Turkey's Justice and Development Party (AKP) won re-election last Sunday – a result that could decisively alter the character and direction of this 74-million strong, hitherto secular Muslim republic.
There are those who doubt the gravity of this result. Skeptics point to the fact that the AKP has been in office since 2002 without overturning Turkey's secular norms or making major alterations to its broadly pro-Western foreign policy. But all this could now change because the AKP, Islamist in character but incremental in operation, has conducted a low-intensity assault on the secular foundations of the state and now stands a good chance of finally breaching them.
How has the AKP gone about it? Although the AKP won in 2002 only 34.3 percent of the vote, the parliamentary threshold of 10 percent kept out the five incumbent coalition parties, which the electorate punished for the country's economic malaise. The AKP thus ended up with two-thirds of the seats, enough to override presidential vetoes.
At first, a criminal conviction for inciting religious hatred kept the AKP's leader, Recep Tayyip Erdoðan, out of the new parliament (He had been convicted after reciting at a public meeting an Islamized version of a national poem by Ziya Gokalp, declaiming "Mosques are our barracks, domes our helmets, minarets our bayonets, believers our soldiers. This holy army guards my religion."). However, amendments to the election law by the AKP and the overturning of President Ahmet Necdet Sezer's veto enabled Erdogan to run in a 2003 by-election, to win a seat, and to take over the premiership from his colleague, Abdullah Gul.
Without dramatic shifts or confrontations, Erdoðan created new universities to which he could appoint his chosen rectors and lowered the mandatory retirement age in the bureaucracy to enable the appointment of many thousands of new, Islamist judges. Some AKP-dominated municipalities introduced bans on the sale of alcohol. He also adroitly pushed Turkey's quest for EU membership by instituting liberalizing reforms that have the effect of weakening the military establishment, a staunchly secular institution and guarantor of the secular state.
In April, Gul became the AKP's candidate for the presidency that Sezer is vacating. However, the secular opposition parties boycotted the proceedings. This was accompanied by anti-AKP demonstrations, including one 700,000-strong in Istanbul, and dark hints from the military of consequences to follow. At this point, the country's highest court invalidated the first round of voting on technical grounds.
However, this proved only a temporary setback for Gul and the AKP. The AKP now passed a constitutional amendment allowing for direct popular election of the president. Sezer and the opposition Republican People's Party failed in an appeal to the Supreme Court to repeal the amendment, so a referendum on the popular election amendment is scheduled for October 21.
Gul, who first withdrew, then renewed, his candidacy for the presidency, thus retains a distinct chance of winning that post, whichever way November's referendum on popular election of the presidency goes. If the referendum is passed, a politically dominant AKP is likely to have its candidate endorsed by the electorate; if not, an AKP enjoying close to a two-thirds majority (340 of 550 seats) might well prevail in having the legislature endorse its candidate.
The legislature, after all, now includes the Nationalist Action Party, which won 14 percent of the vote (70 seats), and which might well accommodate the AKP in its choice of candidate. Its general secretary, Cihan Pacaci, has hinted as much, saying that the presidential election shouldn't be approached "just in terms of whether the candidate's wife wears a headscarf."
Why would an AKP presidency matter? Because the Turkish president disposes of vital powers. He determines not only which party leaders form government, but who heads government departments as well as the Court of Accounts, which audits the government. He appoints quarter of the justices on the Constitutional Court, the chief public prosecutor and – hugely important in a country where the military establishment is the bastion of the secular republic – the head of the armed forces. In addition, the president can veto legislation once and, if presented a second time with the rejected legislation, can refer it for adjudication to the same Constitutional Court.
Just how central the presidency is to impeding the AKP's Islamist agenda is apparent from the record of the outgoing secularist president. Sezer vetoed over 3,000 appointments by the Erdogan government and referred more than one hundred pieces of legislation he had previously vetoed to the Constitutional Court. This system of checks and balances to a considerable extent held the AKP's Islamist political insurgency at bay. The elevation of the AKP's candidate to the presidency would end that holding action, with unknown consequences for the secular republic.