Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 4 Issue: 160

The Nationalist Action Party (MHP), with 70 seats in the new Turkish parliament, has indicated that it has no serious objection to the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) candidate, Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul, becoming president (Today’s Zaman, August 2). The party is expected to attend parliament for any presidential vote, ending the previous deadlock caused by opposition party boycotts and the resulting lack of the quorum required for such votes. The 22 Kurdish independent candidates who won seats in the July 22 election may likewise support Gul’s candidacy, possibly in return for an AKP commitment not to invade Kurdish northern Iraq (Today’s Zaman, August 2) or for help in removing the 10% nation-wide electoral party threshold in Turkey. As long as either the MHP deputies or the Kurdish ones attend such a vote, the AKP already has enough deputies to elect Gul to the presidency.

The secular establishment in Turkey accuses Gul of harboring an Islamist anti-secular agenda and points to his past activities in Islamist parties and his headscarf-wearing wife as evidence of this. Gul responds that the public focus on his wife’s headscarf is “unreasonable,” insisting that he, and not his wife, is running for president (Radikal, August 16). Gul also insists, “Protection of secularism is one of my basic principles. Nobody should worry about this” (August 14 press conference, quoted in Turkish Daily News, August 15).

The Republican People’s Party (CHP) has emerged as the only political party to definitely oppose Gul’s presidential bid. The CHP is the main opposition party in parliament, with 99 seats to the pro-Islam AKP’s 341, although it lacks the numbers necessary to block Gul’s election on its own. The CHP this month refused to even meet with Gul (Turkish Daily News, August 15).

According to former DP (Democrat Party) member of parliament Korkut Ozal, the CHP is now attempting to position itself as the main rallying point for the defense of secularism in Turkey, and the party thus stands to benefit from any renewed crisis over Gul’s ascension to the presidency (Today’s Zaman, August 16). Commentators such as Ozal also accuse the CHP of supporting the “deep state” in Turkey, a reference to unelected, “behind the scenes” political powers in Turkey. Influential elites in Turkey’s military, police, judiciary, and business world are commonly thought to set strict limits on what the elected leadership of the country can do and say, particularly regarding issues related to secularism, the ethnic Turkish identity of the state, the indivisibility of Turkish territory, and other Kemalist principles.

Although the AKP’s overwhelming electoral win on July 22 gives it the parliamentary power to pursue its goals, including the somewhat ceremonial presidency, the real looming political contest lies with the “deep state.” If the AK government pushes ahead too hard or too fast with some of its policies, it risks sparking a severe crisis or coup. At the same time, the very strong electoral support Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s AKP received on July 22 strengthens it vis-à-vis the “deep state.” Even unelected elites, and particularly the Turkish military, must remain concerned about popular reactions to any actions they take against a lawfully and popularly elected government. The July 22 election was widely perceived as public endorsement for the AKP’s policies, including its bid to elect one of its own to the presidency. As long as Erdogan’s party maintains an aura of moderation, any move to topple it would thus appear illegitimate, even for the military guardians of the state.

Part of the current problem lies in the Turkish understanding of secularism. Turkish secularism does not mean the separation of church and state, but rather the subordination of the church to the state. In Kemalist practice (named after the state’s founder and creator of the policy, Kemal Ataturk), the state tightly controls, limits, and regulates religious practice. Imams in Turkey, for example, must all pass through government run imam-hatip schools with a curriculum approved by and largely devised by the state. The imams cannot preach without a license from the state, and licenses are revoked for imams who stray off-message. Wearing what the state deems to be “religious garb,” including headscarves for women, is forbidden in public institutions and universities.

Kemal Ataturk enacted this version of secularism in the 1920s in order to bring the new Turkish Republic closer to its European rivals, rivals that had proven themselves more modern and more powerful than a religion-bound Ottoman Empire. In his conception of modernization, Ataturk believed that Turkey had to adopt both the technology of Europe as well as its secular nationalism – Turkey could not have one without the other. For Turkey to become an equal to the major European powers, he therefore believed that a more vigilant version of secularism would be needed in order to stamp out the remains of an empire that had built itself on Islam.

The supreme irony today comes from the fact that Erdogan and Gul’s Islamist-rooted AKP has become the most ardent supporter of Turkish ascension to the European Union, while Kemalists in the CHP and the military balk at the thought of European-style separation of church and state.