The Justice and Development Party (AKP), a conservative Islamic party in Turkey, expanded its electoral lead in the July 22, 2007 elections by 13% over its 2002 levels, garnering 47% of the popular vote. With 340 of 550 seats, the party is now just 17 seats below the supermajority necessary to alter the constitution and to elect its own president. Opposition to the rise of this allegedly Islamist party has already derailed AKP plans to elect Abdulla Gul as president, and the party must now seek to find a compromise candidate. Mass protests erupted around the country as Turkish citizens opposed the symbolic significance of a first lady shrouded in a traditional Muslim headscarf.
Political leaders in Turkey have opposed the AKP since its inception. Leaders of Turkey’s oldest party, the Republican People’s Party (CHP), view AKP dominance as an existential threat to secular Turkish democracy, and decry the “hidden agenda” of a looming muslim party intent on establishing Sharia law. Istanbul economist Reha Guner, characterizes the AKP as “just too Muslim, too radical” and intent on “hold[ing] the country back.”
However, a closer look reveals that this conservative Muslim influence will be tempered by other political forces, and that the AKP’s high election numbers have not granted the party political carte blanche. Turkish military leaders have already threatened to forcibly prevent the rise of an Islamic state, and some analysts fear that the military may reprise its historical role of overturning objectionable governments. The National View Movement (NVM), the Welfare Party (WP), and the Virtue Party—all political progenitors of the AKP—were disbanded and outlawed by Kemalist forces during the 20th century.
Regardless of the outcome, critics cannot argue that the elections did not communicate popular opinion. This controversial election garnered 80% voter turnout, far above the 55% turnout for the U.S. 2004 presidential elections. The government prevented repeat voting by staining the fingers of voters with permanent ink. While large numbers of record of AKP members were elected, an electoral fluke caused the gain in popular vote to translate into fewer seats for the AKP. 24 of 28 independently elected members were Kurdish, and these independents can claim some credit for preventing an AKP supermajority.
Ian Lesser, renowned political scientist and international policy analyst, argues that characterizing the rise of the AKP as a conflict between secularism and islamism may provide an incomplete picture of Turkey’s political climate by ignoring the “economic dynamism” and “pro-business” climate promoted by the AKP leadership. Turkey has seen improved economic prosperity under AKP leadership, with a 7% annual growth rate, decreased unemployment, and a stronger currency. Many post-election reports, including articles by Reuters, CNN, and the Dow Jones MarketWatch, characterized the AKP victory as a pro-business outcome. The Istanbul IMKB-100 stock index increased 5% after the July 22 elections, and the lira rose 2.3% against the dollar.
While AKP dominance may partly represent “a certain increased religiosity in the country, a sort of recessed Islamism there,” Lesser argues, it is also influenced by the increased influence of a rising social class, populism, and the lack of credible alternative parties in Turkey. For those still fearing Sharia law in Turkey, Former U.S. Ambassador to Turkey, Mark Parris, predicts that the AKP will mellow as it gains more political experience and assimilates voters disaffected with other parties. This should reduce religiosity within the AKP party platform, as party leaders try to appeal to a broader audience.
Bethany Stotts is an intern at the American Journalism Center, a training program run by Accuracy in Media and Accuracy in Academia.