A storm is brewing along the Bosporus. Since late April, when Turkey's military issued a not-so-subtle threat to intervene in national politics to curb the power of the Islamist government, the country has been mired in political crisis.
The current turmoil has everything to do with Turkey's deepening religious-secular divide. A decade ago, an Islamist government similarly had called into question the secular nature of the republic established by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. Prime Minister Necmettin Erbakan's Refah (Welfare) Party had worn its Islamism on its sleeve, talking publicly about an "Islamic NATO" to replace Ankara's ties with the West.
But back then, the Turkish military had moved quickly, deposing Erbakan's government in a soft coup in June 1997, just one year after it had taken office.
The agenda of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), by contrast, has been more subtle — and more successful. Since assuming power in November 2002, it has managed, through a series of political maneuvers, to substantially alter the domestic status quo, much to the detriment of the traditional guardian of the secular state: the Turkish military.
As a result of the AKP's initiatives, military officials have progressively been removed from the oversight of national broadcasting and education, the military has been stripped of budgetary autonomy, and, perhaps most importantly, control of Turkey's influential national security council (the Milli Guvenlik Kurulu, or MGK) has shifted to civilian hands, giving the AKP a deciding voice in the formulation of Turkish security and defense priorities.
Common Ground With Rivals
Equally profound has been the AKP-administered shift in Turkish foreign policy. Over the past four-and-a-half years, under the guise of an independent foreign policy, Ankara has drifted toward accommodation with its traditional rivals in the Middle East.
It has normalized its historically tense relations with Syria, signing at least two military agreements and, in the process, launching what Turkish officials call a "new era" of ties between Ankara and Damascus. It has also aligned itself more and more closely with Iran, inking a landmark bilateral security accord in 2004 and expanding security and counterterrorism cooperation with the Islamic Republic thereafter.
At the same time, Ankara's attitude toward Europe and the United States has cooled considerably. If, as the saying goes, one is measured by the company one keeps, this tilt is a telling — and ominous — indicator of the AKP's foreign policy proclivities.
Of late, the popular outcry has been deafening. If the anti-government protests that have taken place around the country in recent weeks are any indication, ordinary Turks are deeply worried that the AKP's agenda could lead to the emergence of an Islamist state.
Their concern has to do with the nature of the AKP itself. From the start, the AKP was a loose-knit political coalition, cobbled together by Islamists, nationalists and even social democrats in opposition to the controversial government of former Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit. Since 2003, however, there has been a clear sense that the AKP's Islamist wing has hijacked the voice of the party, imposing its own agenda on the government, and the country.
EU Accession Is Focal Point
Many also know full well that the tool that has made the AKP's political machinations possible is made in Europe.
For the past two decades, membership in the European community of nations has been the central goal of Turkish foreign policy. Ankara's aspirations were given a major shot in the arm in 2005, when the European Union opened formal negotiations with Turkey about membership.
ut the AKP has deftly manipulated the resulting political, economic and social requirements to increase its own power, and to diminish that of the Turkish military. In the process, the EU's accession criteria have become a poison pill of sorts — one that many believe is progressively helping to alter the character of the Turkish state.
As a result, change is in the air. Already, Turkey's notoriously fractious political factions are organizing in an effort to secure a decisive voice in the presidential and parliamentary elections scheduled for July 22.
Yet the possibility of a military intervention, either before the summer polls or immediately thereafter, is still "far more likely than commonly understood," according to one observer with close ties to the Turkish General Staff.
What is already clear, however, is that the big loser in this political tug-of-war is likely to be Europe. Should the AKP pull off another electoral victory, it will undoubtedly seek to continue Turkey's eastward tilt, much to the detriment of its ties with the European Union.
A victory by the country's emerging center-left or center-right coalitions, on the other hand, is likely to bring to power a more nationalistic political elite far less certain of the benefits of European membership for their country.
And if the Turkish military does indeed stage a coup, the resulting government is not likely to forget — or to forgive — Europe's unconstructive role in helping the AKP alter the character of Ataturk's republic.
Add to all this the changes under way within the European Union itself, where the recent presidential victory of Nicolas Sarkozy in France portends a more hostile stance toward Turkish accession, and it is shaping up to be a hot summer in Europe.