ISTANBUL // With parliamentary elections scheduled for June, Turkey's prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has begun a shift to the political right, irritating some of his more liberal supporters and putting reform projects on hold.
"Does democracy exclude nationalism or national values?" Mr Erdogan asked earlier this month, in response to reporters' questions about his latest political manoeuvres that are widely seen as efforts to woo right-wing voters ahead of the election on June 12.
Mr Erdogan's move to the right does not mean the confrontation between his religiously conservative government and Turkey's strictly secularist armed forces is over. On Saturday, Turkey's chief of general staff, General Isik Kosaner, sought an urgent meeting with Mr Erdogan after a court in Istanbul ordered the detention of more than 160 serving and retired officers suspected of having prepared a coup plan against the government. No statement was made after the meeting.
But while the government has condemned suspected coup plots within the military, the prime minister has been careful not to give the impression that he is against the military, still a respected institution in Turkey.
On February 8, Mr Erdogan even defended the army in public and announced that he was bringing criminal charges against an opposition politician who had called the military a "paper tiger".
Addressing the parliamentary group of his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), Mr Erdogan said that statement was an insult to the armed forces. "What has to be done must be done," he said. "If this goes unanswered, they will use the Turkish Armed Forces as a football next."
Political observers and foreign diplomats say Mr Erdogan seems to have concluded that the AKP has the chance to win additional votes on the right of the political spectrum. The aim is to make sure the religiously conservative AKP can continue to govern alone without the help of a coalition partner after the June poll.
The prime minister has steered the AKP to victory in two parliamentary polls, two countrywide local elections, two referendums on constitutional changes and a presidential election since 2002. His shift to the right could have repercussions far beyond the borders of Turkey. Efforts to solve the Cyprus issue and other thorny initiatives in Turkey's relationship with the European Union are likely to be put on hold until after the elections. At the same time, Mr Erdogan is expected to underline Turkey's growing role and reputation in the Middle East.
Mr Erdogan, who trumpeted his work as a democratic reformer in the last election campaign in 2007 and was supported by many Turkish intellectuals because of political reforms in recent years, has signalled this shift with several high-profile steps in recent weeks. The prime minister stunned his liberal supporters by suing a leading liberal commentator and by stating publicly that "the language of the intellectuals is not the language of the nation".
The prime minister's so-called "Kurdish Opening", a project to end the Kurdish conflict with the help of democratic reforms, has ground to a halt amid accusations by nationalists that it would lead to the break-up of the country. Instead, AKP politicians have been stressing that there is only "one flag and one nation".
In foreign policy, Mr Erdogan has been pointing to Turkey's position in the Middle East. "Turks, Arabs and other ethnic groups in the region fought together and died together" against the Crusaders, Mr Erdogan said at a ground-breaking on the banks of the river Asi for a "Friendship Dam" with his Syrian counterpart Mohammed Naji Otri on February 6.
Meanwhile, Turkish authorities published plans to tighten rules for alcohol sales and consumption in public and issued a warning to a private television station for showing a lack of respect in its portrayal of an Ottoman sultan. Both steps addressed issues dear to conservative voters but irritating to liberals.
With polls showing the AKP at about 40 per cent of the vote and the biggest opposition group, the secularist Republican People's Party (CHP) at 30 per cent, observers say the main focus for Mr Erdogan is not the CHP, but the right-wing Nationalist Movement Party, MHP, which is at about 12 per cent in the polls, just above the 10-per cent threshold needed to enter parliament.
"If the AKP succeeds in motivating its own people and in pushing the MHP under 10 per cent, they will have it made," said one Western diplomat in Ankara said.y.
Should the MHP drop out of parliament, the AKP's single party government would be virtually guaranteed to continue, the diplomat said. In 2002, the AKP came to power after it won 34 per cent of the votes and was able to form the government without coalition partners because the CHP was the only other party left in parliament. In 2007, the AKP scored a landslide with 47 per cent after the military threatened to unseat Mr Erdogan.
A big win in June would cement the AKP's grip on power and give the party a key position in discussions about a new constitution, a debate that Mr Erdogan has said is to begin in the new parliament. Mr Erdogan has also begun to promote the idea of bringing in a US-style presidential system to replace Turkey's parliamentary system.
Although he has not said so openly, it is assumed Mr Erdogan, who will turn 57 later this month, would want the top job in a presidential system for himself. He has said that the upcoming parliamentary term would be his last as a deputy and prime minister.
Ahmet Altan, the editor of the liberal Taraf newspaper and one of the prominent Turkish intellectuals who have supported the government, harshly criticised Mr Erdogan's move to the right. In the name of pushing the MHP below 10 per cent, the prime minister himself was "getting more like the MHP every day", Mr Altan wrote last month. He suggested intellectuals like himself were parting ways with the prime minister. "We will miss your courage and your sincerity." Mr Erdogan responded by suing Mr Altan for libel.