Turkey's Secularists Find Religion

The party of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, Turkey's great force for secularism, has picked a moderately religious man as its candidate for August's presidential election -- a sign that at last it may be approaching that moment when lost political parties change to become electable again.

If the party has in fact reached that point, it will be to Turkey's benefit. Even during Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's first term, when he and his Justice and Development Party were unequivocally good for the country, the weakness of the opposition was a concern. The irrelevance of the Republican People’s Party encouraged Erdogan to adopt a strategy of polarization, confident in the knowledge that a majority of Turks simply couldn't bring themselves to pick the opposition.

The candidacy of Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu suggests this could change. The secularism and hostility of Ataturk's party to ethnic minorities has been radical to the point of intolerance. For example, it took years for the party, known in Turkey as the CHP, to accept that women should be allowed to wear headscarves on university campuses. So Turkey's conservatives and Kurds wouldn't vote for a traditional CHP candidate no matter what their concerns about Erdogan's anti-democratic behavior. They might, however, vote for a devout politician who also happens to be liberal.

Ihsanoglu is a former university professor who specialized in the history of Ottoman science, and a diplomat who stepped down in January after almost a decade as secretary general of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation. His main contribution at the OIC was to change its charter to introduce a commitment to the 1948 United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, replacing a specifically Islamic charter that referred to sharia.

Ihsanoglu is a soft-spoken conciliator -- the polar opposite of Erdogan, who is also expected to run for president after exhausting his three-term limit as prime minister. That makes Ihsanoglu a smart choice given that the CHP's best hope for defeating Turkey's most talented (and still most popular) politician lies in tapping into reactions against his authoritarian ways.

It takes more than selecting a presidential candidate to change a party, of course, and an academic-turned-diplomat who has never run for high office will struggle to defeat a campaigning phenomenon such as Erdogan. Inevitably, old-guard party members were angered by the choice of Ihsanoglu. But that's good: If party stalwarts were happy, it would mean the change was insufficient.

Having been in the political wilderness for 15 years, the British Labour Party in 1995 jettisoned the central article of socialist faith from its manifesto -- a commitment to "common ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange." It was, to say the least, controversial.

Erdogan and other religiously focused politicians in Turkey had their eureka moment in 2001. They broke from Turkey's main Islamist party, which had won a maximum of only 21 percent of the vote, and formed a new one that dropped the Islamic label altogether, renounced the idea of enforcing sharia and focused instead on boosting the economy and breaking the power of the military. They have won every election since.

The CHP, meanwhile, has remained wrapped up in Ataturk's zeal for using the state to contain religion, a losing pitch in a country in which the majority is religiously conservative and interested primarily in prosperity. Erdogan's crackdown on media freedoms and basic civil liberties over the past two years has given the CHP an opportunity to capture the votes of Turks who may be devout but want to live in a modern economy in which civil liberties are protected.