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Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Turkey: Politics of Identity and Power

Carol Migdalovitz
Specialist in Middle Eastern Affairs

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’s (AKP) foreign policy decisions have led some U.S. observers, including Members of Congress, 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 the 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 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 as well as 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 acquisition of power have 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 the party for being “a focal point of anti-secular activities” in 2008. Already in control of the executive and legislature, they have gained influence over bastions of secularism in the judiciary and military. These developments may enable the AKP to implement a domestic agenda that is more consistent with its core identity. However, the AKP has failed to deal comprehensively with a significant domestic group’s struggle for recognition of its own identity—the Kurds in a majority Turkish state. The government initiated a “Kurdish opening,” but managed it poorly, produced unfulfilled expectations, and may have contributed to an escalation in 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 and is a new “deep state.”

The AKP has appeared increasingly confident. Although its diminished plurality of votes in the 2009 municipal elections provided signs that it can be challenged, its victory in the September 2010 referendum on constitutional reforms produced doubts about whether AKP’s ambitions to alter Turkey’s identity and policies can be constrained. Nonetheless, the vote indicates that that the AKP continues to function 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: September 21, 2010
Number of Pages: 33
Order Number: R41368
Price: $29.95

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