The lesson from Turkey

The lesson from Turkey

THE decisive victory by Turkey”s ruling Justice and Development (AK) Party in the general election of July 22nd shows every sign so far of having been an excellent result. Big political rows, threats of military intervention, talk of invading northern Iraq, resurgent nationalism and discouraging relations with Europe and America: all that plus a mildly Islamist government in a fiercely secular republic could have been a recipe for trouble, coups, internal strife, you name it. But in fact Turkey has seen a thoroughly democratic election, not too much violence, a big turnout and a clear result (see article).

Among other things this seems a strong rebuke by voters to the army, which had hinted at interfering in the AK“s choice of a presidential candidate. Though Turks still respect their army, most do not feel it should intervene in politics. They are also rewarding a government that has delivered good results and punishing opposition parties that offered incoherent and unconvincing policies. That is exactly how democracy should work. The army has absolutely no cause to intervene, though if the government is wise it will continue to be cautious about an Islamist agenda. Many Turkish voters may want to end the ban on the veil, but they show little appetite for more radical moves away from secularism.

Is there a lesson in Turkey for the future of democracy in the wider Muslim world? Yes, but approach with care. There are many paths to democracy, and the right choice varies from place to place. Turkey has an exceptional history. Simplifying mightily, its bumpy path to democratisation goes roughly as follows: set up an empire; inherit a caliphate; fight on the losing side in a world war; in desperation dissolve the caliphate and submit to the autocratic rule of a moderniser who pushes Islam ruthlessly to the margins; then wait the better half of a century for the emergence of an Islamist party that looks mild and moderate enough to be trusted with the reins of government. In short, squeeze Islam out of political life for decades before gingerly allowing a tamed version back in.

The trouble with this approach (apart from the long wait) is that things can go calamitously wrong both at the squeezing-out stage and at the letting-in stage. For an example of the first, look at Iran, Turkey”s neighbour. From the 1920s on Reza Shah strove consciously to imitate the secular reforms of Kemal Ataturk by modernising his own country”s economy and society at a furious rate and forcibly reducing the role of Islam. Iranians did not take kindly to this force-fed modernisation. The ironic upshot, one less effectual shah later, was the Islamic revolution of Ayatollah Khomeini in 1979, in which the clerics the shahs had tried to squeeze out of the picture seized ultimate power for themselves, and have kept it ever since.

For an example of how things can go wrong at the letting-in stage, remember Algeria in 1992. In this case a secular leadership lost its nerve at the point when it had to decide whether the opposition Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) was in fact moderate enough to be allowed to take office after a landslide win in parliamentary elections. In the end the ruling party and army decided against. They cancelled the second round of elections, with catastrophic consequences. In the ensuing decade-long civil war some 200,000 Algerians were killed.

At the time, Algeria”s decision to bar the Islamists from power was supported by leaders throughout the Arab world. Their argument was that parties such as the FIS were not true democrats. Once in power, it was alleged, they would never let it go: it would be “one man, one vote, one time”. In the case of the FIS, Algerians were prevented from putting the party”s intentions to the test. But it is striking that precisely the same accusation has long been levelled at the AK in Turkey. Its leader, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, did indeed once say that democracy was a train, from which you could alight once you reached your destination. As prime minister, however, he and his party appear to have got the gist of what democracy really means. There is now no serious doubt that the AK would surrender power if it were to be defeated at the ballot box.

Why so? Some will say that the answer resides in Turkey”s secular constitution and the presence of a fiercely secular army that is ready to step into politics the moment politicians threaten to cross the line. That may be too cynical. Another real and arguably stronger discipline on the AK arises from the experience of democracy itself. Mr Erdogan”s party knows that its continuing political success and underlying legitimacy depend on listening closely to the desires of voters, which in turn requires it to moderate its Islamist ambitions and obey the rules of the democratic game.

If there is a broader lesson the Islamic world can draw from Turkey”s success, it therefore lies in this. Islamist parties that declare themselves willing to abide by the rules ought to be allowed to participate fully in electoral politics. Though this prescription may sound obvious, it has yet to be swallowed in the places where it is needed most. In Egypt, for example, the Muslim Brotherhood remains squeezed out of formal politics despite its growing popularity. High time now to let it in.