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Analysis: Turkey's EU bid strengthened?

By STEFAN NICOLA, UPI Correspondent

BERLIN, Aug. 29 (UPI) -- Turkey's new President Abdullah Gul has pledged to continue his country’s pro-European Union course, raising hopes in Europe that Turkey's unique experiment of more Islam and more democracy can succeed.

Leaders and groups all over the world, including U.S. President George W. Bush, European heads of state and the radical Islamist group Hamas, welcomed the election of the former foreign minister as Turkey’s 11th president and its first with a background in political Islam.

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In the third round of a presidential election that required only a simple majority for victory, 339 lawmakers of the 550-member Parliament voted for the 56-year-old Gul, who in the 1990s as a founding member of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) played a major part in the rise of political Islam.

His election is seen as a victory for the governing Muslim forces over the secular and military elite that has dominated the staunchly secular republic since its foundation 84 years ago: The country’s prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, like Gul is an AKP member.

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However, as if to defuse the underlying fears that have accompanied his nomination and election, Gul after his swearing-in ceremony vowed to become a president for all Turks.

"Secularism -- one of the main principles of our republic -- is a precondition for social peace as much as it is a liberating model for different lifestyles," he said. "As long as I am in office, I will embrace all our citizens without bias. I will preserve my impartiality with the greatest of care."

The military has nevertheless fired rhetorical warning shots in the direction of the AKP, threatening to interfere if Gul and Erdogan would dare undermine the secular state. The threats are not to be taken lightly: The Turkish military has ousted three governments in the past 40 years because they threatened the separation between state and religion.

However, the fact that both leaders are practicing Muslims with wives who wear headscarves is not enough for international observers to believe that Turkey is now turning into a Sharia state.

"We should not confuse the personal Islamic beliefs of Abdullah Gul with an intention to convert Turkey into an Islamic State,” Graham Watson, leader of the Liberals and Democrats in the European Parliament, said in a statement. “His successful record in supporting Turkey's closer integration with the European Union serves to strengthen, not weaken, Turkey's democratic secularism.”

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Observers in Brussels are optimistic that Gul and Erdogan will continue their modernization reform course -- after all, Turkey in the past five years has made giant strides toward an EU legal and civic system, despite growing nationalistic tendencies in the opposition.

The country has also prospered economically, with Turkey’s economy having grown an average 7 percent a year since the AKP came to power in 2002. This, and not the AKP’s Muslim background, was the main reason for the AKP’s landslide victory in the early elections last month, a vote that was prompted by demonstrations from more than 1 million Turks protesting Gul’s nomination for president, observers say.

What some have termed “Turkey’s political oxymoron” -- more Islam and more democracy -- excites observers, who see the model as one guaranteeing a more secure future: They hope Turkey as an EU member can become a political, social and cultural bridge between Europe and the Middle East.

“In Turkey, we have this unique experiment to connect Islam with democracy and Western openness,” Jan Techau of the German Council on Foreign Relations Wednesday told German news channel n-tv. “However one may stand toward Turkey, and especially if one is critical of the country, one should recognize and support this process, because it is in the fundamental interest of the West.”

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