Premier Turgut Ozal opened up the economy to people outside the establishment. Erdogan set Turkey on course toward EU membership, commandeering the establishment?s raison d? etre, and broke the military?s dominance over public life. Today 163 active officers are in prison, facing charges of plotting to bring down the government; economic reforms have resulted in growth of 9 percent; Kurds enjoy unprecedented rights and state officials are in talks with their jailed leader, Abdullah Ocalan; Turkey has developed strong ties with all regional countries; foreign policy is independent of the wishes of the USA. At the same time, however, close to 60 journalists are in prison (most for supporting the Kurdish cause but six for matters pertaining to curbs on freedom of speech). Also, Erdogan has been acting with increasing arrogance. His announcement of the pharaonic project to dig a canal parallel to the Bosporus was presented as a personal issue whose details only he needs to know; his selection of candidates for the election reflects his personal dominance over the party.
As the ?Turkish model? of a successful marriage of Islam and a modern society is held up as an example for other Muslim countries, one must examine whether Erdogan?s personality is a crucial factor in carrying out reforms but also whether it may hinder greater democratization. Soon we will know whether paternalism and autocratic ways are the recipe for success in running countries like Turkey — and whether, in overturning Kemal?s legacy of a strictly secular state, Erdogan is his true heir.