On Sunday, Turks will go to the polls to elect a new parliament. This earlier-than-expected election will be the latest chapter in the decades-long debate over secularism and democracy that has defined modern Turkey, as well as the culmination of months of political tension. In April, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Justice and Development (AK) Party nominated Abdullah Gul, Turkey's foreign minister, to be the country's next president. But the nomination was stymied in parliament--the body charged with electing the country's largely ceremonial president--over concerns about Gul's religiosity and the AK Party's mildly Islamist roots. Even more ominously, the Turkish military registered its disapproval by suggesting that Gul's election would be part of a "growing threat" to the secular republic. Instead of nominating a less controversial figure that could have broken the political impasse, Erdogan decided instead to try and renew his popular mandate by calling for Sunday's early elections.

But the factors at play in this weekend's election extend beyond Turkey's borders. For decades, Turkey's tortured courtship of the European Union proceeded at a snail's pace. But after the AK Party won a parliamentary majority in 2002 and Erdogan became prime minister the following year, Turkey made remarkable progress in implementing the liberal reforms needed for eventual EU membership. In recent years, however, the vision of Turkish accession to the EU has grown dimmer, and the prospects for the continuation of much-needed reform in Turkey have dimmed with it. A victory for the AK Party on Sunday will leave the path to reform open. But, ultimately, the success of Turkey's reform movement rests not just with Erdogan, but with the EU itself.


Turkey's road to EU membership began in 1959, when it applied for associate membership of the European Economic Community, a predecessor of the EU. The next four decades were marked by ambiguity, setbacks, and half-victories in Turkey's quest. In recent years, however, significant progress toward accession has been made. The EU agreed to begin formal membership negotiations in 2004, and launched such talks the next year.

The greatest catalyst for progress, however, was the election of Erdogan and the AK Party. Historically, governing majorities in the Turkish parliament have relied upon fragile coalitions that were unable to implement bold policy changes. The AK Party, however, won an uncompromised majority in parliament, riding to victory on a uniquely Turkish combination of religiously inspired social conservatism, staunch adherence to the secular principles of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk (the founder of modern Turkey), and fierce devotion to the goal of EU accession. Erdogan, in other words, had both the ability and the desire to work toward EU membership, and he did so with gusto. He has moved to distance the Turkish military from the political process and to expand political and social rights both for Turks and the country's minority Kurds, and he has overseen robust economic growth.

From the perspective of many Europeans, however, Turkish membership in the EU has always been unpopular. Concerns have typically centered on economic factors (how could developed EU countries deal with a flood of unskilled Turkish labor?) and cultural ones (does Muslim Turkey really belong in Christian Europe?). In recent years, as Turkish accession has become a more realistic prospect, such sentiment has increasingly seeped into formal EU policy. The French rejection of the EU constitution in 2005 was fueled largely--and somewhat misleadingly--by fears of eventual Turkish membership. Since then, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Nicholas Sarkozy have each ridden to election victories on platforms that prominently opposed full Turkish accession, favoring instead vague alternatives such as "privileged partnership." The accession of Cyprus in 2004--after that country's rejection of a comprehensive settlement with its Turkish-dominated and isolated northern half--introduced a strong anti-Turkish voice into the EU. Late last year, continued mutual intransigence over the divided island compelled the EU to suspend negotiations on eight of the 35 "chapters" needed to complete Turkey's accession process.

As with all symbiotic relationships, the health of one party is dependent on the health of the other--when one gets sick, the other usually follows suit. EU membership has long been a popular goal for Turks; many see it as the ultimate realization of Ataturk's dream of a modern, secular Turkey. But as European politicians eagerly campaign for votes at Turkey's expense, and as ancient rivalries seem to arbitrarily derail accession talks, Turks have begun to wonder whether EU membership is worth the hassle. Increasingly, they seem to think not. In a recent poll, only one in three Turks said that they definitely want their country to join the EU--about half the figure in similar polls only a few years ago. And as EU membership plummets in popularity, so too does the rationale for many of the tough political and social reforms required for accession, especially those that work toward unfinished goals such as cutting public corruption and expanding freedom of expression. Erdogan, for his part, remains resolute. He pledged late last year that the "reform process will continue with the same decisiveness," regardless of what the EU says or does. But it is clear that Erdogan's patience is also wearing thin.

The most pernicious result of the EU's vacillation is that the forces opposed to Erdogan have found it easier to array against him. The Turkish military, which has long fancied itself as the ultimate guardian of the secular state, has always been wary of the AK Party's Islamist roots, and it resents Erdogan's efforts to remove it from the political process. Turkish nationalists have also long been skeptical of Erdogan's religiosity, in addition to his relatively measured approach in dealing with Kurdish issues and his devotion to EU membership in general. Mainstream secular political parties, which represent the bulk of Erdogan's parliamentary opposition, are eager to capitalize on any failures they can attribute to Erdogan, even if they share his goal of EU membership.

Ironically, as these varied forces align against Erdogan, they also align against their own best interests. Urban, secular Turks--those who would find themselves most at home in Europe--protest Erdogan's religiosity, giving cover to the military's ominous and blatantly anti-democratic rhetoric in the process. Rural, socially conservative Turks--those who might gain the most from expanded trade and investment with Europe and who might best identify with the AK Party's roots--support nationalist political elements that would realign Turkey's domestic and foreign policies for the worse. If Erdogan's opponents succeed in derailing his reforms, they would return Turkey to a darker period of its own history--military-dominated politics, vitriolic nationalism, or ineffectual coalition governments.

To be sure, Erdogan's opponents would seek his defeat regardless of the EU's attitude toward Turkish accession. But deficiencies of political will, strategic foresight, and structural capacity have made the EU and its leaders complicit in the potential failure of Erdogan's reforms. Merkel and Sarkozy's predecessors faced similar degrees of domestic opposition to Turkish membership, yet they still remained steadfast in their own support for accession. But despite their strength of will, Gerhard Schroeder and Jacques Chirac were unable (or unwilling) to articulate to their constituents the geopolitical and cultural imperative of Turkish accession, not just for Turkey, but for the EU itself.

Most importantly, the EU is structurally handicapped as a foreign policy actor, perpetually forced to contend with the divergent international agendas of its 27 member states. In other words, speed and clarity are not its strong suits. Where it can succeed on the international stage, however, is through its power of example. Over the past 15 years, the allure of EU membership encouraged and strengthened liberal reform in the former communist states of Eastern Europe, and these countries were ultimately rewarded with accession. A similar effect continues to extend east and south along the EU's periphery, but it requires the legitimate prospect of accession to achieve the same liberalizing results. Turkey could become the ultimate validation of this kind of indirect "foreign policy by example." It could also become its ultimate failure.


Fortunately for Turkey, the AK Party is likely to retain its parliamentary majority in Sunday's elections, although perhaps by a reduced margin. If it does, it will be due to Erdogan's distinctly Turkish brand of politics. His deft blending of social conservatism, institutional secularism, and political liberalism make him uniquely suited to enact the reforms that will secure EU membership and strengthen Turkish democracy. It is unclear if Erdogan will re-nominate Gul for the presidency, and if he does, how the military would respond--much depends on the ultimate size of the AK Party's majority. But a resounding victory by the AK Party would provide a needed boost for the prospects of genuine reform in Turkey. This, in turn, could nudge the EU in a more encouraging direction, ultimately leading to greater progress toward Turkish accession.

Such a course correction is sorely needed. The EU has unnecessarily and myopically gone out of its way to make things worse for Turkey's political and social reform, and at the worst possible time. In addition to its struggles with EU accession, Turkey finds itself surrounded and bedeviled by a multitude of challenges. The war in Iraq, the re-emergence of Kurdish militarism, an increasingly assertive Russia, and the omnipresent threat of genuine Islamic extremism will continue to place ever-greater strains on Turkey. In such a turbulent environment, Erdogan's electoral victory alone cannot ensure the long-term success of his liberal reforms. This makes the EU's continued (and promised) support for his efforts--and ultimately, for membership--that much more important.

By Daniel Widome