April 26, 2007
There was this young man, with 1960s Turkish matinee idol looks, smiling to attract my attention , in that throng of media and TV cameramen around us. Suddenly the penny dropped. Yes , a few weeks earlier while I had a few drinks at my First secretary's flat in Ankara, he sipped lemon water. He was very keen to meet with me. So, I now went over and shook his hands . That was in end 1992.
And the young man was Abdullah Gul, recently home after a stint at the Islamic Development Bank in Jeddah and put in charge of foreign affairs by Najmettin Erbakan , President of Islamist Welfare party .Most ambassadors in Ankara avoided looking up Erbakan ,but I kept my promise. Hence the media attention.
Our paths crossed more often after he became state minister in Erbakan's coalition government in 1996 . Once when I enquired about his party's plans to convert a church in west Turkey into a mosque, he said it was not a priority issue. He shrugged off a statement on Kashmir when with Erbakan he visited Pakistan as sound bites under pressure.
Foreign Minister ,Abdullah Gul has now become the candidate of the ruling Justice and Development party (AKP), which has Islamic roots ,for Presidential elections on 27 April . AKP has 354 seats in the Parliament .It would need a two-thirds majority vote in the House in the first or second rounds (367 of 550) or a simple majority in the third (276) or fourth . If four rounds fail , Parliament is dissolved for fresh elections .This change was brought in after the 1980 military take over as prior to that the Parliament went through dozens of futile ballots while left-right violence surged around the country.
AKP 's two-thirds majority (365 out of 550 ) in November 2002 elections had stunned the West and Turkey , even the victors. But this first time majority for an Islamic party was achieved with only a third (35 percent) of the total votes cast ,10% being the cut off point . The only other left of the center Republican Peoples party (RPP) with 16% votes won a third of the seats . Over 45% votes were wasted , the outgoing ruling coalition partners winning no seats ,while independents with 1 percent votes, won eight seats. High 10% threshold was reportedly agreed upon to keep Kurdish parties out , which polled around 7 or 8%.
Gul , moderate and soft spoken became Prime Minister in November 2002 after AKP's landslide victory , which also allowed it to change the Constitution for party chief Recep Tayipp Erdogan , who had been barred from elections ,to enter Parliament in a bye election .He took over from Gul in March,2003 .
To allay Western fears Gul and Erdogan went on a charm offensive to Washington and European capitals saying theirs was a moderate right of centre party .AKP's well educated leadership in western attire was a relief compared to Islamic leadership elsewhere ,say Pakistan. Their fervour to join Europe Union established party's Western credentials.
Later the party would use EU's Copenhagen entry criteria to emasculate the military dominated policy making National Security Council by reducing it to an advisory body .It is however obvious that Turkey's efforts for full EU membership after 9/11 are unlikely to be consummated but the game of endless negotiations would keep both Europe and AKP engaged.
If AKP's massive majority is based on 35% votes, then Turgut Ozal got himself elected President in 1989 when his party Anavatan was going down. Turkey's secular parties remain disunited and in disarray .Their rule is remembered for pervasive corruption. AKP has been mostly free from corruption and Turkish economy has done well .It should easily win the next November elections, which might be pre-poned.
Before Gul's nomination , there was talk that Erdogan , a taciturn , hard and conservative politician would name himself but for vehement protests by the secular establishment at the prospects of his occupying the highest post for 7 years, once held by Kemal Ataturk ,who fashioned the secular republic in 1923 from the ashes of the Ottoman empire. Last week almost half a million Turks demonstrated against a possible Erdogan candidacy.
The armed forces have intervened twice directly; in 1961 and 1980 and twice changed regimes ;in 1971 and 1997. But after cleaning up the mess created by the politicians and getting a new constitution in place, the self-styled custodians of Kemal Ataturk's legacy of secularism, as usual, returned to the barracks. The judiciary has regularly closed religious political parties and debarred its politicians.
Erdogan had made statements like "Thank God, I am for Shariah," "For us, democracy is a means to an end." ( Shades of Islamic Salvation Front in Algeria) and, "One cannot be a secularist and a Muslim at the same time." Finally, for reciting a poem in 1997 that "Minarets are our bayonets, domes are our helmets, mosques are our barracks, believers are our soldiers." Erdogan was convicted and jailed for 4 months and barred from elections.
But it was Erbakan who founded the very first Islamist National Order party (NOP) in 1969 , when Prime Minister Suleyman Demirel ,his class fellow in Istanbul's Engineering school, refused him an Assembly slot . When NOP was closed in 1971 , Erbakan established National Salvation party (NSP) and was twice Deputy Prime Minister in 1970s coalition governments .After the 1980 takeover , the military banned all parties .Later when restrictions was removed Erbakan established the Welfare party , to which Abdullah Gul and Erdogan were prominent young new comers
Erdogan was elected Mayor of Istanbul in 1995 and was a great success .In the 1996 coalition headed by Erbakan, Gul became a State Minister but the military forced Erbakan to resign in 1997 for not curbing Muslim fundamentalism. Later Erbakan's party was closed and he was banned from political activity.
Erdogan's jail experience was traumatic and a turning point. He and others like Gul saw the futility of fighting against the secular establishment on an Islamic agenda .In 2001 they established AKP .
Gul's elevation is palatable to Turkey's secular establishment . Deniz Baykal ,leader of opposition RPP (established by Ataturk himself) has acquiesced .He said. "Gul has a chance to bring peace and stability," and added. "But, if he falls under dominion of a person and acts in AK Party partisanship both Turkey and himself would come to harm." Because of Guls' strong stand against activities of PKK (Turkish Marxist party ) guerillas and north Iraq even the Pashas aka generals would acquiesce in him .The business community has welcomed Gul's nomination.
Gul studied economics in Turkey and UK and was born in a pious Muslim family of Kayseri. AKP's backers are upwardly mobile conservative trading and industrial classes from central Anatolian towns such as Kayseri, Konya and beyond. Their wanting a share in the economic cake clashes with the vested interests of the supporters of the secular establishment.
Most of Turkey's President were military officers beginning with Ataturk, from the inception of the republic to his death in 1938. The four civilians to occupy the post were Ahmet Necdet Sezer , a former head of the Supreme Court , Demiral, Ozal and , Celal Bayar , the last was President in 1950-61 and was overthrown by the military .
Turkey's President has veto power over many government appointments and legislation, which the outgoing secular President Sezer, used widely to check the AKP government. Gul will have to be very careful .Yes , he is Erdogan's deputy , but he did enjoy his short stint as Premier in 2003 .
The first problem would arise if Gul's wife, Hayrunisa, would insist like other AKP wives to wear a head scarf or turban. Not only secularists vehemently oppose the idea of this Islamic attire in the presidential palace in Cankaya , it is legally banned in public places. On this point Gul said. "Everyone should pay respect to this choice. Turkey is a democratic, secular and social law state. In democracy individuals have fundamental rights and freedoms. If you approach the issue from this viewpoint, you'll see that most of the problems faced in Turkey is solved."
The importance of fights over Islamic symbols which can be used as a wedge in a society cannot be under estimated. During Erbakan's tenures and during last 4 years posts in bureaucracy have gone to party faithfuls.
Gul is the best option now. But the simmering tensions between AKP and Pashas would not go away The armed forces , which under Ataturk built up a secular unitary state are self styled custodians of Kemalism including secularism. The word used for secular is laic ( la din- anti-religion) , more Jacobin than secular .
There are three centres of power in Turkey; the President, the Prime Minister and Chief of General Staff .With two going over to the Islamists , the secular establishment is really worried. There has been a fascinating struggle between secularists and those trying to inject Islam as a cultural , social or spiritual input in the political and daily life of Turkey which is 99% Muslim.
K Gajendra Singh, Indian ambassador (retired), served as ambassador to Turkey and Azerbaijan from August 1992 to April 1996. Prior to that, he served terms as ambassador to Jordan, Romania and Senegal. He is currently chairman of the Foundation for Indo-Turkic Studies. Copy right with the author. E-mail: Gajendrak@hotmail.com