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The Global Cost of Turkey's Crisis

By Joseph Nye

Turkey will hold its parliamentary election in July, four months earlier than scheduled, thereby narrowly avoiding a constitutional crisis over the choice of the country's next president. Nonetheless, Turkey's bout with political instability has damaged its foreign policy and international standing.

At the center of the storm are Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, head of the moderately Islamist Justice and Development Party (AKP), and Yasar Buyukanit, Chief of the General Staff of the Turkish military, which regards itself as the guardian of the secular republican tradition established by Kemal Ataturk. When Erdogan contemplated moving from the prime minister's job to the presidency earlier this spring, the military and secular political parties indicated profound dissatisfaction. General Buyukanit said in April that the country's new president must be secular "not just in words, but in essence."

Having met and conversed with Erdogan on more than one occasion, I found him a moderate and reasonable man. Moreover, the AKP has broad support among Turkish voters and an admirable record of economic growth, human rights legislation, and improvement in the treatment of Turkey's Kurdish minority. Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul, a close associate of Erdogan in the AKP, pressed Turkey's application to join the European Union. So when Erdogan decided to nominate Gul as the AKP candidate for the presidency, I was surprised by the strength of the secularist opposition.

The secular establishment argues that the AKP's moderation thus far reflects the checks and balances implied by secularist control of the presidency. They argue that if the AKP comes to control the presidency, it may no longer pursue moderate policies. Secularists point with concern to other AKP, such as Speaker of the Parliament Bulent Arinc, who are noted for their pronounced religious and social conservatism.

When the Turkish Parliament attempted to elect the president on April 27, Gul did not receive enough votes to win on the first ballot. The main opposition party argued that the vote was invalid, and the General Staff issued a statement that it was "watching this situation with concern." Massive public demonstrations were held in Istanbul to support Turkey's Kemalist secular tradition. The issue went to Turkey's highest court, which annulled the parliamentary vote, effectively blocking Gul's candidacy, resulting in Erdogan's decision to call an early election.

These events were closely watched in Washington and Brussels. The United States had been pressing the EU to advance Turkey's application for admission, but Turkish membership was already controversial in several EU countries. This reflects concerns about Turkey's Muslim culture and its large population, as well as concern that any further enlargement will overly dilute the European project.

Now opponents of Turkey's EU accession bid have seized upon recent events to argue that the country does not meet the democratic standards necessary for full membership. They point out that Turkey's military has ousted four elected governments since 1960, and continues to play an inappropriately large role in Turkish politics. While the high court decision and the appeal to the electorate means that Turkish democracy has dodged a bullet for now, the progress of Turkey's EU accession negotiations has been further slowed.

This is unfortunate for both Turkey and Europe. With a slowdown in accession negotiations, Turkish politicians will have less incentive to continue the reforms necessary for membership. Turkey suffers from nationalist sensitivity, and extremist groups have orchestrated several unfortunate incidents, including attacks on minorities and harassment of cultural figures like the Nobel Prize-winning novelist Orhan Pamuk. If Turkey pulls away from Europe, the EU's claim that it successfully wields "soft power" in world politics will be powerfully undermined.

In the larger picture, Turkey is not only an important member of NATO, with influence both in the Balkans and the Middle East, but it also plays a vital role in the wider world. One of the crucial questions of twenty-first century politics will be how the world copes with the rise of political Islam. For radical Islamists (and some Westerners), the rise of Islam sets the scene for a "clash of civilizations," which they welcome as a polarizing device that will allow them to recruit from the much larger Muslim mainstream.

But Turkey has the potential to show the shallowness of such a scenario by demonstrating the compatibility of liberal democracy and Islam. Unfortunately, this appears to have been lost on the neo-conservatives in the Bush administration, for whom it was the invasion of Iraq and its liberation from Saddam Hussein that was supposed to provide a beacon for a wave of democratization that would transform the Middle East. What they produced instead was an "electocracy" that, in the absence of liberal institutions, replaced the tyranny of the Sunni minority with a tyranny of the Shiite majority and a religious sectarian civil war.

Indeed, the invasion of Iraq also hurt Turkey, both economically and by strengthening the base for the Kurdish terrorist PKK organization operating from northern Iraq. The result has been a dramatic increase in anti-Americanism in Turkish politics. If the neo- conservatives had instead focused their attentions on strengthening the soft power of Turkey, they could have done far more to advance the cause of democracy in the Middle East.

Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2007.


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