Sabri Sayari is executive director of the Institute of Turkish Studies and research professor of international affairs at Georgetown University. The views expressed here are his alone.
The growing electoral strength and political influence of the Islamist Refah (Welfare) Party is a critical development in Turkish politics. The Islamists finished first in last December's elections, then (following a seven-month long period of political uncertainty and crisis) managed to come to power through a coalition with the center-right True Path Party. What are the reasons for the increasing popular appeal of the Islamists in Turkish politics? Does their growing strength represent a significant challenge to Turkey and Turkey's allies?
THE DECEMBER 1995 ELECTIONS
Turkey's most recent political crisis began in September 1995, when the unstable two-year-old coalition between Prime Minister Tansu Çiller's conservative True Path Party (TPP) and her junior partner, the social democratic Republican People's Party (RPP), collapsed. This led to parliamentary elections in December 1995, a year earlier than scheduled. Most opinion polls throughout 19951 had put the Islamists ahead of the two leading center-right parties--the True Path Party and the Motherland Party (MP) led by Mesut Yilmaz--so the results of the election were not totally unexpected. Still, Refah's narrow victory with 21.3 percent of the vote and 158 seats out of the 550-member National Assembly created shock waves both at home and abroad.
The results alarmed many secular Turkish voters, who feared a coalition government in which Refah, led by its long-time chief Necmettin Erbakan, would become the senior partner and use this opportunity to further increase the role of Islam in Turkish society and politics. In the West, concern spread due to the Islamists' unmitigatedly harsh criticisms of Turkey's close ties with the West, its membership in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), and its efforts to join the European Union (EU).
Also worrisome, the election failed to produce a clear winner between the True Path Party and the Motherland Party and heal the rift on the center-right, which has provided most Turkish governments since the 1950s. With no single party enjoying a parliamentary majority, or anything close to it, the two months following the elections witnessed prolonged negotiations between the five parties represented in the new parliament. In the end, the two pro-secular center-right parties agreed to form a minority coalition government based on the principle of rotating premiership and with the tacit parliamentary support of Bulent Ecevit's Democratic Left Party.
However, this shaky coalition government disintegrated in June 1996 only after three months amidst internal squabbling, petty vendettas between Tansu Çiller and Mesut Yilmaz, and serious charges of corruption brought against Çiller by the Islamists. The short-lived government's fall offered Refah a new opportunity to come to power when Ciller--who had been a strong critic of the Islamists--changed her stand and agreed to form a coalition with Erbakan.
The new government, with the Islamists as the senior partner of the coalition headed by Prime Minister Erbakan, represent a historic first in Turkey's forty-five-year-long experience with democracy. True, the National Salvation Party (also led by Erbakan), the predecessor of Refah, participated in several successive coalition governments between 1974 and 1977. However, the small National Salvation Party controlled only about 10 percent of the parliamentary seats while the two major centrist parties collectively had over 80 percent. Two decades later, the Islamists have significantly increased their popular support and parliamentary strength, to the point where Refah is now the largest party and has close to one-third of the seats in the National Assembly. Moreover, the 1994 local elections brought Islamist mayors to office in more than two dozen major Turkish cities, including Istanbul and Ankara.
CAUSES OF REFAH'S GROWING POPULARITY
To what does Refah owe its steady rise in popular support? Although there are a multiplicity of factors, three have primary importance: the growing public disenchantment with the pro-secular parties of the center-right and the center-left, the Islamists' success in winning over voters through an efficient and disciplined grassroots party organization, and the increased role and visibility of religion in Turkey.
The declining strength of the mainstream parties, especially those on the center-right, is the best indicator of the electorate's dissatisfaction with the parties' perceived failure to resolve the country's pressing social and economic problems. In increasing numbers, Turkish voters have deserted them and turned to the Islamists. The electorate seems to prefer Refah since it has not yet been tried (a majority of Turkey's youthful electorate is too young to remember the Islamists' participation in coalition governments in the mid-1970s) and because it offers a radically different alternative solution to Turkey's social and economic problems based on an ideology that has large doses of populism, Islamic fundamentalism, nostalgic nationalism for the glory days of the Ottoman Empire, and anti-Westernism.
Secondly, Refah owes its increasing electoral support to an efficient, disciplined, highly motivated, and well-financed organization. The Islamists have the largest number of party workers among all Turkish political parties. Refah's grassroots organization is staffed with dedicated cadres, male and female, who work with a missionary zeal and benefit from advanced technology, such as computers with voter-registration data. Tightly organized in cell-like units in each neighborhood, Refah relies less on the media for disseminating its views and more on face-to-face contacts with the voters.2 Thanks to their efficient organizational network, the Islamists have been far more successful than the other parties in winning over supporters and getting out the vote -- especially in the squatter settlement neighborhoods (gecekondu) around the major cities, the home of millions of urban poor, many of them recent migrants from the countryside. Turkey's Islamists, like their counterparts elsewhere in the Middle East, have found a receptive clientele among these rural-born urban poor by providing them with basic staple goods, food, assistance in finding health care and jobs, and (in cities where they control power) municipal services.
This intensive organizational effort requires money, and Refah seems to have plenty of it. Indeed, it is reportedly the richest political party in Turkey today. When the Islamist National Salvation Party first emerged on the Turkish political scene in the early 1970s, there were widespread allegations that it received substantial financial backing from Saudi Arabia and benefitted from Islamic banking and investment activities in Turkey sponsored by citizens of the Persian Gulf states. Nowadays, Refah's main sources of income are believed to be the contributions from two sources: the newly emerging class of businessmen and entrepreneurs active in the Islamic movement and the large Turkish immigrant community in Western Europe, especially Germany.
Thirdly, Refah's growing political strength also reflects the increased visibility and influence of Islam and religious activism in Turkey. Once confined to a marginal role, the Islamic movement has become a major force that includes political parties, professional associations and interest groups, educational and welfare foundations, religious sects and orders, financial and investment institutions, publishing houses and newspapers, television and radio stations, and a new generation of Muslim intellectuals. In addition to the boom in mosque construction, new secondary schools for training religious functionaries (imam-hatib okullari) have proliferated. These schools, which were granted high-school equivalency in 1983, have enabled thousands of devout young men and women to enroll in the universities and from there to find jobs as civil servants. The gradual Islamization of the government bureaucracy--once the bastion of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk's radical secularist policies--is an important step toward Refah's ultimate goal of establishing an Islamic state in Turkey. At present, the military academies remain one of the few institutions that do not accept graduates of the imam-hatib schools but the Islamists have begun a campaign to change this policy. One of Refah's slogans in the 1995 elections was "Refah into the government, imam-hatip graduates into the army."3
NATURE OF THE ISLAMIC CHALLENGE
Turkey's efforts to deal with the challenge of political Islam through democratic processes and multiparty politics have, so far, prevented it from becoming a destabilizing factor or a source of militant opposition. Turkey's Islamic movement has its radical fringe favoring violent methods and opposed to participating in democratic politics, but the majority of the Islamists are inclined to pursue nonviolent and peaceful means to further their objectives.
The involvement of the Islamists in electoral politics has enabled them to put some of the critical issues long ignored by other political parties, such as corruption, the plight of the urban poor, and the growing lawlessness and social chaos of large Turkish cities, on the political agenda. The municipal administrations controlled by the Islamist mayors since the 1994 local elections have generally received high marks, particularly with respect to curtailing corruption in the city halls and providing municipal services to the working-class neighborhoods. Moreover, Refah's electoral gains have been a much-needed wake-up call for the pro-secular parties and the non-Islamic civil society organizations: they have intensified their grassroots activities, often imitating the methods used by the Islamists to forge closer ties with the urban poor.4
At the same time, the growing political strength of the Islamists represents a major challenge to Turkey's domestic politics and foreign policy. Internally, the critical issues concern the future of the democratic regime, the preservation of secular institutions and practices, and the country's economic progress.
I. IS THE WELFARE PARTY DEMOCRATIC?
Opinion in Turkey is sharply divided over the question of whether or not Refah should be accepted as a legitimate democratic party that unconditionally supports the existing constitutional and political order. Some believe that the accommodation of the Islamists through free elections and multiparty politics has moderated their behavior, forced them to engage in the give-and-take of practical politics, and, in general, integrated them into the democratic system. Proponents of this view argue that Refah's coming to power would not necessarily lead to a radical regime change. They also maintain that the inclusion of the Islamists in government would deprive them of their status as the main source of political opposition and make them accountable to the electorate.5
Others, however, are far more skeptical and contend that Refah uses democratic methods only as a means toward its ultimate objective of dismantling Turkey's democratic and secular institutions and replacing them with an authoritarian and religion-based regime. These critics maintain that the Islamists can never be co-opted by the secular political system, and once in power with a decisive parliamentary majority, they would seek radically to change the existing constitutional and legal basis of Turkey's Western-style parliamentary form of government.6 Proponents of this view argue that the Islamists should be excluded from the coalitions formed by the centrist parties in the same way the Italian Communist Party was excluded from participating in governments throughout the cold war, despite its strong electoral support due to its anti-system characteristics.
Whether or not Refah's leadership is made up of "sincere democrats" or "adroit impostors"7 is very difficult to determine since the party has never been in full control of political power by itself. Moreover, Refah is not a monolithic entity: its leadership ranks include individuals who are eager to participate in the democratic process along with others with a far more dubious commitment to a Western-style parliamentary democracy. As a result, As a result, many Turkish citizens question the Islamists' democratic credentials, partly because party officials send out mixed and ambiguous signals. While Refah's leaders often state that they are not opposed to democracy and multiparty politics, their rhetoric usually includes derogatory references to the representative institutions and processes--such as the characterization of Turkish democracy as a "fraudulent regime" (hile rejimi)8--that clearly challenge the legitimacy of the existing political system. Moreover, Erbakan and other Refah officials seek to distinguish their party not only from the secular Turkish parties--which they belittle as "spurious" (batil) and not worthy of representing Muslims--but also from the system in which they function. In the words of Tayyip Erdogan, Istanbul's current Islamist mayor and a rising star in the party leadership, Refah "is not just an alternative to the other parties but to the political regime in Turkey itself."9
In addition, there are questions about Refah's understanding of the practice of democracy. For example, its strictly majoritarian notion of democracy permits remarkably little scope to safeguarding the rights of minorities (be they political, ethnic, or religious), including their right to free speech or assembly. The party's concern with human rights reduces to an almost exclusive interest in the right of "believers" to practice their religion, study it in schools, and form organizations to advance the cause of their beliefs.10 All this raises legitimate concerns about whether an Islamist government would respect the human rights of secularist Turks, political and religious dissidents, or minorities.
II. IMPLICATIONS FOR SECULARISM
It is easier to see the challenge that the Islamists pose for the secular institutions and practices that were established by Atatürk following the founding of the Turkish Republic in 1923. Since their emergence on the political scene in the early 1970s, Islamist political parties have openly denounced this founding principle of the modern Turkish republic. Although a significant reassertion of religion has taken place since the early 1950s, Erbakan still considers secularism in Turkey a "policy of enmity towards Islam" and a "system of repression against the Muslims."11 When Islamists first entered the parliament in 1973, the rhetoric of the National Salvation Party included declarations about replacing Turkey's secular legal system with the Shari`a (Islamic law). Although this remains a sacred goal for the Islamic movement in general, Refah has been careful not to emphasize it, thereby avoiding possible legal sanctions.12
On the other hand, Refah makes no secret of its intention to reverse the secularist path that Turkey has followed since the 1920s. Changing the constitutional and legal rules regarding state control and regulation over religion is an important goal of the party. (Since a constitutional change requires a two-thirds parliamentary majority, the Islamists would have to increase their electoral support significantly to attain this objective.) Refah also pledges that when it comes to power, it will launch a major drive to expand the role of Islamic institutions, organizations, and activities in all areas of Turkish life while placing greater emphasis on Islam in the educational process.13 The party's stand on women's rights--an important component of Atatürk's Westernization program--is not clearly articulated in its official declarations. However, it is revealing that although many women are active in its grassroots organization, Refah's leadership includes no women, and the party has persistently refused to nominate female candidates in the elections.
The policies advocated by the Islamists, if implemented fully, are likely to increase the polarization and conflict between the secularists and the Islamists, and to exacerbate the longstanding tensions between the majority Sunnis and the minority Alevis (an offshoot Shi`i group estimated to make up about one-fourth of Turkey's 65 million Muslims and a staunch supporter of secularism since the founding of the republic). The Turkish military, which has long been a steadfast defender of Atatürk's reforms and legacy, is likely to be drawn into these conflicts and resist the efforts of the Islamists to reverse the course of secularism in Turkey. In this connection, it is worth noting that relations between the armed forces and Refah have become increasingly strained since the December 1995 elections. Prominent issues include the military's opposition to Refah's participation in a coalition government, the expulsion of some officers from the military for alleged involvement in fundamentalist activities, and new regulations limiting religious practices on military bases.
III. ECONOMIC IMPLICATIONS
Over the years, the Islamists have made much of the shortcomings of Turkey's economy. In the 1990s, with Turkey once again experiencing high rates of inflation and unemployment, Refah has intensified its criticisms of the economic policies of coalitions formed by pro-secular parties. Yet, the party's own program is woefully short of rational, specific, and feasible solutions to complex economic issues and macroeconomic policy problems. On the contrary, the Islamists' approach is characterized by a hodgepodge of simplistic notions, concepts, and proposals that are far removed from the accepted norms of modern-day economics. For example, Erbakan has long maintained that the key to resolving problems such as inflation and unemployment lies in the removal of interest charges from all financial transactions.14 Erbakan describes Refah's economic program, called "Just Order," as based on no interest rates and no capital. "The State's contributions will make capital investment unnecessary. You will press a button to set the country's production in motion. We will use receipts for sharing. They will indicate the dues every person will receive. Do not forget that you cannot use greenback dollars when you bake bread, as if they were a bunch of parsley."15
The Islamists claim that they favor an economic system based on private enterprise and individual initiative, but for more than two decades, Islamist parties have criticized the practice of capitalism in Turkey and in the advanced Western industrial states. Refah's current political platform similarly displays deep mistrust of capitalism in Turkey--which the Islamists decry as the principal reason for the existence of an "unjust economic and social order"--and a preference for the leading role of the state in managing the economy. In line with this thinking, Refah opposes the privatization of state-owned industries16 despite the commonly recognized fact that they are the primary causes of Turkey's perpetual budget deficits and inflation problem.
Some of the economic policies that are now supported by Refah were tried by its predecessor, the National Salvation Party, when it was included in the ruling coalitions during the mid-1970s. Erbakan's insistence then on implementing a poorly conceived industrialization policy that aimed at building new plants and factories by the government regardless of their economic rationality and feasibility was one of the main reasons for the rapid growth of the country's budget deficit that eventually led to a severe economic crisis in the latter part of the decade.
The Islamists' approach to Turkey's international economic relations reflects their anti-Western, anti-Semitic, and pro-Islamic worldview. According to Erbakan, Western "imperialist" institutions such as the International Monetary Fund and "Zionist Wall Street bankers" seek mainly to exploit the resources and people of the Islamic countries, including Turkey.16 The Islamists have since the late 1960s vehemently opposed Turkey's entry into the European Union--an organization that the party's 1995 election manifesto depicts as a "union of Christian states that was formed upon the recommendation of the Pope."17 They have argued that rather than seeking membership in the European Union and developing closer economic ties with the West, Turkey should take the initiative in the creation of an "Islamic Common Market" and expand its trade relations with the Muslim countries.
Refah's approach to international economic relations defies both reality and Turkey's efforts to gain greater integration with the world economy. At present, trade with the European Union accounts for more than half of Turkey's exports and imports; an attempt by an Islamist government to restructure Turkey's commercial ties away from the West and towards the Middle East would be a major setback for Turkey's economic progress. Although this attempt is likely to fail--a majority of Turkish businessmen and entrepreneurs see the country's future in expanding its trade relations with Europe and the United States--it would nevertheless greatly increase Western concerns about the direction of the Turkish economy. This, in turn, would adversely affect Turkey's trade relations with the West and Western foreign investment in Turkey, a possibility that seems not to bother Refah, which believes that investments from the Islamic states would more than offset losses from the Westerners).18
IV. FOREIGN-POLICY IMPLICATIONS
The growing political role and influence of the Islamists has significant implications for the established objectives of Turkish foreign policy, including close relations with the West, particularly the United States, membership in NATO and the EU, cordial but not overtly close ties with the Islamic states, and, in the 1990s, increased cooperation with Israel.
Refah's stand on international affairs closely resembles that of the fundamentalist Islamic movements elsewhere in the Middle East. For more than two decades, Islamist parties have denounced Turkey's pro-Western foreign-policy orientation, Turkish membership in NATO, and Turkey's bilateral security and political relations with the U.S. government.19 Anti-Westernism runs deep in Refah's ideology. The Islamists single out Westernization as the single most important reason for Turkey's economic, political, and social problems, and they often berate other Turkish political parties for "aping the West." Clearly, when in power by itself, Refah would hope to reshape Turkish foreign policy, lessening its political and security relationships with the United States and Western Europe and searching for closer ties with the Muslim states in the Middle East and North Africa. Erbakan has often stated his wish to see Turkey take the lead in the establishment of a "Union of Muslim Countries" that would increase the power of the Islamic states in world politics and extricate Turkey from its "dependence" on and "control" by the West.
The United States has long been a favorite target of Turkey's Islamist movement. Refah, like its predecessor the National Salvation Party, has been unrelenting in its criticisms of American foreign policy and has often depicted Washington as the tool of "Zionist forces" and Israel. The Islamists led the opposition to Washington's Kuwait war policy, Turkey's participation in the allied coalition, and Operation Provide Comfort. An Islamist government could lead to increasing tensions between Ankara and Washington over a whole range of issues, from Turkish membership in NATO and Turkish-American bilateral security ties to unresolved regional problems, such as the Cyprus conflict and Greek-Turkish feuding in the Aegean.
In particular, the Islamists' views toward Israel and Iran would be the likely source of major problems for Turkish-American relations. Since the early 1970s, with their unabashed anti-Semitism and mind-boggling conspiracy theories, Turkey's Islamist political parties have blamed Zionism, the Jews, and Israel for literally every domestic and foreign-policy problem encountered by Turkey. Refah's political rhetoric about Zionism and Israel includes the familiar statements that are often voiced by other fundamentalist parties and groups in the Middle East, as well as specific criticisms directed at Israel on issues concerning Turkey. For example, Refah has criticized NATO and Turkey's membership in it on the grounds that after the cold war, NATO's primary goal has changed from containing the Soviet Union to facilitating the creation of "Greater Israel."20 The Islamists have denounced Turkey's growing political and economic relations with Israel in the 1990s. They were especially incensed when Israel and Turkey signed a new military cooperation agreement in February 1996. In addition to its incessant attacks on Israel's policies, Refah has opposed the Arab-Israeli peace process, and voiced its support for rejectionist Palestinian groups such as Hamas.
The Islamists' attitude toward the Islamic Republic in Iran would also create problems in Turkish-American relations. Turkey's Islamists enthusiastically welcomed the fall of the shah's regime and Ayatollah Khomeini's rise to power. Initially, they were most impressed by the revolutionaries' ability to overthrow a regime closely allied with the West. As Turkey's predominantly Sunni Islamic movement became weary of the growing strength of Shi`i fundamentalism in the region, this enthusiasm gave way to a more restrained policy of support for the new Iranian government. Still, Refah"s leadership sees the creation of an Islamic state and society in Iran as a major accomplishment, it opposes Washington's efforts to isolate Tehran, and, in general, it has a much more favorable attitude toward the Iranian regime than do the pro-secular Turkish parties21
Since last December's elections, Refah has adopted a new strategy to dispel the concerns of the secularists, and thereby to increase its chances of being included in a coalition government. For example, Erbakan has dropped his opposition to the Customs Union agreement with the EU (he now claims that the agreement would be acceptable with some modifications), has refrained from criticisms of the West and indicated that his party would not pull Turkey out of NATO, and appeared willing to make significant concessions from Refah's established position on economic issues, such as the abolishment of interest rates.
Clearly, having come so close to power, Refah's leadership was much more interested in entering the government than displaying a consistent policy. By serving in a coalition as its senior partner, Erbakan expects to gain greater legitimacy for his party and disprove the idea that the Islamists would always be excluded from the government. Now that they have achieved one of their immediate objectives, the Islamists can initially be expected to pursue a careful strategy designed to sooth the fears of their domestic and foreign critics. However, it would be erroneous to think that Refah will share or control power simply for its symbolic value. Turkey's Islamists believe that time is on their side and that they need to be patient. They also believe that once the secular foundations of the republic are sufficiently weakened, Islamists can proceed with their ultimate goal of creating an Islamic state in the region's only predominantly Muslim and democratic country.
1 See for example, Turkey Survey Results: Attitudes and Priorities of City Dwellers, Washington, D.C.: International Republican Institute, 1995.
2 See Rusen Cakir, Ne Seriat Ne Demokrasi, Istanbul: Metis, 1994, pp. 51-58, and Jenny B. White, "Islam and Democracy: The Turkish Experience," Current History, January 1995, pp. 11-12.
3 Hürriyet (Istanbul), December 21, 1995.
4 White, "Islam and Democracy: The Turkish Experience," pp 11-12.
5 See, e.g., Mümtaz Soysal, " Arpaci Kumrulari," Hurriyet (Istanbul), December 26, 1995.
6 See, e.g., Coskun Kirca, "Taktikler ve Ahmakliklar," Yeni Yuzyil (Istanbul), January 4, 1996.
7 These terms are borrowed from Gregory M. Luebbert, Comparative Democracy: Policymaking and Governing Coalitions in Europe and Israel (New York: Columbia University Press, 1986), p. 13.
8 See, e.g., Refah Partisi'nin Anayasa Degisikligi Uzlasma Teklifi, Ankara: Refah Partisi, n.d., pp. 11-13.
9 Cakir, Ne Seriat Ne Demokrasi, p. 71.
10 Refah Partisi, 24 Aralik 1995 Refah Partisi Secim Beyannamesi, Ankara, 1995, pp. 19-20.
11 Cakir, Ne Seriat Ne Demokrasi, p. 121.
12 A political rally organized by the Islamists in the city of Konya few days prior to the 1980 military intervention, featuring explicit calls for the return of the Shari'a, appears to have convinced the officers to go ahead with a coup d'etat. Erbakan and other National Salvation Party officials were imprisoned and tried on charges of subverting the constitution before winning their acquittals.
13 Refah Partisi, 20 Ekim 1991 Genel Secimi: Refah Partisi Secim Beyannamesi (Ankara, 1991), pp. 88-105.
14 See, e.g., Prof. Dr. Necmettin Erbakan, Adil Ekonomik Duzen, Ankara, 1991, and Refah Partisi, Adil Duzen 21 Soru/21 Cevap, Ankara, n.d.
15 Foreign Broadcasting Information Service (West Europe), Turkey: Welfare Party Explains Its "Just Order", (5 December 1995), p. 3. TB: please replace with original citation
16 Ibid, esp. pp. 9-12.
17 Refah Partisi, 24 Aralik 1995 Refah Partisi Secim Beyannamesi, p. 29.
18 Refah Partisi, Adil Duzen: 21 Soru/ 21 Cevap, pp. 20-21. As a coalition partner in the mid-1970s, Erbakan entertained similar expectations of vast increases of foreign investment in Turkey from Saudi Arabia and other Islamic countries. Although there was a modest rise in foreign investment from the Islamic states, much of Erbakan's ideas turned out to be wishful thinking.
19 See Sabri Sayari, "Islam and International Relations in Turkey," in Serif Mardin (ed.), Cultural Transitions in the Middle East Leiden: Brill, 1994.
20 Refah Partisi, 20 Ekim 1991 Genel Secimi Refah Partisi Secim Beyannamesi , pp. 12-13.