WASHINGTON – Turkey's July 22 parliamentary elections have set off new discussions in the long-standing controversy over what role Islam should pay in Turkish politics.
The governing party,Justice and Development Party (AKP),which is known for promoting and protecting the religious principles in government,won about 46 percent of vote,strengthening its influence.
Other parties that more strongly favor the present secular state's principles drew barely half of the ruling party's votes.
Experts say the elections will make the new Turkish parliament and a future government more confident in its intentions to bring back religious traditions in the country,which is nearly 100 percent Muslim.
For nearly a century,Turkey's government has been stridently secular,separating religious and governmental institutions. Turkey's historic 20th century ruler,Ataturk,whose name means “a father of Turks,” is given credit for that philosophy.
One of the changes of that time was forbidding women from wearing head scarves. Some government officials would not give interviews to journalists who wore veils.
But recently,more women in Turkey have begun to wear head scarves again,although it remains against the law. One of the most popular women who wears a scarf is the wife of Turkish Minister of Foreign Affairs Abdullah Gul.
The elections took place after he declared his intentions to become president,which caused opposition parties to demonstrate in the streets and the government's decision to call early elections. Turkish opposition parties say Gul is a religiously oriented person who would as president bring back public religious traditions and destroy the foundation of the secular state.
Despite these protests,Gul,who represents the ruling party,remains one of the possible candidates for the Turkish presidential elections at the end of August.
Ilan Berman,vice president for policy at the American Foreign Policy Council,said Gul has a real chance to become president,as the ruling party won 340 of parliament's 550 seats. Turkey's parliament elects the president for a seven-year term by a two-thirds vote. Berman said the ruling party will need to win over some opposition or independent candidates for Gul to be elected.
The ruling party has never confirmed it will bring back some of the religious rules. Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan,who is the head of the ruling party,says in his speeches the party would never return the country to the past and will follow the secular foundation.
But the situation has already begun to change,said Kemal Koprulu,president of the advisory board of the Turkish ARI Movement,which means New Societal Understanding Movement.
He was in Washington a week before the elections. He said Turkish society has become “more intolerant” of public exhibits of other religions and nationalities in recent years and the government has to follow these changes.
Korpulu said the country's attempts over several years to join the European Union and settle the conflict with its Kurdish minority has created a backlash,making some of Turkish society more religiously oriented. Korpulu said these changes have affected the government's foreign policy.
For example,the Turkish government delayed military deals with France after the French Parliament adopted a resolution blaming Turkey for the Armenian genocide in the beginning of the 20th century. Armenians claim Turkey killed 1.5 million Armenians,while Turkey claims a few hundred Armenians died in a civil war.
“Our foreign policy bases more on emotions than on values,” said Korpulu.
Turkey is one of the United States' allies in the Black Sea region. Turkey supported U.S. policy in the Middle East and Afghanistan. It participates in all U.S. energy projects in the Black Sea region.
The U.S. State Department spokesman said the day after the elections that the U.S. government “is congratulating the secular democracy in Turkey,” which “is one of the basis of Turkish democracy.”
Soner Cagaptay,a director of the Turkish Research Program of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy,said the importance of the U.S. will rise after the elections,as Turkey needs to solve its Kurdish problem. Twenty-two Kurdish representatives won seats in the recent elections.
Cagaptay said the U.S. plays a great role in the Kurdish populated region of Northern Iraq on Turkey's border. Kurds want to form a country with land from both countries.
Moderate Kurds and more extremist members of the Kurdish Labor Party have held demonstrations demanding independence.
The Turkish government says leaders of the Kurdish movement get support from Iraq and sometimes threatens it will invade Northern Iraq to avoid new problems inside Turkey. The U.S. presence gives a guarantee for Turkey that northern Iraq will not become an independent state,Cagaptay said.
“The U.S. hasn't done enough” in the Kurdish problem,Rep. Robert Wexler,D-Fla.,said during a hearing last week of the U.S. Helsinki Commission. He is the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs subcommittee on Europe. He said the U.S. should support the Turkish government in the Kurdish issue as Turkey is “a key” country in U.S.-Iran problem.