(CNSNews.com) – Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is enjoying a surge of popularity in the Middle East for his positions on Iran and Israel, but a resurgent secularist opposition at home is warning that the government may be harming Turkey internationally.
Amid debate over whether Turkey is shifting “eastward” under its ruling Islamist-leaning Justice and Development Party (AKP), members of the two main opposition parties expressed concern about Ankara’s vote against a U.N. Security Council resolution imposing new sanctions against Iran over its nuclear activities.
“Time will tell what the results of Turkey’s move will be, but for me the consequences of Turkey’s ‘no’ vote will be negative,” Gulsun Bilgehan of the secularist Republican People’s Party (CHP) was quoted as telling Hurriyet Daily News & Economic Review.
“The United States’ reactions already hint that a new era is likely to start,” she said. Bilgehan, a granddaughter of Turkey’s second president, is regarded as an expert on international relations.
Mehmet Sandir, a senior figure in the second-largest opposition party, the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), told the paper the “no” vote jeopardized Turkey’s reputation.
Noting that Erdogan has been defending Wednesday’s voting stance, Sandir asked, “Does it mean that the AKP will not abide by the U.N.’s decision? It would be a very dangerous move, which will make Turkey be perceived as an unreliable country.”
“Decisions by the Turkish prime minister and the foreign ministry put Turkey in an excluded and isolated position,” he added.
Opposition members are also accusing Erdogan of ramping up the clash with Israel triggered by the deadly May 31 raid on activists on a Gaza-bound Turkish-flagged boat.
Just days before the crisis erupted, an opinion poll put the CHP ahead of the AKP for the first time in eight years. Now there are rumors that the government is considering bringing forward elections due next summer, with opposition figures alleging that Erdogan hopes to capitalize on the dispute with Israel to galvanize strong Islamist support.
Erdogan said Thursday that the election would be held in July 2011, as scheduled.
‘Judged by history’
In the Security Council on Wednesday, Turkey joined Brazil in voting “no,” depriving Washington of the unanimous outcome it had worked for in response to Iran’s defiance of the International Atomic Energy Agency. Lebanon abstained.
Addressing Arab foreign ministers in Istanbul Thursday, Erdogan said Turkey had not wanted to “participate in such a dishonor because history would not forgive us.”
Nothing could be achieved through “weapons, embargoes and by alienating,” he told the Turkish-Arab Economic Forum meeting. He implicitly criticized the U.S. by pointing to Iraq and Afghanistan, citing “millions” of deaths, hundreds of thousands of women widowed and children orphaned.
“Will we be silent in the face of these? Those who have caused the status quo in the region will be judged by history.”
Erdogan also addressed claims that Turkey was drifting away from the West, saying that it was such “ill-intentioned propaganda” that had caused Turkey and the Arab world to remain “far from each other” for the past century.
Ankara’s foreign policies under the AKP government – which took office in 2002 and won re-election in 2007 with a significantly increased share of the vote – have drawn considerable attention, as analysts ponder where Turkey is headed.
The issue was spotlighted by the recent confrontation with Israel over flotilla raid, but the shifts began long before then – and long before Turkey fell out with Israel over the military offensive against Hamas in Gaza in late 2008-early 2009.
As early as 2003, the AKP government refused to allow the U.S. to use Turkish territory as a launching pad for a second front against Iraq. Erdogan went on to form ever warmer ties with Syria and Iran, engaged with Hamas in 2005 (eventually becoming one of its strongest defenders) and slammed Israel’s military campaign against Hezbollah in Lebanon in 2006.
Secretary of Defense Robert Gates said in London Thursday that if Turkey was indeed “moving eastward,” then European resistance to its accession to the European Union was partly responsible.
Like Presidents Bush and Clinton before him, President Obama supports Turkey’s long running bid to join the E.U., but despite Turkey having undertaken important political reforms there is significant resistance in Europe, spearheaded by the French and German governments.
Although constitutionally a secular state, Turkey’s population is 99 percent Muslim, and some Europeans worry about the impact on traditionally Christian Europe of having its Muslim population jump from around 13 million now to well over 80 million.
On current population trends, Turkey would in time become the biggest member of the E.U., and as a result have the largest representation in the European Parliament. Germany, currently the biggest member, has proposed some sort of “privileged partnership” short of full membership, but Turkey has rejected the idea.
Turkey’s foreign policy shifts have only increased the unease felt by some in the E.U.
Far from writing Turkey off, some analysts are pointing to elections next year as an opportunity for the country to jettison the AKP.
An opinion poll at late May put Erdogan’s party in second place, behind the CHP, for the first time since the AKP came to power eight years ago.
The poll by the Sonar company gave the CHP 32.4 percent of the vote, up from 20 percent in the 2007 election. The AKP came in at 31 percent, down from 46 percent in 2007. The MHP was at 18.5 percent, up from 14 percent at the last election.
“Among Turkish society many still support the secular parties, which are far from pleased with the rush towards the Muslim world,” said Prof. Efraim Inbar, director of the BESA Center for Strategic Studies at Israel’s Bar-Ilan University.
“Even among moderate Muslim quarters there is a sense of unease regarding the government’s policy pushing Turkey to join radical Islamic elements such as Hamas and Iran.”
Inbar said support for the AKP was slipping, “despite Erdogan’s remarkable political skills,” mostly as a result of corruption and the abuse of civil rights.
When the AKP came to power in 2002 it did so with only 34 percent of the votes, although because a threshold of 10 percent is required for a party to make it into parliament, several small ones fell away and the AKP ended up with 66 percent of the seats.
In the 2007 election, some smaller parties campaigned as independents to get around the threshold hurdle – which relates only to parties, not independent candidates. So although the AKP increased its share of the vote by 12 percent, it actually ended up with fewer seats in parliament.
Despite the AKP’s boost at the polls in 2007, its main rivals did not do badly themselves – the CHP share of the vote rose slightly, from 19 to 20 percent, while the MHP climbed to 14 percent from eight in 2002.
If the recent Sonar poll result was reflected in an election, a potential CHP-MHP coalition would easily defeat the AKP.