The race for the Turkish presidency has turned into a must watch for those interested in the spread of Islamic fundamentalism. The pro-Islamist PM Recep Tayyip Erdogan was originally considered to be the front runner, but a new candidate Abdullah Gul, who is touted to be more secular by his supporters, has emerged and is expected to be elected May 9th in the third round of elections.
The issue that has everyone in Turkey up in arms is that both candidates started their political lives the same way—in the first pro-Islamic party in Turkish history, the Welfare Party, which was banned by the country’s courts after one year of existence. In addition both men’s wives wear headscarves, a very touchy issue in Turkey.
These two candidates have put the Turkish army on high alert. The army and the ruling elite view themselves as the guardians of the legacy of the reforms of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk and the army has not been afraid to actively protect that legacy. They have led coups in 1960, 1971, 1980 and forced a pro-Islamist prime minister from office in 1997. Seeing as how there was a massive rally in Ankara to support secularism it seems unlikely that if the army decides to intervene in the Turkish political process a significant portion of the population would not be overly offended.
The election of an Islamist president could have other far reaching consequences. For example Turkey has long wanted to be a member of the EU and has made several reforms, such as banning the death penalty, totally to please the EU. If the army does not intervene it will be interesting to see if either man does use the power of the presidency to push forward Islamist ideals and what the reaction of the EU will be. But if the army does intervene (and I am purely playing the devil's advocate here) would that be a red flag to Islamist terrorists causing Turkey to become a more attractive target?
If nothing more this issue could turn into a case study of whether secularism in the Middle East can survive without an army or other body to actively protect it. Typically cults of personality are really bad things creating demigods and pseudo-religions. In Turkey’s case however the “Cult of Ataturk” might be the only way for secularism to survive.