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« on: July 27, 2007, 04:01:04 PM »

Democratic Muslim nation (Turkey) in EU? Yes!

By Simon Scott Plummer
Last Updated: 12:01am BST 27/07/2007

Following this week's Turkish general election, David Miliband spoke of "reaching out" to the victor, the moderate Islamic Justice and Development Party (AKP).

The Foreign Secretary's choice of verb is a measure of Europe's estrangement from a country which joined Nato in 1952, became an associate member of the European Community in 1963 and has been negotiating for full EU membership since 2005.

"Reaching out" suggests extending the hand of friendship to a pariah. In fact, Turkey has just conducted a democratic exercise which has trumped a none-too-subtle threat of intervention from the military.

That should be lauded by the EU. Yet Mr Miliband's exhortation reflects the fact that Britain is almost alone in pressing Turkey's case for membership. Elsewhere, attitudes vary from tepid, as in the Netherlands, to frigid, as in France.

Europe's failure to appreciate Turkey's strategic importance is depressingly familiar. It was demonstrated ten years ago by Jacques Poos, then foreign minister of Luxembourg, and is evident today in the hostility of Nicolas Sarkozy, the new French president.

A democratic Muslim country with a dynamic economy should be welcomed by a continent faced with the threat of Islamic fundamentalism. Instead, with few exceptions, EU politicians have allowed this danger to colour their electorates' view of the AKP, which has Islamic roots but has proved its loyalty to Turkey's secular constitution during five years in power.

Rather than conjuring fears of a second Iran, the party's advance should be seen as part of a long evolution from the one-party state created by Kemal Ataturk, the army commander who founded the modern republic of Turkey in 1923.

A multi-party system was introduced in the 1940s but was harassed by the military, which deposed four elected governments, the last in 1997, and executed a former prime minister, gotcha98 Menderes, after its first intervention.

The origins of the AKP's ascendancy go back to the prime ministership, then presidency, of Turgut Ozal in the decade from 1983. He both liberalised the economy and reduced the military's role in day-to-day politics.

The first created a manufacturing boom which drew people from the countryside into the cities and created a new middle class which identified more with Islamic culture than with the strident secular ideology of the Kemalist élite.

Electorally, that translated in 1995 into success for the Welfare Party, a forerunner of the AKP, its leader, Necmettin Erbakan, becoming prime minister the following year. Around the same time, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, an Erbakan protégé, was elected mayor of Istanbul.

Erbakan was soon deposed by the military and his party eventually banned. In 1998 Erdogan was sentenced to 10 months' imprisonment for inciting religious hatred; he had read in public an Islamic poem containing the lines: "The mosques are our barracks, the domes our helmets, the minarets our bayonets and the faithful our soldiers".

Fortunes were soon to change. Founded in 2001, the AKP won the largest number of votes in the 2002 general election. The constitution was amended to allow Erdogan, as a convicted criminal, to stand for parliament. In March 2003, Abdullah Gul, who was to become foreign minister, ceded the top job to him.

As in Istanbul in the 1990s, Erdogan has proved an efficient leader. His party's market-friendly policies have contributed to average annual growth rates of over seven per cent, the doubling of per capita income and revenue from tourism, and a surge in foreign investment to $20 billion last year.

Constitutionally, the AKP has reduced the power of the National Security Council, through which the military exercised leverage over the government, and eased previous restrictions on the Kurds.

However, as in Istanbul, Erdogan has run foul of the militant secularists. The outstanding bone of contention has been his party's decision to put forward Gul - suspected because of his Islamic roots and his wife's wearing of the hijab in public - as a presidential candidate.

Huge anti-AKP demonstrations have been held and, through a message on its website on April 27, the military stated that it could not remain indifferent if the secular order were threatened.

The constitutional court invalidated Gul's presidency on a technicality. The prime minister counter-attacked by calling an early general election and pushing through parliament a constitutional amendment providing for direct election of the president. However, this was vetoed by the current incumbent of the post, Ahmet Necdet Sezer.

In last Sunday's poll, Erdogan was fully vindicated, increasing the AKP's share of the vote from 34 to over 46 per cent, so that it now dominates the centre ground.

It will be joined in parliament by the Kemalist Republican People's Party (CHP), which lost more than 60 seats over 2002, the far Right Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), which broke through the 10 per cent threshold, and a number of independents, mostly Kurds.

The emergence of the MHP means that the AKP ended up with fewer seats, thus requiring it to look to outside support for its presidential candidate.

At the time of writing, Gul's hat is still in the ring, his hopes boosted by yesterday's announcement by the MHP that it will not boycott voting sessions for the new president later this year; the CHP's boycott of earlier sessions allowed it to argue that parliament was not quorate.

Despite his strengthened mandate, Erdogan may seek to avoid a confrontation by finding a compromise candidate. The same applies to the growing problem of terrorist incursions from northern Iraq by the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK).

The generals want a free hand to cross the border in strength. Erdogan is likely to prefer limited strikes combined with a search for a political solution based on his party's electoral success in south-east Turkey, where ethnic Kurds form a majority, and with putting pressure via Washington on Jalal Talabani, Iraq's Kurdish president.

In both these situations, Erdogan promises a statesmanlike potential which could make him, along with Ataturk and Ozal, one of the outstanding leaders of modern Turkey. The Foreign Secretary is right to emphasise the need to reach out to him. The pity is that he has to couch his appeal in such terms.

Democratic Muslim nation in EU? Yes!
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