Unprecedented victory by the islamists in the turkish general elections


Corinne Deloy,  

Fondation Robert Schuman,  

Helen Levy


3 November 2002

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Deloy Corinne

Corinne Deloy

Author of the European Elections Monitor (EEM) for the Robert Schuman Foundation and project manager at the Institute for Political Studies (Sciences Po).

Robert Schuman Fondation

Fondation Robert Schuman

Levy Helen

Helen Levy

The Neo-Islamist victory in the Turkish general elections, that had been announced by all the opinion polls, was greater than the surveys originally forecast and comprises an unprecedented political event. The Justice and Development Party (AKP) that was created just over a year ago on what remained of the prohibited Islamist movement (the Refah, Prosperity Party) has achieved an unexpected breakthrough, taking 34,2% of the votes cast, i.e. 10% more than the polls had planned for. The Neo-Islamist party has won the absolute majority in Parliament by taking 363 seats. The party in second place in this election, the People's Republican Party (CHP), won 19.3% of the vote and 178 seats in Parliament. The CHP will be the only opposition movement in the Grand National Assembly, the only house in Turkish Parliament. None of the other 16 movements who presented themselves to the electorate gained the necessary 10% of the vote to be represented in Parliament.

An historic event for Turkey

These general elections, more than being a success for the Neo-Islamists, confirm the final defeat of the traditional parties. Turkish voters expressed their rejection of the traditional political community by eliminating all of the outgoing parties in Parliament. The Democratic Left Party (DSP), Prime Minister Bülent Ecevit's movement won 1.2% of the vote (against 22.19% in the last elections on 18th April 1999), the National Action Party (MHP) won 8.3% of the vote (against 17.89% three years ago) and the Mother Country Party (ANAP) won 5% of the vote (against 13.22% during the last election). Bülent Ecevit publicly acknowledged his electoral defeat, likewise Devlet Bahceli leader of the National Action Party (MHP), who announced that he would quit the leadership of his party shortly. The leader of the third movement in the outgoing coalition, Mesut Yilmaz, has also announced his departure from both the ANAP and the political scene. Apart from the three government coalition parties the opposition movement, the Just Way Party (DYP) recorded a smaller decline, winning 9.5% against 12.01% in 1999, but which was sufficient however to exclude it from Parliament. Cem Uzan's Young Party contributed to the collapse of the traditional parties winning 7% of the vote, an honourable score in comparison with the traditional parties and also for a movement that presented itself for the first time in a national election. It is in danger however of simply disappearing.

The Justice and Development Party is making its entry into the Grand National Assembly of Turkey and the People's Republican Party (CHP), the country's oldest political movement created in 1923 by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, is resuming its place on the benches of Parliament from where it had been evicted in 1999, for the very first time in its history. Since the appearance of modern Turkey 79 years ago a Neo-Islamist movement has won an absolute majority in Parliament and can therefore govern the country alone. Due to the electoral law (that establishes 10% as the percentage of votes necessary for a party to enter Parliament), 45% of the 31 million voters will not have any representation in the future Grand National Assembly of Turkey. This problem also comprises one of the reasons suggested by the leader of the Justice and Development Party, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, for the necessity to modify the Constitution. The People's Democratic Party (DEHAP), a pro-Kurd movement won 6.5% of the vote nationally and will therefore not be represented in Parliament although it won more than 40% of the vote in the main towns of South East Turkey.

As soon as his party's victory was announced, Recep Tayyip Erdogan sent reassuring messages to the international community and particularly to the European Union, as well as Turkish society. He gave guarantees to both Turkish and international public opinion. "We are going to accelerate Turkey's candidature to integrate Europe", he declared announcing a tour of the European capitals before the European Council in Copenhagen on 12th and 13th December when the Turks are expecting the announcement of a date by the Fifteen for the opening of membership negotiations. "We shall strengthen Turkey's economic integration into the rest of the world," he also promised, saying that he was "determined to apply the economic programme with the IMF". Recep Tayyip Erdogan confirmed his desire not "to interfere in the life of Turkish citizens" stressing that in his opinion the wearing of the Islamic shawl was not a priority. Finally he announced his desire to modify the Constitution in order to improve the electoral system. In particular he addressed the military hierarchy who are particularly worried about his victory "we will not create tension within Turkey, there will not be a repeat of the problem of 28th February" alluding to the events in 1997 when the army pushed the then Islamist Prime Minister, Necmettin Erbakan, to resign.

Although the Justice and Development Party (AKP) confirms that it is a conservative movement in favour of secularism, Europe, NATO and the IMF there are still some unanswered questions about how it is going to govern the country since most of its leaders have never had any political responsibilities. One thing is certain: Recep Tayyip Erdogan will not be the next Prime Minister, since the law also obliges him to be an MP. He was in fact declared ineligible on 16th September by the High Electoral Council. The AKP is due to announce shortly the name of its candidate for head of government. Abdullah Gul, Vice President and the party's theorist, seems to be the favourite.

Forty-eight year-old, Recep Tayyip Erdogan started his political career in the ranks of National Vision, an organisation that was led by Necmettin Erbakan. He then followed him to the Islamist Party of National Salvation (MSP) and then to the Refah (Prosperity Party). He was elected mayor of Istanbul in 1994 and became very popular thanks to a campaign to improve sanitary conditions and his fight against corruption before being prohibited from political activity for a five year period by the Constitutional Court of Turkey. He was imprisoned for "inciting religious hate" after having made a public recital of some verses by the nationalist poet Ziya Gökalp ("Our mosques are our barracks, our domes our helmets, the minarets are our bayonets and our believers our soldiers"). Since then, Recep Tayyip Erdogan has distanced himself from his political mentor and in 2001 founded the Justice and Development Party. The Neo-Islamist leader's wife and two daughters wear the veil, speak no foreign languages and say they are opposed to alcohol and contraception. At present he is under accusation of personal enrichment in an affair whilst he was Mayor of Istanbul and is due to appear in court shortly. In addition to this it has been requested that his party be prohibited by the Constitutional Court (that refused to make any declarations before the elections) for not respecting the laws pertaining to political parties.

As far as the other victor of the elections is concerned, the People's Republican Party (CHP) a social democrat movement and known for its attachment to secular State values, its leader Deniz Baykal has declared that he is "ready to ensure a constructive opposition".

The questions being asked by the international community

Although the Neo-Islamist victory comprises a challenge for the international community and in particular for the European Union its is an even greater one for all of the Muslim countries. The stakes are major: either the Justice and Development Party manages to conciliate Islam and Modernity - Turkey's example will then be valid for the whole of the Arab-Muslim world or the AKP will fail in its attempt to lead the country democratically and this failure will delay the democratisation of the Muslim countries by as many precious years, and therefore hold back the reconciliation of civilisations.

The Neo-Islamist victory is not so much as result of a Turkish desire to live in an Islamic society but it is more a vote in rejection of a political system. The Justice and Development Party has also succeeded in mobilising more than a solely Islamic electorate - contrary to Necmettin Erbakan's Virtue Party (Fazilet) who only won 2.5% of the vote. The European Commission has understood this and said on Monday "that it was ready to co-operate" with the Justice and Development Party whilst stressing its attachment to continuing the reforms that Turkey had already started. "We should judge the next Turkish government by its acts ... if we take decisions or make declarations based on the simple fact that the party is Islamist, moderate or not, we shall be making a major error," declared Javier Solana, High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Policy and Common Security.

Turkey is to be the first NATO member country led by Islamists. This is a difficult situation for the USA to take on board since as soon as the results were announced, the Vice President of the Justice and Development Party Abdullah Gul said that he was against any American military action in Iraq. Nevertheless the Turkish Army already provides its support in the North of Iraq. Similarly when Dick Cheney, American Vice President went to Ankara last March to ensure Turkish support in terms of a possible military intervention in Iraq he was more willing to consult with the Chief of Staff of the Turkish Army rather than the Government. In terms of domestic policy the National Security Council continues to have major influence. From now on, and following pressure from the European Union, it comprises a greater number of civilians than military representatives. The Council brings together monthly the President of the Republic, the main Turkish ministers and generals and exercises true supervision of the country's domestic politics. The military who is very sceptical of the recent conversion by the Neo-Islamists over to Western values, will monitor the future leaders very closely from whom they expect real proof of their attachment to democracy and secularism.

The official announcement of the general election results by the High Electoral Council will take place this week. Five days after this official proclamation the Grand National Assembly of Turkey will be convened. The MP's will take an oath and President Ahmet Necdet Sezer will then appoint the Prime Minister who will have to win Parliament's confidence.

Since its foundation in 1923 Turkey has chosen to attach itself to the West. The country, whilst never completely ignoring the neighbouring Arab and Persian world, has always recognised the importance of its integration into Europe. With this historic vote in favour of the Neo-Islamists Turkey has now become an novel laboratory for political experimentation allying Democracy with Islam. Let us hope that the aspirations of the Turkish people just as those of the international community will not be disappointed.

Results of the General Elections on 3rd November:

Participation : 79% (it is obligatory to vote in Turkey)

Source Agence France Presse

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