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The significance of the Turkish Presidency

With the AK Party (known in the west as the Justice and Development Party) re-elected, Abdullah Gul has been brought forward once again as the AK party’s candidate for the Turkish Presidency. Contention, particularly from the secular army, over Gul’s candidacy had precipitated the elections that saw the AK party return to power with a smaller but still significant majority. While the EU and the financial markets welcomed the election result, Gul, again supported in his candidacy by the majority party, is still causing some internal concerns. What are the issues and why do they matter?

Turkey is constitutionally a secular country with a huge Islamic population. The basic constitutional framework for the Turkish state was established in the years after the First World War by Atatürk. The principles for state development were clearly articulated: keep religion out of the governmental process. The reforms included: the Romanization of the alphabet; the abolition of the Sultanate and of the Caliphate; the establishment of equal rights for men and women; and the establishment of a structure of secular law based on the Turkish civil code. Modernization was the political order of the day. The state was constructed as a strong centralized state and the army has taken the role as preservers of the secular order. Turkey has minorities as well as secular Turks and at risk is the idea of a Turkish state that is inclusive.

The current ‘problem’ is that Gul has an Islamist political past and the very carefully balanced relationship between the state and religion is seen by some to be under threat. The office of the President is also that of Commander-in–chief and the military (a formidable force) feel uneasy. Gul’s wife is a traditionalist and wears the headscarf, banned from government buildings. The symbolic significance of the headscarf is not to be underestimated. It has been reported that she is thinking of ‘modernizing’ the type of headscarf that she wears. With all the fuss, it is little wonder that Gul has been at pains to insist that the country will ‘stay secular’. Given the election results the army appears to have accepted the implications of the popular decision to re-elect the government but Gul has been given notice both by the army and opposition parties that he will be closely watched should he be elected.

Gul is seen by many Turkish insiders and by outsiders as an effective politician. Gul has stressed his sustained interest in seeing through the reforms necessary for Turkish membership of the EU. His effectiveness, as Foreign Minister, in encouraging economic reform and the increases that this has brought in employment and income has made Gul popular with voters though of course the main push for reform comes from the Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Erdogan clearly believes that Gul has the wisdom and stamina equal to the demands of the office. Gul’s candidacy is again subject to a Parliamentary vote. Today he failed to win the 2/3rd majority necessary to win in the first round. Given the government’s majority, Gul is likely to be elected by the third round of voting.

Balanced between west and east, Turkey is strategically significant. However, Turkey’s significance goes beyond this. It is a big country with a big population. It is also of huge economic significance. With a GDP of around $400 billion US dollars it outstrips any country in the Middle-East. It is roughly four times the size of the Israeli economy and about four times the size of the Egyptian economy. The Syrian economy is tiny by comparison. Not only that but Turkey is growing (roughly 7% or more annually though this may be declining somewhat) and has been growing for some time. The EU market-oriented reforms have enhanced the growth prospects and the AK government has been good at driving the reforms through. The political significance of Turkey’s secular-religious compromise and its democratic politics are also not be to under-estimated. The Turkish electorate seems to want honest and effective government, economic reform and stability. The tension between secular and religious interests will not go away but the modernization agenda seems, for the time being at least, to be uppermost. It is hard to see why Gul and the AK party would be prepared to put this modernizing agenda at risk by pushing the constitutional boundaries too much.