Turkey is facing a test for democracy and its EU membership bid at a critical juncture of its development. Two major issues are at stake. First, democracy is threatened by growing extremism, either of a religious or a secular character. As polarisation grows, people are forced to take sides. Many are squeezed between the extremes: ultra-nationalism, hardliner laicism, and neo-fundamentalism. Second, Turkey risks losing its EU perspective. There have been doubts about the Justice and Development Party (AKP) drive for the EU membership. The stagnation of EU-driven reforms and the perceived Islamisation of society have left many wondering, both in Turkey and in Europe, how much enthusiasm is left for EU membership?
Turkey is currently characterised by increased polarisation along the following cleavages: Islamist versus secularist; Kurdish separatism versus Turkish ultra-nationalism; and liberals verses static nationalism. Most liberals, who could help moderate tensions, consist of the urban middle and upper classes. They are frustrated with the “old static mentality” represented by the major opposition party, the People’s Republican Party (CHP). The EU membership issue fosters nationalist-liberal tensions at a time when the AKP presents itself as the only supporter of EU integration despite the fact that reforms have slowed down since 2005.
Against the backdrop of existential debates, Turkey entered a new political era when the AKP secured an overwhelming victory in the July 2007 elections followed by the August election of Abdullah Gül as President. Five novelties in Turkish politics will be discussed in this article. First, the drafting of a “civilian” constitution, which is necessary to open the way to further reforms and talks with the EU, and which would be a novelty since it would be civilians drafting the constitution instead of the military. Second, the change in the governing AKP’s policy, which has moved in two new directions: from religious indifference to pro-religion rhetoric; and from a consensus approach to a more populist “will of the people” policy. The third novelty is the reduced “informal” infl uence of the military on political issues and processes. Fourth is the parliamentary representation of the pro-Kurdish Democratic Society Party (DTP), and the fi fth novelty is the economic and political exchanges with the Middle East and Muslim populated Asian countries as well as the increased attention given to Turkey by the Arab media since the early 2000s. Although not discussed in this article, it is important to note that Turkish foreign policy is also changing its orientation.