Who Needs Ideology?

As it reaches the final round in Turkey's presidential elections, the religious ruling party considers the Kurds its natural allies. But it has had to tone down part of its platform.

ANKARA - At the northern, Turkish end of the Habur border crossing between Turkey and Iraq, Murad is rushing to collect the new cell phones he had distributed to the drivers at the Kurdish end. This is how it works: The cell phones are imported from Turkey to Kurdistan at low prices, without import duty, and then make their way back into Turkey, where they are sold as used phones, without packaging, at better prices. It's another small and insignificant gain for enterprising Kurdish merchants who live in the neglected Kurdish section of eastern Turkey.

But these small business ventures aren't enough to support the millions of Kurds in the area. Even the taxi drivers' control over the business of getting passengers from the Turkish side to the Kurdish side in the town of Silopi - a few minutes' drive from the border - does not provide enough of a living. "Regular" Turkish drivers, even if they live in other Kurdish towns, are not allowed to cross. This is a livelihood unique to Silopi residents, since the Turkish authorities allow people to cross the border only in an authorized taxi; they are not allowed in by foot. The Kurdish residents of Turkey can find better employment in the onion fields near Ankara, where thousands go at this time of year to try to earn $10-$15 a day picking onions.

In these fields, in the blazingly hot weather of Anatolia, the Kurds live in tents, without water or sewage systems - and not all of them are assured work. When the season picking ends, they will go back home to spend the next few months without a job, until the next season. Every year the story repeats itself, except that this time the Kurds of Turkey have new hope. They decided that they would not run as a separate party in the July 22 parliamentary elections (which, as in previous efforts, would probably mean that the party would not surpass the 10 percent electoral threshold), but would instead run as independent candidates.

That decision necessitated some ideological concessions, since the candidates were not running as a single political body on a collective platform. However, the method seems to have succeeded: Twenty Kurdish candidates won seats in parliament, enough to establish a separate faction.

The Kurds are considered natural allies of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), which has been working over the past five years to improve the Kurds' situation in the country, from developing a water infrastructure in southeastern Turkey to giving scholarships to thousands of female Kurdish students. But while the Erdogan government has put more effort into this goal than any other government has, the AKP-Kurdish alliance is encumbered by certain restrictions.

The religious ruling party wants to appoint Abdullah Gul the next president, but the Turkish public and the army fear for the secular character of the state if both the prime minister and the president are waving the flag of religion. This has made the AKP realize that it must concede parts of its platform and ideology for the sake of living peaceably with the consensus. And living with the consensus means not just concealing its religious agenda, but also lowering its pro-Kurdish profile. That's because Turkey's "Kurdish problem" is related not only to the definition of nationalism, but is also seen as a "terror problem," in a way that to some extent mirrors how Israeli Arabs are seen by some Israeli Jews. If the ruling party wants to live in peace with the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) and win its support in electing Gul president, it would do better not to make waves with the Kurdish issue.

Indeed, when the Kurdish parliamentary faction asked Gul to explicitly commit to improving the situation of the Kurds and made specific demands on this matter, Gul avoided making a detailed commitment. The result was that this week, in the first of three expected rounds of voting for the president, the Kurdish lawmakers decided to remain in the plenum but not to support Gul. While the decision was little more than a symbolic protest, since Gul would not have had enough votes even with Kurdish support, the Kurds managed to show that they are disappointed with the ruling party and that their vote is not so easily obtained.

If the Kurds feel let down by the new government (whose confirmation awaits the selection of the new president) and the army is concerned about the character of the state, the religious voters - who are responsible for AKP's sweeping victory - are even more disheartened. The Erdogan government has not managed to advance a religious agenda, improve the standing of graduates of religious schools, change the regulation that prevents women from covering their heads in public, or institute a more religious curriculum in Turkish schools.

Run for cover

The question "Where is the Islam of Turkey?" was raised over and over again in conversations with government supporters in Ankara last week. "From the beginning we made it clear that we're not a religious party, but a socialist one," one government activist said at a meeting in his Ankara home.

"So what's with the argument over women covering their heads?" someone else asked.

"It's a matter of democracy," the activist responded. "Everyone in the country must be able to wear whatever he or she wants. That's true democracy."

"So, secular Turkey gives Islam a good name?" said another guest.

Indeed, that appears to be the best conclusion for the government, which has been forced to maneuver between the army, the concerned secular public and the disappointed religious public.

This conclusion is also expressed in Turkish foreign policy, especially regarding the Middle East. "Turkey supports the unity of Iraq," explained a senior Turkish foreign ministry official. "The Kurds, unfortunately, are pushing an ethnic agenda and are sentimental in dealing with the Kirkuk problem. The government in Iraq needs the cooperation of all the ethnic groups, but no minority should have the political power to decide the conditions under which the state is administered. In general, it's desirable that the administration of Iraq will be in the hands of the Arab majority, in other words, the Shi'ites and the Sunnis."

This may be one of the most anti-Kurdish statements that a Turkish government official has made to a journalist. Although he was referring to the Kurds of Iraq, his comments implicitly referred to the Kurds of Turkey as well. The fear of an independent Kurdish state is a main theme of the ruling party, which sees no problem cooperating politically with Iran and Syria - one being a very religious country, and the other a very secular one - regarding Iraq and the Middle East in general.

"Our foreign policy stems from domestic needs, from Turkish interests, and not just from what is going on in the region," said the Turkish foreign ministry official. When asked about the government's Islamic agenda, he merely smiled dismissively and said: "Religion is not policy. We have excellent relations with a Jewish state, a Shi'ite one, a Sunni one and a Christian one like the United States. We also have disagreements with these countries, and not based on an interpretation of the Koran, the Bible or the New Testament."

And how should Turkey's close relations with Hamas or its support of Syria be understood? "There is nothing here to diminish the principle I noted," the official said. "We are against creating alliances of confrontation and we are in favor of integrating everyone. [Palestinian Authority Chairman] Mahmoud Abbas can't run Palestine or establish a Palestinian state without the participation of Hamas, and not because Hamas is a party with a religious agenda. We don't think that sanctions on Syria or Iran are effective - they are liable to create an alliance of opposition states, and that's bad for everyone."

No surprises are expected during the second round of presidential elections in the parliament today. This time, too, Gul needs a two-thirds majority - 367 out of 550 votes - to win, but he is not expected to get that many. However, in the third round, which will be held next weekend, Gul will need only a simple majority, and if there are no surprises, then he will be the next Turkish president. As president, he - along with Erdogan - will stick to the guideline that Turkish policy has followed for the past five years, that states that ideology, including religious ideology, is a luxury. The national interest comes first.