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The story behind the elections

Monday 14 May 2007, by Gamze Çavdar

“This is a bullet fired at democracy,” snapped Recep Tayyıp Erdoğan, Turkey’s prime minister and chairman of the country’s ruling party, in reaction to the May 1 ruling by the Constitutional Court. The court had validated a maneuver by the opposition party in Parliament to block the nomination of Erdoğan’s foreign minister, Abdullah Gül, to accede to the presidency of the Turkish Republic. To deny the ruling party the quorum it needed to make Gül president, the opposition deputies simply stayed home. The pro-government parliamentarians voted on the candidate anyway, but the Constitutional Court agreed with the opposition’s contention that the balloting was illegal — and thus null and void. After Parliament tried and failed again to elect Gül president on May 6, he withdrew his candidacy.

Behind Turkey’s Presidential Battle
As stipulated by the Turkish constitution, the president is chosen by two-thirds majority of the Grand National Assembly, currently dominated by the Justice and Development Party (in Turkish, Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi, or AKP). Built in 2001 upon the ashes of two Islamist parties, the Welfare Party and the Virtue Party, the AKP, sometimes called a “soft Islamist” or “neo-Islamist” party, formed a majority government after winning the November 2002 legislative elections. Its preponderance of seats in the 550-member parliament gives the AKP the prerogative of nominating a candidate to be the next president.

The AKP government has drawn immense attention from domestic and international analysts because, contrary to widespread images of Islamist parties, it has adopted an ideology of “conservative democracy” and adapted itself to work within a secular system. The AKP says it is uninterested in establishing the rule of Islamic law. Nonetheless, skeptics in Turkey have come to believe that the AKP’s moderation is just a cover for an unadulterated Islamist agenda. Hardly a day goes by without nervous talk of the Islamist threat (referred to as irtica, or “regression”) and discussion of how to thwart it, including the possibility of military intervention to safeguard state secularism, defined as state control over religion and religious expression. The major actors in the secular political bloc, including the outgoing president, the chief of staff of the Turkish military, the main opposition party and the mainstream media, all raised their voices months ago against the presidential candidacy of an AKP politician — expected then to be Erdoğan himself. Just behind the surface of public anti-AKP activity, many Turks see the “deep state,” a shadowy nexus of military and police officers and militants on the far right.

Turkey now faces the prospect of a lengthy battle over who will be its next president. Erdoğan has upped the ante by demanding that parliamentary elections slated for November be moved up to the summer — they are now scheduled for July 22 — and that the president be elected by popular vote. The presidential and parliamentary contests are the latest round in the long-running fight between the AKP and its state secularist detractors, a fight whose outcome carries great importance for the political future of Turkey. But just as important are the systemic economic, social and political crises whose warning sirens are drowned out, and whose resolution is delayed, in the din of the Islamist-secularist divide.


Choosing a president has often been a source of troubles for the Turkish Republic. Following the death of founding father Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the transition to civilian presidents was anything but smooth, as the civilians needed the backing of the recalcitrant military to be effective. The first experiment with a civilian president turned catastrophic. Celal Bayar, who served from 1950 to 1960, was sentenced to prison by a military tribunal following a coup. In 1973, civilian politicians and the armed forces failed to settle on a candidate, resulting in a prolonged deadlock that was finally overcome after the parties agreed the presidency would pass to Fahri Korutürk, a former admiral. The parliament’s futile efforts to select Korutürk’s successor came to symbolize the legislature’s incapacity and deepened ideological cleavages among political parties, eventually leading to another military takeover in 1980. Top-ranked generals strongly opposed the eighth president, Turgut Özal, whose tenure remained controversial up to his death in 1993.

This time, the stakes are even higher for opponents of the prospective civilian president, who are concerned not only about the AKP leaders’ Islamist background, but also the increased powers vested in the office of president. The 1982 constitution, a product of the 1980 coup, reinstituted the parliamentary system of the 1961 constitution, but also granted the president extensive clout. The president, as a result, shares with the cabinet and Parliament the power to promulgate laws and ratify treaties, while enjoying exclusive authority in other areas, such as appointing university presidents and members of the highest courts. Article 105 of the constitution places a further check on the elected government, stating that “no appeal shall be made to any legal authority, including the Constitutional Court, against the decisions and orders signed by the president of the Republic on his own initiatives.” Turkish presidents’ powers therefore go beyond the merely symbolic role exercised by heads of state in the typical parliamentary system. The Turkish system is, in fact, close to being a “dual executive” that combines a cabinet and prime minister who are directly accountable to the electorate with a president who is not. The military designed this system intentionally, to hamstring elected governments that might be controlled by parties uncongenial to the military’s policy preferences.

During the lengthy standoff between the AKP’s Islamist forebears and the state, the office of the president played the role expected of it by the army, “containing” the prime minister and Parliament, and facilitating the “soft coup” that brought down a coalition government led by Necmettin Erbakan of the Welfare Party in 1997. President Süleyman Demirel was head of the National Security Council that issued the so-called February 28 measures curbing the power of Islamist activism and eventually forcing the coalition government to resign.[1] Since then, the president’s office, more than at any previous time, has become regarded as the keeper of the secular Kemalist flame within the state.

During the term of the outgoing president, Ahmet Necdet Sezer, there was not so subtle tension between his office and the AKP. Sezer vetoed a considerable number of AKP-proposed bills, organized university professors against the AKP-controlled Ministry of Education and often warned the public against “the rising Islamist threat.” Among the bills he vetoed was one that allowed graduates of İmam Hatip schools — secondary schools that train Muslim preachers — to study in non-religious departments of universities and become public officials, such as judges, teachers and governors. Despite the fact that many of its supporters and deputies, including Erdoğan, are İmam Hatip graduates, the AKP-dominated parliament opted to shelve the controversial bill for the duration of Sezer’s term, so as not to antagonize him further.

Sezer’s most significant legacy was to interpret a previous Constitutional Court decision that defined the scope of the public sphere in which the mores of state secularism apply. (Sezer had been a sitting judge on the Court when it sent down the decision.) Secularized spaces were now to include the presidential palace and other halls of state, and so, by definition, these were places from which women who wear a headscarf, as per their interpretation of Islam’s dictates, were to be excluded. Official occasions of state, regardless of locale, were also to be devoid of reference to religion. Given that the wives of many AKP ministers and MPs cover their heads, Sezer’s new principle directly targeted the government.


In the spring of 2007, the debates about possible candidates for president have been as much about their respective wives as the candidates’ own qualities. When speculation first arose that Erdoğan would be the candidate, the fact that his wife wears the headscarf was cited to disqualify him. The mainstream media divided all the possible AKP candidates into two groups — those whose wives wear the headscarf and those whose wives do not. When Erdoğan bowed out in favor of Gül, who belongs to the former group, the first major concern in the press was his wife’s headscarf.

Ironically, during its election campaign in 2002, the AKP had been careful to choose as its female candidates only women who did not cover their heads, precisely to avoid this sort of hubbub. But, as soon as the AKP government was formed in late 2002, the mainstream secular media engaged in a sort of contest to count up the cabinet members whose wives wore headscarves. Would they participate in state ceremonies? The speculation did not last long, for the day after he was elected as speaker of Parliament, Bülent Arınç escorted his headscarf-wearing wife to the airport for President Sezer’s official sendoff to a NATO meeting. “From now on,” wrote the famous journalist Hasan Pulur, “the headscarf will be the norm…. Those who do not wear it will come under pressure to cover their heads.”[2]

The man most associated with the legal principle precipitating the controversy, Sezer, left the country just as the debates heated up. His “clarification,” a reference to a previous controversy over women who covered their heads on the campuses of public universities, came only a few days later:

The [Constitutional Court] canceled the legal arrangement that permitted wearing headscarves in universities by saying that it is against the constitution. According to the decisions of the court, it is not possible to prepare a legal arrangement that will permit wearing the headscarf in public places, as that would be against the constitution. Ignoring the legal rules that bring order to the public arena and trying to make religious rules valid in practice contradict the principle of the rule of law. I would like to stress once again that it is not possible to give up the basic principles of the republic.[3]

Senior generals joined the fray in their own peculiar way. Their calculated reaction tried to strike a balance between getting their message out and avoiding accusations of military interference in politics. As part of state tradition, top brass, including the chief of general staff, paid a visit to Arınç to congratulate him on his new post. Accompanied by an army of journalists waiting to report on their reactions, the generals posed happily for the cameras. After the journalists left, the generals reportedly conveyed their best wishes to Arınç, and then suddenly stood up and left.[4] The message of the truncated visit was unmistakable.

With the generals’ support, the anti-headscarf coalition at the top of the state was complete. In his next trip abroad, Sezer left his wife at home, perhaps to ensure the absence of Arınç’s wife from the departure ceremony. Thus began the bizarre practice, repeated upon every official occasion, of leaving the headscarf-wearing women at home so as not to offend the “state feminist” sensibilities of the male-dominated secular establishment. It is a tradition for the president to hold celebrations on national days in the presidential palace. After an initial period of confusion, the office of the president “successfully” identified those MPs whose spouses wore headscarves and sent them “MP-only” invitations. Other MPs whose wives did not cover their heads were sent invitations for two. Neither the wife of the prime minister, nor that of the deputy prime minister, has attended a single one of these ceremonies since the AKP came to power. Top AKP leaders like Erdoğan always left their wives at home, while party back-benchers sent their invitations back to the president’s office in protest, resulting in the exclusion of their names from the next guest list. One MP whose name was dropped in 2006 had a brief rejoinder: “Next year, we will have a headscarved reception at the presidential palace.”[5] Again, the message was crystal-clear.


Questions about the 2007 presidential nomination arose as soon as the AKP received 34 percent of the vote in the 2002 elections. Thanks to Turkey’s election law, this vote translated into 66 percent of the seats in Parliament. The only other party that passed the 10 percent threshold required for a seat in Parliament was the Republican People’s Party. It was clear that, unless early elections were held, the AKP was going to choose the president.

As early as 2005, the leader of the Republican People’s Party, Deniz Baykal, called for early elections in the hope that his party would benefit. Erdoğan carefully avoided speculating about presidential candidates, but refused the early election option, insisting that the current parliament would designate the next president. Without mentioning a name, Erdoğan said the president should “represent the entire country and should be a person capable of creating an environment that could facilitate peace, love, unity and friendship.”[6] This description did nothing but stir up more speculation.

In the spring of 2006, Süleyman Demirel, the ninth president, lent a new momentum to the discussions. Demirel declared that, because the AKP did not receive a majority of votes in the 2002 parliamentary elections, but only a plurality, a new president elected by the AKP would be a lame duck.[7] In addition to lacking legitimacy, Demirel argued, the AKP remained under suspicion of “dissimulation” (takiye), a reference to its failure to convince the entire public that it has fully acquiesced in the secularism of Atatürk. Under this cloud, Erdoğan would lack credibility even if chosen president. Demirel offered a solution: The president should be elected by popular vote.

In the meantime, a series of events shook the country, putting the AKP government further on the defensive. Perhaps the most significant was an armed attack on the Council of State, the highest administrative court, which killed one judge and wounded four others. The gunman, a lawyer, reportedly shouted “I am a soldier of Allah” before opening fire during a court session. The Council of State had previously upheld the headscarf ban for government employees and university students, drawing open criticism from AKP leaders, who insist that Turkey’s definition of secularism be adjusted to make room for ordinary displays of piety. The incident was an isolated one and was condemned by the government. Nevertheless, it quickly heightened the already building tension between the AKP cabinet and other state institutions, particularly the courts. Anti-AKP protests accompanied the judge’s funeral. Can Dündar, a prominent journalist, held Erdoğan personally responsible, for inciting anti-court propaganda in media outlets and neglecting judges’ earlier demands for extra security.[8] Others implied that the attack was planned by the “deep state” to jeopardize the AKP’s position. As Ali Bayramoğlu wrote in Yeni Şafak, a pro-AKP newspaper: “For certain circles, presidential elections signify so much that they could take steps to undermine stability in the country.”[9] Yeni Şafak’s headline read: “This is a dirty trick. Reveal the truth!”

The attack on the judges marked the beginning of a series of efforts among political parties to assemble an anti-AKP coalition. Former Prime Minister Bülent Ecevit, who suffered a cerebral hemorrhage after attending the funeral, went into a coma that same night. His wife, Rahşan Ecevit, volunteered to launch a campaign called “Hand in Hand for the Republic” aiming to “rescue” the republic from unspecified peril by uniting center-left and right-wing parties. In response, Demirel declared that “he was ready for the mission,” as did other prominent figures. Some, like Baykal, appreciated Rahşan Ecevit’s efforts but found her proposal infeasible. Still others, remembering previous slights, refused to meet with her. In the end, after Ecevit had invited the AKP itself to join the coalition, the effort collapsed.

Bülent Ecevit died on November 5, 2006, and his wife held the attack on the judges – and, by extension, the AKP government — responsible. The ex-premier’s funeral was another opportunity for the anti-AKP bloc to flex its muscles. The crowd chanted for hours that “Turkey is secular and will remain so” and “Cankaya [the presidential palace] is secular and will remain so.” Prime Minister Erdoğan replied that the slogans sounded like “screams at a football match” and did not really “mean anything” because the AKP already advocates secularism. The identity of the government’s presidential candidate remained a secret.

As the late April deadline for announcing presidential candidates approached, the simmering tension boiled over at the commanding heights of the state. It all seemed orchestrated. First, Yaşar Büyükanıt, the army’s chief of general staff, held a rare press conference “to keep the public informed on a number of military-related issues,” averring that the timing was simply a “coincidence.” After noting that the military was directly concerned with the presidency, since the president is its commander-in-chief, Büyükanıt stated that the armed forces hope that the next president will have the basic values of the Republic, “not in words, but in essence.”[10] Then, the following day, President Sezer issued a stark warning that the country’s secular system “faces its greatest threat since the founding of the republic in 1923” and proclaimed that all state organs, including the military, had a duty to protect the system.[11] Hundreds of thousands of people have demonstrated in major Turkish cities in support of state secularism and against the AKP government.

The government finally broke its long silence on its candidate on April 24, the day before the deadline, and scheduled the parliamentary vote for the same week. The fact that the candidate was not Erdoğan, but rather the foreign minister, Abdullah Gül, did not calm the opposition. The opposition deputies all boycotted the voting, with the Republican People’s Party claiming that the balloting was unconstitutional. Only hours after the first round, the military posted a declaration on the official website of the general staff. It was the harshest statement by the military since the confrontation with the Welfare Party coalition in 1997: “It is observed that some circles who have been carrying out endless efforts to disturb fundamental values of the Republic of Turkey, especially secularism, have escalated their efforts recently…. An important portion of these activities was carried out with the permission and the knowledge of administrative authorities, who were supposed to intervene and prevent such incidents, a fact which intensifies the gravity of the matter.”[12] The text continued that the military is the “definite defender of secularism” and “will show its stance clearly when needed.” In an unexpected move, the government issued a counter-statement reminding the general staff that they are government employees and that, in democracies, it is not acceptable for the armed forces to intervene in politics.[13]

Now that the AKP government has failed to secure the court-ordered 367 votes necessary to elect Gül president, it hopes that its most explicit confrontation with the secular establishment to date will boost its popularity in the upcoming early elections. The government believes that the Constitutional Court arbitrarily raised the bar just to keep the AKP’s candidate away from the presidential office, and hopes to use this unjust criterion as a propaganda tool. While polls show that the AKP’s formerly formidable lead has shrunk, in early elections, it may still emerge with a majority. Turkey’s presidential battle is far from over. In fact, it may be just beginning.


Is Turkey taking an Islamist turn? Since the advent of the AKP government, this question has consumed observers inside and outside the country. It is certainly an important question to ask. The AKP’s critics note its less than full commitment to Atatürk’s platform, the most significant plank of which is state secularism. Its supporters, on the other hand, cast the AKP, whose premise is “modernity with a Muslim touch,” as an alternative to traditional secular politics. They credit the party with bringing the concerns of the periphery to the political center, which has long been top-down and exclusionary.

Moving beyond attempts to locate the AKP on the secular-Islamist continuum, one finds that the AKP is not such a different kettle of fish. Its record on crucial issues such as economic reform and democratization is not so readily distinguishable from the secular governments of the past. According to a recent analysis, the unemployment rate is as high as 22 percent, more than one fifth of the population.[14] The AKP does not have an answer for this epidemic of joblessness, except to defend the neo-liberal policies long pursued before the party assumed power. Erdoğan’s government has enthusiastically applied the International Monetary Fund’s structural adjustment policies, with a strong emphasis on anti-inflation measures. In doing so, the government has suppressed the growth of civil servant salaries, sidelined labor unions and compromised the provision of basic public services, including health, education and social security. Far from fulfilling its promise of creating jobs, privatization, including the selling of coastline and other environmentally sensitive sites, mainly feeds the rent-seeking appetites of the emerging conservative bourgeoisie.

The AKP’s record on democratization is equally unimpressive. After an initial reform era in the summer of 2003, momentum has slowed and the government has come to defend measures that limit freedom of speech, such as a new anti-terrorism law. Increasingly, and in contrast to its clean image, the party has caught the old political diseases of clientelism, corruption and nepotism. There are holes, as well, in its understanding of pluralism. In 2005, Erdoğan made headlines with a promise to treat the Kurds in Turkey with “more democracy.” To this day, however, the government resists amending the electoral law to allow for more diverse representation in Parliament, a change which would undoubtedly benefit Kurdish political parties. In keeping with the practice of secular Turkish governments since the 1980s, which essentially made Sunni Islam the officially approved religion, the AKP’s vision has no room for an Alevi interpretation of Islam. The minority Alevi communities, who profess a variety of heterodox versions of Islam, remain fearful of persecution. Women’s rights, for the AKP, seem to be limited to women’s right to wear the headscarf. At the outset of its tenure, the AKP government rejected a number of policies aiming to empower women as individuals, on the grounds that they are against “Turkish culture and tradition.”

Indeed, in a sense, the major fault lines in Turkish politics are obscured by the unfolding presidential drama and the looming parliamentary elections, with their irresistible storyline of confrontation between the “neo-Islamist” AKP and the secular political bloc. Dangerous as this clash may be for the country’s future, the political and ideological continuity between the contenders is more worrisome. The center-right and center-left opposition political parties, which command a significant number of votes, have been subdivided among political parties that are, in essence, copies of each other. These parties’ so-called solutions for the country’s most pressing problems, such as economic disparity, lack of political freedom, gender inequality and the Kurdish question, are likewise similar. The media, monopolized by a few giant firms, and labor unions, weak and coopted, are far from being able to exert pressure to break the political deadlock on any of these problems. And so Turkish politics is reduced to a simple dichotomy between state secularists and Islamists — neither of whom are willing to see the elephants in the room.


[1] Murat Yetkin, “10 Yılında 28 Şubat,” Radikal, February 25, 2007.

[2] Hasan Pulur, “Başörtülüler Değil Başı Açık Olanlar,” Milliyet, November 22, 2002.

[3] Milliyet, November 24, 2002.

[4] Milliyet, November 29, 2002.

[5] Milliyet, October 29, 2006.

[6] Radikal, June 16, 2006.

[7] Radikal, May 15, 2006.

[8] Can Dündar, “Iran’da mı Eğitildi?” Milliyet, May 18, 2006.

[9] Ali Bayramoğlu, “Ankara’da Kanlı Oyun,” Yeni Şafak, May 18, 2006.

[10] Milliyet, April 12, 2007.

[11] Milliyet, April 13, 2007.

[12] Milliyet, April 28, 2007.

[13] Milliyet, April 28, 2007.

[14] Sabah, April 27, 2007.

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