So Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan has said he’ll call for early elections, either on June 24 or July 1.
This would be early, but not greatly so. Turkey’s Parliament runs on a five-year term, and the last one was elected in November 2002, so he’d have to call elections within a few months anyway.
What’s interesting here is the precipitating incident. Turkey’s Presidency comes open in a few weeks. The President is elected for a single seven-year term, and the current President entered office in May 2000. So it’s time to appoint a new one. The President is appointed by Parliament, but Parliament needs a two-thirds majority to elect. The Prime Minister’s ruling party is just a few votes short of the needed majority, and the opposition parties — in a rare show of unity — boycotted the vote, denying them even a quorum. (There are some constitutional and legal wrangles here, which can be elided.)
What’s the problem? Well, Erdogan’s chosen President is his current Finance Minister, Abdulah Gul. Both Erdogan and Gul are members of the Justice and Development Party, which is an “Islamist” party. The meaning of “Islamist” is fiercely debated. Erdogan and Gul say it’s just like being a Christian Democrat party in Europe. Their critics (and some party members) say there’s more to it than that, and that the party’s Islamism extends to imposing religious values on Turkish society. This is a huge deal in Turkey, which is an Islamic country but which is also fiercely proud of its secular political tradition. Much of this is about symbolism — Gul’s wife wears a headscarf! — but symbolism matters.
So Erdogan is going for a snap vote, presumably hoping to pick up a few more seats. Could happen. On the other hand, if he loses seats, there’d be pressure to appoint a different, less overtly Islamic candidate.
There’s a lot of support for Gul. Or, if not for Gul himself, at least for someone like him. The Justice and Development Party is pretty popular, partly because it’s seen as having done a good job of running the country in the last few years, and partly beause it represents the aspirations of a huge swath of Turkish society. Very broadly speaking, it’s a center-right party of the middle and lower middle classes. One of its key demographics is country folk who have moved to the city in the last generation. These people tend to be hard-working, socially conservative, ardently nationalist and more religious than the established local populations. But there are a lot of them — Turkey has seen a huge shift in population to its cities in the last two decades.
The opposition to Gul’s candidacy is split several ways. There are liberals — Turkey does have some. There are professionals and urban elites who resent the newcomers and their “backward” ways. There are trade unions, who tend to be left-wing and very secular. Between them, they’ve managed to get several hundred thousand people into the streets to protest in the last couple of weeks.
And then there’s the military.
The military is the wild card here. A few days ago, shortly after Gul’s candidacy was announced, the Army General Staff announced that it was following the presidential election “with concern”. “It should not be forgotten that the Turkish armed forces is one of the parties to this [secular versus Islamists] debate and is the absolute defender of secularism.” The army added that it reserved the right to “take action” as warranted.
That’s scary stuff. The military has overthrown four civilian governments in Turkey since 1960, the last one in a “soft coup” in 1997.
On the other hand, the bar is a lot higher these days. Turkey is an EU candidatenow, and military intervention would set its candidacy back by years. Turkey is also a major destination for foreign investment, and has seen five years of hothouse economic growth. Nobody wants to derail that gravy train. So while the growl from the darkness is alarming, the beast is still deep in its cave.
Fingers crossed for a fair and clean election with an outcome that wins general acceptance. The region could use some good news.