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A Test for Democracy in Turkey

By Gerard Baker

Nikita Khruschchev is supposed to have said the only problem with free elections is that you never know who is going to win them

It is certainly a conundrum of America's laudable foreign policy objective of democracy promotion that electorates sometimes freely vote for parties whose goals are distinctly inimical to US foreign policy objectives. In the last five years, as revolutionary forces have swept the Middle East, voters have repaid the west for its liberating strife by electing, in the Palestinian Authority and even in Iraq, Islamic extremists who would, given their druthers, happily extinguish the freedoms those voters have been exercising.

And yet, for all its perils, President George Bush is surely right to insist on the primacy of freedom. Even if we don't like sometimes what it produces in the short-term, history suggests it is still the surest route to long-term political stability and peace.

An important test of the president's idealism is about to be conducted in Turkey, one of the few Moslem-majority countries in the world that is also a democracy. Too bad the US looks to be getting ready to fail it.

Turkish voters have just re-elected, with a substantially increased majority, an avowedly Islamist party that threatens to roll back the boundaries of the secularist society that Turkey has enjoyed for three quarters of a century. The election victory in fact places the Justice and Peace Party (AKP) directly on a collision course with the military, the institution that has traditionally regarded itself as the principal protector of that secularism.

Last month's election was precipitated by a constitutional crisis.

Though the AKP has controlled parliament for the last five years, it has not captured the presidency, a post with significant political and legal powers over the Turkish state. When a vacancy arose for the top job, the AKP therefore quickly seized the opportunity to nominate the foreign minister, Abdullah Gul. Mr Gul is seen as something of a moderate within the AKP. but he is guilty of the cardinal sin of being married to a woman who insists on wearing the Moslem headscarf in public - a symbol of religious piety that has long been neuralgic to Turkey's secularist vigilantes.

When Mr Gul's candidacy emerged, senior members of the military instantly made it clear that his election would be unacceptable - and Turkey seemed headed for yet another of the periodic coups that have so damaged the nation's reputation as a stable democracy over the last 40 years.

But the president is elected by the parliament, and while it enjoyed a majority, the AKP did not have enough votes to force the issue - requiring two-thirds of the members to approve the presidential pick. To break the impasse, and set up a possible showdown with the military, elections were held, and this time the AKP secured a large enough majority to ensure - with help from its allies - that it could get its candidate elected.

The only question was whether the government would stick to its guns - as it were - in the face of the imminent military threat, and re-nominate Mr Gul, and if it did, whether the generals would move.

Sure enough, last week Mr Gul was nominated again and the nation is holding its collective breath.

For us in the west, with a strong interest in not seeing Turkey fall further away from its traditional pro-western stance and into a de facto alliance with other Islamic state, the stakes are high.

At risk, it seems, is Turkey's rigidly secularist constitution - established by Kemal Ataturk 80 years ago. The last thing Washington wants is an avowedly Islamist government in full control in Ankara. Not only would it represent a serious setback to the aim of weakening radical Islamist opinion in the world. It might also have very unpleasant immediate and medium-term diplomatic consequences. The prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has already made warm diplomatic overtures to Teheran, Damascus, and the Hamas leadership in Gaza, and since the Iraq war began across its border four years ago, Turkish-US relations have deteriorated sharply.

Despite all this, the US would be well advised to stick with the democratic process in Turkey and not indulge the ambitions of the military. Whether it likes the AKP's policies or not, it should surely accept the wishes of the Turkish electorate, for a number of reasons..

First, though the AKP certainly represents an unwelcome challenge to Turkey's secular tradition, it would be wrong to characterize as a member of a radical Islamist fraternity that stretches from Gaza to Teheran.

While it is true that it has sought to loosen some of the rigid rules that restrict public expression of religion in Turkey, they have stopped well short of the kind of fanatical agenda associated with Islamist parties elsewhere. What's more, in its five years in power, the AKP has shifted many social policies in a more liberal direction. It continues to seek European Union membership for Turkey and that has required liberalization in many areas of public and cultural life.

Second, if the choice were between the AKP and a popular, secularist political alternative, subtle US opposition might be reasonable. But the only alternative on offer is military rule, wholly inimical to the democratic ideal to which America has committed itself.

This is a military, moreover, that not only seems intent on annulling the right of Turks to choose their own leaders, but one that may well pose a real challenge to US foreign policy objectives in the region.

Having overthrown the Islamists the army is likely to turn to what may be its real ultimate target - Kurdish separatists operating inside Turkey and across the border in Iraq. The last thing the US needs now is an aggressive military regime in Ankara intent on destabilizing the one area of Iraq that has enjoyed relative peace and stability since 2003.

Democracy may not always produce the political results you want. But you can be certain that its opposite will never, in anything other than the very short run, produce anything other than tyranny and misery. ends

Gerard Baker is US Editor and Assistant Editor of The Times of London. Email:

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