The Magazine

The Sick Man of Europe Revisited

Don't panic about the Islamic victory in Turkey.

Dec 2, 2002, Vol. 8, No. 12 • By GERALD ROBBINS
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WHEN THE VOTE TALLIES started trickling in from Yozgat, my Turkish colleagues knew that an electoral rout was under way. A mid-sized Anatolian city, Yozgat is Turkey's version of Peoria; whoever does well there usually does well throughout the country. It's ordinarily an ultra-nationalist stronghold, but this year, the Justice and Development party (AKP) was wowing Yozgat with its anti-corruption, reformist brand of Islamic politics. Almost half of Yozgat's ballots were marked for the Islamic party in a multiparty race. The closest challengers barely made double digits.

And so went the November 3 elections in officially secular Turkey--America's closest friend among majority-Muslim countries and a NATO ally since 1952, whose bases and assistance will be critically important to any substantial military operation in Iraq. The Turkish vote was nothing short of a political rebellion--and could be seen as a challenge to the anti-religious tenets of Kemal Ataturk's republic, founded on the ruins of the Ottoman Empire nearly 80 years ago. Should this be cause for alarm in Washington? That would probably be an overreaction.

What surprised pundits and pollsters wasn't the AKP victory but the extent of it. The AKP was expected to win 20 to 25 percent of the vote (the high-water mark for earlier Islamic parties), and then form a coalition with one or more of the secular parties. Instead, with more than a third of the popular vote, it won nearly two-thirds of the seats in Turkey's parliament. Only one other group, the Republican People's party (which Ataturk himself founded), attained any legislative presence.

What everyone underestimated was the level of popular discontent with a tanking economy and malgovernance. Arguably, the message voters delivered was more populist outrage than fundamentalist yearning. "These results amount to a civilian coup," wrote Mehmet Ali Birand, a well-regarded Turkish columnist. "This is the response given by millions who are saying 'You have failed to listen to me. You have failed to govern me well. You have impoverished me. You have treated me in a condescending manner.'"

Three factors help explain AKP's overwhelming victory.

The collapse of the political center. Turkish voters are a moderately conservative bunch. Approximately 50 to 60 percent usually opt for center-right parties, while the center-left habitually attracts 25 to 30 percent. Throughout the past decade, the former group has been represented by the Motherland party (ANAP) and the True Path party (DYP).

The essential difference between these two bodies was more personal than political. In other words, ANAP's Mesut Yilmaz and DYP's Tansu Ciller can't stand each other. While a merger might have made sense politically, cooperation between the two leaders was unthinkable. Throughout the 1990s, Yilmaz and Ciller accused each other of being corrupt, leading to tit for tat investigations. After several years of such wrangling, a compromise was reached in 1999, in which the two parties granted each other immunity from prosecution. The arrogance of this agreement led to a widespread belief that the whole political system was guided by cronyism.

Yilmaz and Ciller should have figured out the consequences of their Punch and Judy show. Over the last decade, ANAP and DYP's combined vote in general elections decreased from 51 percent in the 1991 campaign to just under 14 percent in the recently concluded race. Neither party reached the 10 percent threshold for parliamentary representation. "It used to be that the center right safeguarded political stability within Turkey by accommodating Islamic and nationalist surges either by merger or coalition," observed Sedat Ergin, Ankara bureau chief for Hurriyet, one of Turkey's leading newspapers. "The loss of faith in center-right secularism made AKP the only option. If Yilmaz and Ciller had stepped down prior to this election, the political picture would have been different since ANAP and DYP would have restored confidence with new leaders."

The sick man of Europe revisited. Thanks to the worst economic crisis since World War II, this infamous 19th-century description of Ottoman stagnation is suddenly apt again. The economy shrank 6.5 percent last year, with 70 percent inflation and unemployment officially listed at 11 percent but estimated to be twice that amount. According to a survey conducted by Ankara's Middle East Technical University, approximately 10 percent of Turkey's population don't have a regular income. The study also notes that another 25 percent of Turkish society, although drawing a regular paycheck, still live at the poverty level.