(Selcuk, Turkey) It was election day, June 12, in this small town in Turkey’s heavily secular far west region. Opposition to the governing Justice and Development Party, the Islamic-oriented AKP, runs strong. The manager of the small hotel shook his head. “I’ve been a life-long supporter of the CHP [the main secular opposition party]. My whole family has. But how could I not vote for the AKP? Because they’re doing the best thing for this country.”

In the small town square that night, a spirited celebration cheered AKP leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s televised “balcony speech,” and fireworks burst above the trees. The next morning, I asked a middle-aged man drinking coffee in a Selcuk cafe – who also said he had always supported the CHP – what would have been different in the last decade if the AKP had not been in power. “We wouldn’t have had the economic gains,” he said. Unlike the CHP, the AKP “are courageous.”

Less than 48 hours after the elections, a columnist in one of Turkey’s generally pro-government dailies wrote “an era has officially ended. The dictatorship of the elites has been destroyed.”

It’s certainly possible that some time in the future the AKP’s almost 50% victory this year, its third and highest electoral win since coming to power in 2002, will be seen as consolidating a new and different kind of Turkish elite, but so far the prospects seem far brighter than that. In fact, Turkish democracy – which this year achieved an impressive 87% voter participation rate – appears far more vibrant, representative and creative than any of our flawed, struggling examples with which we in the U.S. may be more familiar.

Turkey in the Neighborhood

As Richard Falk and Hilal Elver noted in al-Jazeera, this year marked the “first time since Kemal Ataturk founded the republic that such widespread international interest was aroused by Turkey’s elections.” Certainly some of that immediate focus was rooted in the rapidly escalating influence of Turkey in the electrifying but dangerous transformations underway in this year’s Arab Spring. Writing in the New York Times two weeks before the elections, the great Middle East journalist Anthony Shadid traced Turkey’s indigenous connection – contemporary and from its Ottoman legacy – to the revolutionary transformations underway in neighboring Arab countries.

“As the Arab world beyond the [Turkish] border struggles with the inspirations and traumas of its revolution – a new notion of citizenship colliding with the smaller claims of piety, sect and clan – something else is percolating along the old routes of that empire, which spanned three continents and lasted six centuries before Ataturk brought it to an end in 1923 with self-conscious revolutionary zeal. It is probably too early to define identities emerging in those locales. But something bigger than its parts is at work along imperial connections that were bent but never broken by decades of colonialism and the cold war. The links are the stuff of land, culture, history, architecture, memory and imagination that remains the realm of scholarship and daily lives.”

Those links between Turkey and the Arab world are also the stuff of regional power relations. Since the end of World War II, and throughout the Cold War, U.S. domination of the Middle East has remained a constant. Soviet influence rose and fell in a few countries, the Non-Aligned Movement was long led from Egypt, but overall Washington’s supremacy remained intact.

Regional powers, of course, could and did vie with the global hegemon as well as with each other. It was long understood that any Middle Eastern state aspiring to such a position had to start with three basic indigenous requirements: oil for wealth, size of land and population, and water. And for generations only two countries possessed all three: Iraq and Iran. Their conflicts, up to and including the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s with its one million-plus casualties that decimated both sides, reflected their competing claims to regional influence. Similarly, the decades of U.S. efforts to undermine both countries’ potential power, either through neo-colonial sponsorship and embrace or through threatened or direct military attack, were rooted in Washington’s determination to eliminate any serious challenge to its own dominion.

With the Gulf War of 1990-91, the years of genocidal economic sanctions that followed, and the assault and occupation of the 2003 Iraq War, the U.S. brought Iraq to its knees and destroyed its potential as an independent regional power for decades to come. Iran, the sole remaining regional challenger, remains in Washington’s military as well as economic crosshairs and is now isolated from many countries unwilling to stand up to U.S. pressure.

New Power in the Expanded Middle East

And now quietly, over the last decade while the eyes of much of the world were on the wars raging further south and east, another regional challenger was emerging. Turkey had always possessed two of the three requisites of Middle East power – huge land and population, and relatively abundant sources of water. But Turkey doesn’t have much oil and, despite its position in the key transit corridor for central Asian and Caspian natural gas, had long been too poor to contend with the petro-powers. But suddenly, Turkey had emerged as a regional, indeed global, economic powerhouse.

In one decade, most of it under AKP rule, Turkey almost tripled its per capita GDP – from $3910 in 2000 to over $10,000 in 2009. Suddenly the country once dubbed “the poor man of Europe” boasted the 17th largest economy in the world, was welcomed as a member of the Group of Twenty biggest global economic powers, and became recognized as a necessary regional and global interlocutor. Certainly there are contradictions; inequality has been reduced every year since 2001 but remains high, and the UN’s 2010 Human Development Index ranked Turkey below some similar countries with lower GDPs because those other, poorer, countries had managed to achieve higher standards of education and life expectancy.

But still, in a remarkably brief time, under AKP leadership, huge investments in infrastructure are visible across Turkey. New and improved roads and highways, new high-speed train systems, new housing complexes, new public hospitals available to all and cheaper private hospitals accessible to Turkey’s (and the region’s) burgeoning middle class, all are on the rise. A multi-faceted economy based on tourism, agriculture and manufacturing has enabled Turkey to go where only petro-states had gone before. Once again there are two regional powers in the Middle East, each with water, wealth and size – Iran and Turkey.

“Zero Problems With Neighbors?”

But this time, things are different. Based on his eponymous “zero problems with neighbors” policy, Turkey’s creative Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu has crafted a cordial range of economic, diplomatic, border and other relations with Iran. Ankara and Tehran are certainly economic as well as political rivals in the Middle East and beyond, but their relationship has none of the dangerous competition that so often led to military conflict between Iran and Iraq.

The broadening of Turkish foreign policy does not mean a rejection of its long-standing relationships with Europe and the U.S., or its identification with “the West.” Rather, what Davutoglu has crafted is an approach to international relationships that privileges only what Turkey defines as its own national interests, rather than acquiescing to the demands imposed by outside actors. So Turkey has not abandoned its quest to join the European Union, but the AKP and its followers insist it is no longer willing to subsume its entire independent identity as a Muslim Middle Eastern country to try to persuade reluctant Euro-partners. Turkey’s role in NATO unfortunately remains militarily unchanged – Turkey is one of only six NATO members that still host U.S. “tactical” nuclear weapons and as of May 2011 there were 1785 Turkish soldiers deployed in Afghanistan – but Ankara, with significant investment in Libya, played a cautionary role in NATO’s decision to attack and has refused to fully engage as the Libya assault has escalated.

Perhaps the most significant new application of this “Davotoglu Doctrine” has emerged in the changing nature of Turkish-Israeli relations. Turkey has not rejected its strategic ties to Israel – indeed it has maintained troublingly high levels of arms and “security” purchases – but is no longer willing to give up support for Palestinian rights. Indeed, since the flotilla massacre of 2010, Turkey has maintained a firm demand for an apology and compensation as the condition for returning to its earlier close ties to Tel Aviv. In the aftermath of the assault, Turkey demanded the immediate return of the ship, successfully negotiated the release of all who had been aboard, and issued the non-negotiable demand for full apology and reparations. Ankara’s defense of its citizens – eight of the nine people killed on board the Mavi Marmara during the 2010 flotilla were Turkish nationals – stood in stark contrast to the absolute refusal of the U.S. to take any responsibility for the ninth (and youngest) victim, a U.S. citizen of Turkish descent. The family of eighteen-year-old Furkan Dogan has had to file a U.S. court case to enforce the Freedom of Information Act just to find out what the U.S. knew or didn’t know about the killing of one of its own citizens.

But again, the challenges remain. Turkey is still committed to rebuilding its relationship with Israel, and that has translated to several recent troubling developments, including the early pull-out of the Turkish ship from the 2011 anniversary Freedom Flotilla to Gaza. While the ship’s organizers claimed their withdrawal was caused by technical problems rather than government pressure, the Turkish government’s interest in rebuilding ties with Israel almost certainly played some role in the organization’s decision. (Following the lethal assault on the 2010 flotilla and Turkey’s firm response, Israel initiated a strong campaign to woo Greece, Turkey’s historic competitor, through financial and diplomatic assistance to Greece during its massive economic crisis. The result was the complete acquiescence of the historically pro-Palestinian Greek government to Israeli demands regarding the July 2011 flotilla – and the Hellenistic Coast Guard’s armed refusal to allow the humanitarian ships to depart from Greek harbors for Gaza.)

The summer of 2011 is presenting a number of new problems for Turkish foreign policy. The expansion of the Arab Spring to Syria earlier this year, and especially the escalation of violence against unarmed protesters by the government in Damascus, created a significant crisis for Ankara. Part of the problem is border security, as thousands of desperate Syrians have fled the violence over the border into Turkish territory, with the likelihood of a far greater refugee flow if the violence continues. But beyond the immediate situation, the threat of continuing instability in neighboring Syria, one of Turkey’s most important trading partners, means Ankara puts a greater premium on maintaining normal ties with everyone else. That means normalizing relations with Israel. And with the elections behind them, restoring ties with Tel Aviv becomes politically feasible. That will also win Erdogan’s government new support from Turkey’s military, which has longstanding close ties with the Israeli Defense Forces. And the Obama administration’s hints that Turkey could be recognized as an important regional player no doubt are having some impact on decision-making in Ankara as well.

So it is perhaps not surprising that just before the July 2011 release of the United Nations’ report on the 2010 flotilla assault, there were intensive high-level diplomatic meetings between Turkish and Israeli officials. They were trying to see if they could agree on a bilateral statement that would allow both governments to put aside the aftermath of the Mavi Marmara killings and rebuild their once-strategic relationship. To its credit, Turkey refused to accept an Israeli expression of “regret” in place of a real apology for the killings. But the effort to do so still highlights Turkey’s eagerness to rebuild its strategic ties to Tel Aviv, with all the potential challenges that poses for Erdogan’s and his government’s support for Palestinian rights.

And beyond foreign policy, other challenges to the AKP remain. Turkey’s regional power depends on sufficient water – but those hydro-resources need significant protection. The economy is growing fast, but unemployment remains high. Privatization efforts are continuing, and genetically-modified seeds (and Monsanto) are reported to be playing escalating roles in Turkish agriculture. And questions about civil liberties, the rights of the Kurds, the nature of the new Constitution… all remain for the future.

Turkey’s astonishing economic growth has allowed its government to meet an impressive array of social imperatives and political objectives, while remaining firmly rooted in and dependent on globalized economic realities. Whether those accomplishments can keep pace with the expectations of an expanding and increasingly empowered population will be the real test for Turkish democracy and its current leaders.

Phyllis Bennis is a fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington, D.C. She is the author of “Challenging Empire: How People, Governments, and the UN Defy U.S. Power” (Interlink Publishing, October 2005).

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Phyllis Bennis is a Fellow and the Director of the New Internationalism Project at the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington DC.  Her books include Understanding ISIS & the New Global War on Terror, and the latest updated edition of Understanding the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict: A Primer.