Turkey’s Elections and the United States: Challenges Ahead

Henri J. Barkey and Philip H. Gordon
Philip H. Gordon Former Brookings Expert, Mary and David Boies Senior Fellow in U.S. Foreign Policy - Council on Foreign Relations

November 8, 2002

The landslide victory of an Islamic party in a Turkish election would hardly seem to be good news for Americans at any time. But with war looming in Iraq, Turkey trying to recover from its worst financial crisis ever, emerging questions about European defense and NATO, Cyprus talks at a critical stage, and Ankara’s application for membership in the European Union in the balance, the November 3 electoral victory of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) probably struck many U.S. observers as the wrong outcome at the wrong time.

There are certainly grounds for concern. Although the AKP played down its Islamist roots throughout the campaign, no one can be certain where its real sympathies lie. The party’s leader, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, once asserted that “Islam and secularism are incompatible.” Five years ago, he was convicted of sedition for a fiery speech condemned by the Turkish authorities as an incitement to religious hatred. As a result of that conviction, Erdogan is now banned from serving in Parliament—and thus from becoming prime minister. Even now, Turkey’s chief prosecutor is petitioning the Constitutional Court to close the entire AKP for having allowed Erdogan to lead it, allegedly in violation of the constitution. The last time an Islamic party—an ancestor to the AKP and subsequently banned from politics—won an election in Turkey in 1995, its leader immediately sought to strengthen relations with Iran and Libya. Within two years the military had intervened and forced the party from power.

These uncertainties notwithstanding, there is no room for overreaction or misinterpretation of the election result. The AKP’s success in the recent election has little to do with the party’s Islamic roots and much to do with the abject failure of all the other main parties to overcome their reputations for corruption, economic mismanagement, political infighting, and entrenched clientelism. Although the AKP received only about one third of the overall vote, it still managed to secure 363 out of 550 seats in Parliament because of the unusually high 10-percent threshold needed to secure parliamentary representation. (Only one other party—the Republic People’s Party, or CHP—managed to reach that threshold.)