Why the Turkish elections matter.

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This is definitely the election season. Media attention here in the United States has focused on little else these last few days. And so, in keeping with the moment, I also want to talk about elections, except not the one that has so thoroughly held American attention this week. I would like to talk about last weekend’s national elections in Turkey. Yes, Turkey.

Now, I don’t think for a moment that all that many Americans have been following the Turkish elections. But maybe noticing would be a good idea here is why: Turkey has long seen itself as the bridge between East and West, as the eastern-most European country, and at the same time, as the western-most Asian country. It has long been an absolutely reliable member of NATO.

Turkey is not, however, a member of the European Union, although it wants badly to be a member. So far, it has run into one roadblock after another.

Turkey is a secular Islamic society. Government and religion are genuinely distinct but it is the only European country unless you count Albania, where almost everyone is a Muslim. That makes most western Europeans less than eager to see Turkey as a full member of the European Union. That is rarely the reason given, at least not publicly. The nominally Christian Europeans are not yet comfortable with the idea of 60 million Muslims having full rights as Europeans. Free to come and go as they please, to hold any job and have full representation in the European Parliament. Maybe later, but not yet.

Even so, the party that won the elections and that must be put in quotes has European membership as its main agenda. The party that has been in power for quite a long time, the old guard if you will, was virtually vanquished. They received a paltry 1.3% of the vote. The Financial Times of London called it the electoral slaughter of a whole generation of old style leaders. And so it is a new day in Turkey – a very new day.

This all sounds good, right? Well, maybe. You see, the party that won, the Justice and Development Party, otherwise known as the AKP, is openly rooted in Islam. The Party leader Mr. Erdagon, a former mayor of Istanbul, has been banned by the Turkish High Court from holding public office and so cannot be the new Prime Minister. Even so, Mr. Erdagon, the victorious party leader has already accepted an invitation from the Prime Minister of Greece that he visit Athens. And Italy is next on his list.

My guess is that somehow, in due course, a way will be found for him to become Prime Minister, probably a constitutional amendment. If this happens and then, wonder of wonders, if Greece becomes a firm advocate of Turkish membership in the EU and this is at long last a distinct possibility then we are witnessing the beginning of the most dramatic change yet in how Europe is defined.

I have long thought that Turkey is, or at least has been, Europe’s great lost opportunity. This may be the chance to set that right. The other great opportunity that lies immediately ahead is to see whether Islam and genuine democracy can be compatible. It is possible that Turkey might become less the bridge between Europe and Asia but more importantly at least for now, the bridge between the largely democratic west and the largely undemocratic Middle East. Wouldn’t that be something!

This is Olin Robison.

Olin Robison is president of the Salzburg Seminar, located in Middlebury, Vermont and Salzburg, Austria.

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