SUNDAY, AUGUST 22, 2010
Turkey has long been a valued U.S. NATO ally and strategic partner. Successive administrations have viewed it as a secular democracy that could serve as an inspiration or model for other Muslim majority countries. However, the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) has made foreign policy decisions that have led some long-time U.S. observers to question its future course. Domestic political developments may be enabling the AKP's greater assertiveness in international affairs and are, therefore, worthy of closer scrutiny. This report provides that examination via an overview of current Turkish domestic political scene.
The main theme of the report is that the ongoing struggle for power in Turkey will determine the country's identity and that will have enormous consequences for U.S. policymakers. Turkey's secular identity has long been considered unique among majority Muslim states as secularism was a founding principle of the modern Turkish Republic. It also has been the principle that has produced the most domestic political tension. The AKP, formed in 2001, has Islamist roots but claims to be conservative and democratic. Its emergence and increasing acquisition of power has exacerbated concerns, especially in secularist circles, about whether AKP is intent on altering Turkey's identity. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his AKP have governed in an increasingly confident manner since a Court refused to ban it for being "a focal point of antisecular activities" in 2008. Already in control of the executive and legislature, they are gaining influence over bastions of secularism in the judiciary and military. These developments may enable AKP to implement a domestic agenda that is consistent with its core identity. However, the AKP has failed to deal comprehensively with a significant domestic group's struggle for recognition of its ethnic identity—the Kurds in a majority Turkish state. The government initiated an unprecedented "Kurdish opening," but managed it poorly, produced unfulfilled expectations, and may have contributed to an escalation in Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) terrorism.
The unraveling of a series of alleged coup plots is another arena in which the struggle for power and identity between the AKP and its opponents is being played out. In the first, major alleged conspiracy, called Ergenekon, ultranationalists and secularists are said to have planned to create instability in the country in order to provide a pretext for the military to intervene and overthrow the government. Believers in the conspiracies, who include the AKP and its supporters, cite the revelations as evidence of Turkey's progress as a democracy because what is called the "deep state," or elite who have controlled the political system for 50 years, is finally being confronted. Skeptics charge that the AKP is using a fictitious affair to intimidate and weaken opponents in the military, judiciary, media, and elsewhere who are ardent secularists, and that the authorities' handling of suspects fails to meet international legal standards, thereby marring Turkey's democratic advance. They also suggest that the enigmatic and powerful Fethullah Gulen Movement, a religious group, may be driving the investigations.
Although the AKP has appeared increasingly confident, its diminished plurality of votes in the 2009 municipal elections provided signs that it can be challenged. A possibly more viable political opposition, new leadership of the main opposition party, and the forthcoming constitutional referendum may provide additional clues as to whether AKP's ambitions to alter Turkey's identity and policies can be constrained. They also indicate that AKP functions within the parameters of a democratic political system, albeit flawed, that allows these developments.
For in-depth information on the period prior to this report, see CRS Report RL34646, Turkey: Update on Crisis of Identity and Power, by Carol Migdalovitz.
Date of Report: August 13, 2010
Number of Pages: 31
Order Number: R41368
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