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Islam and Politics ( 11 Aug 2008, NewAgeIslam.Com)

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Turkey and democracy

Newly vindicated, Turkey's ruling party remains an important model of democratic Islamist politics


By Galal Nassar


With the Turkish Supreme Court's recent ruling against banning it, the Justice and Development Party (JDP) survived yet another one of the innumerable challenges it has been encountering with increasing frequency. The terrorist bombings that rocked Istanbul last week were another manifestation of these challenges.


    One was struck by the fact that official fingers did not immediately point to the Kurdish Workers' Party, a fact that does not signify that this party has abandoned recourse to violence or that Ankara has had a change of heart towards it. Rather, as analysts have pointed out, there are other agencies that are now resorting to violence to achieve their objectives in Turkey. That this threat now may come from the militant left, the ultranationalist and radical Islamist camps has gravely aggravated the terrorist threat to Turkey and the problems its ruling party have to contend with.


    To compound the delicacy of the JDP's situation, the recent suit to have it banned originated from the core of the country's nationalist secular elite, undoubtedly with the purpose of overthrowing the democratically elected ruling party and propelling it towards a clash with the military establishment. It was also one of the endless bids in the campaign to put paid to Turkey's drive to join the EU, a campaign that was given fresh impetus by the election of Nicolas Sarkozy as French president and France's turn to chair the EU.


    So far the JDP, led by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has handled the challenges well. The primary theatre of battle has been in development, with respect to which national growth rates have been in focus with steady growth predicted now that Turkey has secured for itself huge and reasonably priced quantities of oil from Central Asia in exchange for allowing the Central Asian pipelines to pass through Turkey to Europe. Also supporting the prediction of continued growth is the increased influx of foreign investment that, last year, rose to $85 billion, a large sum compared to the size of the Turkish economy.


    Perhaps what helped Erdogan's party most is its ability to ensure political stability for the Turkish public. The JDP was perhaps the first in the history of the Turkish political system to win a large enough majority in parliament to form its own relatively homogeneous government. Before this, the Turkish political pendulum had always swung between the type of stability that the military could bring or shaky democracy once civilians returned to government. Under the JDP, the Turks have experienced for the first time in their political history stability under democracy.


    The JDP succeeded in scoring this double victory for itself and the Turkish people after having furnished evidence of its intent to abide by the country's democratic system instead of following in the footsteps of some of its ideological predecessors, whether from the left, the ultranationalist or the Islamist camps, and overturning the democratic order after reaching power through the electoral process. The party's commitment to democracy has been one of the factors that helped it expand its popularity from its original base of support among the rural population and its urban extension into the middle class.


    In spite of the many democratic tests it has passed, the party's detractors still claim that these successes are not a reflection of the party's true convictions. Rather, they insist that the party continues to harbour an Islamist agenda even as it remains consummately pragmatic; taking advantage of the benefits democracy has to offer while observing its principles in order to remain in power. In order to do so, it has to keep an eye on two highly influential factors: the military establishment, which regards the Islamist party as a potential threat to the Kamalist secularist legacy, and the EU, which the Turkish people still hope to join.


    It is not difficult to respond to such objections. While the Turkish army may be a guardian of secularism and the Kamalist legacy, this does not make it a guardian of democracy. Second, Turkish desire to join the EU is not sufficient to explain the party's commitment to democracy. Indeed, a considerable segment of its base of support is no longer enthusiastic about joining the EU. This body of opinion is epitomised by some of the most influential intellectuals in the party ranks, such as Ibrahim Kalyn, director of the Foundation for Political, Economic and Social Research that is closely connected to the party, and Ahmet Davutoglu, professor of international relations and chief foreign policy advisor to the Turkish prime minister. Both these men believe that there is no justification for linking Turkey's great economic prospects with EU membership and that Turkish aspirations for progress and prosperity may be better served through other channels such as developing relations with Arab and Islamic nations and other regions or economic blocs.


    Such attitudes undermine the argument that the JDP is only interested in abiding by democratic principles in order to meet the conditions for EU membership.


    It seems reasonable to conclude, therefore, that even if the Turkish army and the EU affect the JDP's attitude to democracy, there must be other influences. Among these is the evolution in Turkey of Islamist thought. Not that long ago, the JDP's predecessor, the Prosperity Party led by Necmettin Erbakan, viewed democracy as a Western import and, hence, alien to Islamic society. The JDP, in contrast, is strongly influenced by intellectual circles that subscribe to the belief that democracy is a universal, humanitarian political creed with strong roots in Turkish and Islamic heritage.


    Perhaps it is this belief that has enabled the party to prosper while repelling any number of attacks against it, and against democracy and human rights in Turkey.


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