It’s a bad time to be an autocrat, especially in the Middle East, but incumbents in democracies are not doing too badly. Few are doing better than Turkey’s prime minister Recep Erdogan, who won re-election for a third term at the weekend with a substantial majority.

Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) won fractionally under 50% of the vote — an increase of more than 3% on 2007 — but it came at the expense of parties that were already below the threshold for representation in parliament, so the AKP actually lost 15 seats, finishing with a still healthy 326 out of 550. (Adam Carr doesn’t have the figures yet, so I’m using Wikipedia’s summary.)

The number is of some importance because three-fifths, or 330 votes, are necessary for parliament to put constitutional amendments to referendum, as the AKP did with a package of reforms last year. Further constitutional change is on the cards, since all parties agree that the current constitution — drafted in the wake of the 1980 military coup — is unsatisfactory. A two-thirds majority can revise the constitution without a referendum, but Erdogan is a long way short of that.

But for the moment, the most interesting challenges facing Turkey are not domestic but foreign. With spiralling bloodshed in Syria to its south, Turkey feels as much as ever the tension of its geographical position, caught between the European and Arab worlds.

In Erdogan’s first term, the talk was all about Turkey’s bid to join the EU — negotiations began in 2005 — but progress on that slowed with the election of Angela Merkel in Germany and Nicolas Sarkozy in France, both sceptical of Turkey’s claims.

And Turkey’s attention has also been distracted as it has taken on more and more the role of a regional leader: negotiating on a nuclear compromise with Iran, mending fences with Armenia and Iraq, supporting democratisation in north Africa, standing up more to its long-term ally Israel, and now trying to put pressure on Bashar al-Assad while dealing with the refugee crisis on its Syrian border.

Its size and position, not to mention its history, would always have made Turkey something of a role model, but it’s been given particular importance by Erdogan’s own history as an “Islamist” leader. In Turkey, it’s the more religious AKP that has championed democratisation and liberalisation, while its more secular opposition is tied to the anti-democratic leanings of the nationalists and the military.

Much of the debate this year in the “Arab spring” has been about the influence of political Islam and the compatibility of Islamic movements (such as Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, a cousin of the AKP) with democracy. But if the countries of the region are serious about combining Islam with democracy, Erdogan more than anyone is the person to show them how the trick is done.

This is not a new point. Four years ago I highlighted Erdogan’s importance as follows: “If the West was serious about democracy in the Middle East, it would be looking to Turkey as an example, and trying to encourage movements like Hamas to develop along the same lines as the AKP. But the US has isolated and therefore radicalised those movements, supporting instead the corrupt and anti-democratic Arab establishments.”

As far as Turkey’s relations with Europe go, this is all a two-edged sword. On the one hand, democratic reform is just what Europe keeps demanding as a condition for EU membership. On the other, anything that emphasises Turkey’s ties with the Middle East makes that membership seem more remote. One can almost hear the whispers in Paris and Berlin: if Turkey can join, why not Egypt, or Lebanon, or Israel?

Peter Fray

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