A test for Turkish democracy

By Simon Tisdall (THE GUARDIAN, 30/04/07):

The Turkish generals' implicit midnight warning that, as the "absolute defender of secularism", the army would not tolerate Islamist meddling with the constitutional legacy of Kemal Ataturk carried a dark echo of previous military coups.

It is only 10 years since tanks were sent on to the streets to help topple Necmettin Erbakan, a prime minister who, the army believed, had confused his politics with religion. Earlier interventions were even less subtle and left lasting scars

Turkey's historically uncertain embrace of democratic governance is one reason why its fitness to join the EU has been questioned. Proponents of Ankara's membership say this is exactly why Turkey should be locked into the European community without more ado.

But the contours of the latest crisis, over the moderate Islamist government's choice of foreign minister Abdullah Gul as the next president, suggest times have changed, even if Turkey's detractors have not noticed.

The military's statement was hardly an ultimatum. It expressed "solid determination" to uphold the law - then rather lamely complained that it wanted to be "one of the sides in this debate". It is hard to see that as a direct threat to violently overthrow the prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Mr Erdogan's confident reaction also suggested Turkey has moved on - that a decade is a very long time in politics. In a disdainful swipe at the military, he said it was "unthinkable" that the armed forces should challenge an elected government in modern Turkey. Mr Gul said withdrawal of his candidacy was "out of the question".

Semih Idiz, a leading columnist with Milliyet newspaper, said these exchanges marked a "watershed" in Turkey's development. "It may be that the military overplayed its hand this time," he said. "The government had to make a stand against the army and it did. It has been strengthened morally. It has enabled it to stress its democratic agenda."

The 700,000 demonstrators protesting the choice of Mr Gul in Istanbul at the weekend were equally opposed to a military coup and had said so volubly, Mr Idiz added.

He said the government could probably rally even greater numbers of supporters if it had to. And it had been heartened by backing from the US and EU. The latter described the confrontation as a "test case" for Turkish democracy.

Faruk Logoglu, a former ambassador to Washington who heads the Centre for Eurasian Strategic Studies in Ankara, said fears of intervention by the generals were exaggerated. "Whatever happens next, it will not be a military coup," he said.

The army had a right and even a duty to express its point of view, Dr Logoglu added. "But the ultimate bottom line is that all these difficulties will be resolved by political and judicial means or via the ballot box. I think we will muddle through."

Interviewed last month at the foreign ministry in Ankara, Mr Gul said he expected the opposition to kick up a row about supposed threats to secular institutions, whoever his ruling Justice and Development party (AKP) selected. One contentious issue is that Mr Gul's wife, Hayrunisa, wears a headscarf.

"We will have a debate. We are listening. Presidential elections are always controversial. [But] no one finds these arguments convincing any more," Mr Gul said. Mr Erdogan's reform record, and 35% overall economic growth in the past four years, were what mattered.

Political analysts and officials agree that if the constitutional court suspends the presidential election in a ruling expected on Wednesday, an early general election (a poll is due in any case by November) will almost certainly be called. They also mostly agree that Mr Erdogan and the AKP will win again.

"What is happening is a very healthy democratic debate," a senior government official said. "It has crystallised the issues facing Turkey for Turks and for the world, and there is full transparency. The military was compelled to make its statement. But it is not like the old days. The institutions are functioning according to the constitution."

All the same, Mr Gul's presidential candidacy has highlighted political, religious, and geographical divisions and may not survive the ruckus. "Civil society is becoming more active. It shows the system of democratic checks and balances is not yet fully developed," Dr Logoglu said. "They may have to find somebody else."