Islamists, Erdogan and Ataturk
Islamists, Erdogan and Ataturk

The Turkish people voted last Sunday to keep Recep Tayyip Erdoğan as their Prime Minister, and the pro-Islamist Justice and Development Party (AKP) as the dominant force in parliament for a third term.

Those of us who would prefer to see the glass as half-full would note that they failed to win the supermajority needed to unilaterally amend the Turkish constitution. That won't stop them from trying, of course. As Erdoğan told his supporters: "The people gave us a message to build the new constitution through consensus and negotiation." In his victory speech the Prime Minister proclaimed, "We will bring democracy to an advanced level, widening rights and freedoms."

Given the direction the Erdoğan regime has taken Turkey in the last decade or so, from giving the cold shoulder to the only other democracy in the Middle East while simultaneously pursuing a détente with Iran, we might not want to break out the champagne (or should I say, rakı) just yet.
 
So, what sort of damage can AK Party do between now and the next election?  Depending on whom you ask, quite a bit. Middle East historian and political commentator Daniel Pipes predicted even before the ballots were counted that the elections "are likely to be the last fair and free ones in Turkey." Such an assessment does not augur well for the Turkish people, nor for Israel, let alone for the U.S. vis-à-vis our foreign policy objectives in the region.
 
"With Turkey's leading Islamist party controlling all three branches of the government and the military sidelined," says Pipes, "little will stop it from changing the rules to keep power into the indefinite future." He adds that "should the AKP manage to gain a 2/3s parliamentary majority, either on its own or in alliance with others, it will change the constitution, speeding up this process."
 
Granted, that last part didn't happen. But does that fact simply delay the inevitable? Stratfor's George Friedman doesn't seem to think so. In his own analysis of the elections, he sees in the limitations imposed by Turkey's constitutional framework, a "continuity of leadership" that few countries can claim. Friedman is perhaps somewhat glib in his assessment of the AKP's ever-tightening grip on the instruments power in the Turkish Republic.
 
 "Obviously, since Turkey is a democracy, the rhetoric is usually heated and accusations often fly, ranging from imminent military coups to attempts to impose a religious dictatorship," Friedman explains. "There may be generals thinking of coups and there may be members of AKP thinking of religious dictatorship, but the political process has worked effectively to make such things hard to imagine."
 
"In Turkey, as in every democracy," Friedman argues, "the rhetoric and the reality must be carefully distinguished."
 
For those of you who don't follow Turkish politics, allow me to bring you up to speed.
 
The country known today as Turkey arose from the ashes of the Ottoman Empire, which collapsed between the two World Wars. The republic was founded by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, who basically ruled as a dictator for a while, but with the noble intention of establishing a genuine democracy. He spearheaded a rigorous program of modernization and westernization. (Atatürk got his entire country to switch from Persian/Arabic script to Roman letters in a matter of months. Months.)
 
More importantly, he established the underpinnings of a secular Turkish democracy. This ideology is today widely known as Kemalism. The political influence of Islam was severely curtailed in Atatürk's time. In abolishing the caliphate, Atatürk said that "The religion of Islam will be elevated if it will cease to be a political instrument, as had been the case in the past."
 
Now the history of the modern Republic of Turkey is fraught with internal conflict. The Turkish government has been overthrown by its own military no fewer than three times in its history.
 
It may be oversimplifying a bit for brevity's sake, but basically, whenever pro-Islamist elements in the civilian government were deemed too powerful, the military, those defenders of the Kemalist political legacy, would step in. They would then curtail the perceived threat, eventually giving back the reins to the civilian leadership.
 
It's all rather counterintuitive: A democracy established by a despot (albeit an enlightened one), a republic built from the top down rather than the ground up, a military overthrowing a government to prevent the rise of a dictatorship, all of these things seem completely backwards to our western sensibilities. But in a country created from what was previously the heart of an Islamic empire, it may be the only way that democracy could ever have taken root.
 
The important thing is that, at least up until now, it worked.
 
Starting back in 2003, the government suspected that some of their military's top brass were plotting yet another coup d'état (the alleged plan was called Balyoz, or "Sledgehammer"). Having learned the lessons of history, the government arrested hundreds of military officers (including many top officials, active and retired) over the last few years.
 
Yes, as Mr. Friedman says, the rhetoric and the reality must be carefully distinguished. When hundreds of people are wasting away in prison, awaiting trial for a dubious plot to overthrow the regime, that's when things get real.
 
"The political process has worked effectively to make such things hard to imagine." Really? Tell that to any of the 163 people arrested in connection with Sledgehammer just this February. I'm sure they'll be greatly relieved.