Checking the Power of Turkey's New President

Moderate Voices and Turkish Daily News have an article that argues that the large gulf between the secularists and AKP is caused by a lack of trust between the two segments of Turkish society. The secularists can't believe that the Islamists won't codify their beliefs into law and the Islamists can't believe the secularists will allow them to practice freely.

While I think this is true to some degree, I think there is more to it.

Among secularists, I predict the fear stems from a lack of confidence that Turkey's institutions will protect their interests. For a minority (albeit an exceptionally powerful one), this is a legitimate concern. In a democracy, some combination of the media, an executive branch, the judiciary, civil society, political parties and the electoral process prevent the powerful from overstepping their bounds. In Turkey, there's the military, which is arguably the strongest, but least democratic, check on power.

With an AKP President and Parliament, secularists ask, what is going to stop the Islamist-leaning party from ramming through all kinds of sinister legislation? They point to AKP-legislation vetoed by secular President Necdet Sezer that would have made it easier to teach the Koran in schools and criminalize adultery (personally, I think the latter was a classic case of "throwing red meat to the base" but that's another post).

These are good questions. While it is true that Turkey's constitution places too much power in the legislative branch and reforms are needed, the answer should be: the media, the judiciary, civil society, opposition political parties and the electoral process. It's their job to restrain the AKP-controlled parliament and presidency.

What do the numbers say about Turks' confidence in these institutions? We've looked at this data before but it's good so we'll do it again. Pew Global Strategies holds good and bad news. For starters, Turks hold their NGOs in high esteem. Two-thirds think NGOs have a positive influence over the way things are going in the country, a number than hasn't changed since 2002. (I don't care for how this question is worded and it's not exactly on point, but it'll do). The judiciary is held in quite high esteem too (67% have confidence, according to a May 2007 Gallup survey). Could this be because of AKP's judicial reforms? Alas, these data don't tell us.

On the other hand, few Turks (26%) think their media has a positive influence on the way things are going in the country, while 68% believe it has a negative influence, according to Pew. This is worse than in 2002, when 47% thought the media had a positive influence. This is backed up by the results of the Gallup poll, in which 27% have confidence in the integrity and quality of the media. Additionally, only 43% have confidence in elections, according to Gallup (this is interesting, since Turkish elections are generally considered free and fair, but I bet the numbers are similar in other countries. People tend to think elections are rotten, even if they really aren't).

The most trusted institution? The military, according to Gallup, with 81% holding confidence in it.


We don't have any numbers about Turks' confidence in the leading secularist political party, CHP, but we know CHP is bleeding from self-inflicted wounds and probably couldn't check the power of the local simitci. After CHP's performance in the election (20%), it's safe to say Turks have even less confidence in CHP than they have in the media.

Overall, increased trust in the media, electoral process and opposition political parties might do more to allay secularists fears that the Muslim-majority has the power to impose their beliefs on the rest of the country.

Too many secular Turks that I've talked to are not uncomfortable enough with the idea of checking the Gul Presidency with the blunt tool of a military intervention. I can't put odds on that happening, but it would be an unmitigated disaster. AKP pulled a genius political move by calling early elections, then cleaning CHP's clock. Should the military intervene to replace a legally appointed president from a democratically elected, media-savvy party, I would not even hazard to guess what happens in Turkey next.