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Turkish Democracy under Siege

Moves are afoot in Turkey to ban legislators belonging to the ruling Justice and Development Party from politics and to even close down the party itself. The showdown between secularists of the ruling elite and the ruling party threatens to spiral into a full-fledged crisis.


to call it a ‘judicial coup’. The government

Turkish Democracy under Siege

and ruling party are now under a legal siege.” While many parties have been closed Kirsty Hughes down in the past in Turkey, often ones

Moves are afoot in Turkey to ban legislators belonging to the ruling Justice and Development Party from politics and to even close down the party itself. The showdown between secularists of the ruling elite and the ruling party threatens to spiral into a full-fledged crisis.

Kirsty Hughes ( is a freelance writer based in the UK.

n late May sunshine, Istanbul has its normal buzz of bustling shopping streets, noisy traffic jams and crowded outdoor cafes. But Turkey is going through a turbulent political crisis that is far from normal, and the outcome of which few predict with any certainty. Some liberal commentators are terming it a “judicial coup”.

Judicial Coup

In March this year, a case was filed to close down the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), and to ban 71 of its members from politics – including the prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and 33 other members of parliament – MPs (in cluding a third of the cabinet) together with the president Abdullah Gul (who resigned from the AKP on becoming president last year).

The case against them is built on allegations that they are undermining the secular system guaranteed by the constitution. To many, the case is a highly political, rather than legally defensible, attack on the govern ment. Leading journalist Cengiz Candar of the Referans newspaper says: “There were no reasons for the military to come forward, so the judiciary took on the frontal attack… we started seen as having Islamist leanings, a governing party – with a freshly renewed mandate – has never been closed in this way before.

Deja Vu

There is also a strong feeling of deja vu. In April last year, Turkey’s military issued a so-called “e-ultimatum” as the AKP government moved to propose Abdullah Gul as president – opposed by outraged hardline secularists as his wife wears a headscarf, and the wearing of headscarves is banned in public institutions. This “e-coup” provoked a major political crisis and early elections in July, won with an increased vote – 47 per cent – by the AKP.

For Cengiz Candar, the new crisis “is a continuation of last year’s power struggle”. He thinks the size of the AKP’s election victory in 2007 scared the ruling elites or the deep state that occupies key positions in Turkey’s military, state bureaucracy and judiciary: “The government was surfing on a new class of entrepreneurs from Anatolia [central Turkey] who demanded their share in the pie….and with considerable popular support at the ballot box, this sent social signals that the traditional ruling elite are losing ground in a way that

May 31, 2008

Economic & Political Weekly


they might never regain it…so they put up a stiff resistance”.

Many observers saw the AKP election victory as a triumph for democracy against nationalist secularists and looked for the new government to implement a new programme of modernising reforms and speed up its membership negotiations with the European Union (EU). But instead, the government faltered. Its main policy initiative last autumn was to permit the Turkish military to make incursions into northern Iraq in pursuit of Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) fighters – something that strengthened the military’s position. A promised major constitutional reform package – to replace the current constitution principally drafted after the military coup of 1980 – never happened.

Commentator Osman Ulagay of the Milliyet newspaper says: “Most people expected with a bigger mandate the government would proceed with a modernising agenda and the EU but they didn’t”. Ulagay calls this lack of action “one of those political mysteries”.

Headscarf Triggers Case

And then, this February, Erdogan made what many see as a vital error, and legislated – with the encouragement of a rightwing nationalist party (MHP) – to change only one small part of the constitution to allow the wearing of headscarves in Turkey’s universities. This upset a wide spectrum of secular Turkish society and provided the trigger for the court case. Although this constitutional amendment is also being challenged in the courts – with a ruling expected shortly – the constitutional court nonetheless agreed at the start of April to hear the bigger case to shut down the AKP and ban 71 AKP members.

Soli Ozel of Istanbul’s Bilgi University argues this was a useful trigger for the AKP’s opponents: “Some say there would have been a judicial coup whatever happened, others that if the government had taken a principled stand [after the elections] it would have been ok…but after all, there is a military who tried to stage coups in 2003 and 2004”.

Osman Ulagay says the case “was even a surprise for me, I didn’t expect it so now we are wondering on the court case and

Economic & Political Weekly

may 31, 2008

the consequences”. He thinks one of the key questions in all this is why Turkey’s political opposition is so weak: “One side of politics is a complete vacuum as the cHp [Republican People’s Party] – notionally a social-democratic party – has not filled it”. But a senior journalist on the Sabah daily, Yavuz Baydar, says the CHP is part of the front against the government: “The CHP is very much active. I don’t think they have gone on their knees and accepted July 22 [last year’s election day] and they will produce trick after trick.”

Outlook Unclear

What may happen next is unclear. Academic and commentator Cengiz Aktar of Bahçesehir University calls it “a total mess”. He goes on: “In Ankara, people have already bought into a post-AKP phase….everyone says the deep state is adamant on closing the AKP down”. Since a closure case had also already been brought earlier against the smaller Kurdish DTP party (with the court yet to decide on this too), if both parties are shut down, 53 per cent of the electorate will have been disenfranchised, says Aktar. “We are talking about the a, b and c of democracy” he continues, “now the AKP closure case is a sword of Damocles hanging over every single reformist step”.

Yavuz Baydar calls the crisis “a nasty big fight”. He thinks no one knows what will happen next: “including those who triggered it. That is what we know – that no one knows.”

But while most still expect the court to decide to close the party and ban many of the 71 politicians on the list, some say there is still a possibility that the court could reprimand and fine the AKP but not close it. Baydar says this latter outcome depends on prime minister Erdogan as being seen as “compromising” enough with the demands of “the system”: “I wouldn’t have given it a 1 per cent chance a month ago but now it is over 50 per cent possible”.

Soli Ozel, like others, suggests that the AKP may be trying to do a deal behind the scenes “and be put on probation”. For Ozel,

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such a probation would mean the AKP “saying the ‘right’ things and doing the ‘right’ things on secularism and not stepping over the privileges and rights of important people”. He calls the unfolding events a “political wrestling game to figure out what the new equilibrium point in Turkish politics will be..and I’m afraid it will end up much more authoritarian than two years ago”. Yavuz Baydar shares his pessimism predicting “four or five years of ‘restoration’ ”.

A number of commentators suggest that if the AKP is closed down – which could come as early as July or as late as the end of the year – a new replacement party will be formed the next day. Even if 33 AKP MPs, and Erdogan himself, are banned, goes this argument, the remaining AKP MPs would still be over 300 in number and have a majority in the parliament under a new party name. Many names are suggested as possible prime minister in this scenario – the name of Ali Babacan, current foreign minister, coming up most frequently. Gul, even if banned, could stay as president as he is exempt from prosecution while in post.

And in one of the many quirks of the Turkish political system, even the banned MPs including Erdogan may also be able to stand again for parliament as independents in new by-elections. Indeed, with local elections due in March 2009, some think a new general election could be held then – or possibly even in the second half of 2008.

Whether the current AKP – under a new name – could pull off a new electoral triumph is unclear, though the AKP for now continues to score 45-50 per cent in the polls. But many liberals are disappointed in the AKP government, even while appalled at the judicial coup. The lack of democratic reforms in the last year combined with other litmus tests – such as the failure to achieve a serious reform of the notorious article 301 of the constitution which forbids “insulting Turkishness” (now amended to forbid insulting the Turkish nation), and government mishandling of demonstrations on May 1, including excessive police violence, all point, say some, to a government that itself is no great exemplar of democracy.

For Yavuz Baydar “there are so many broken hearts in the circles that gave him [Erdogan] 47 per cent, I am not sure if he can get even 40 per cent...there are no good scenarios. It is an unfolding failure story in terms of democratisation.” Soli Ozel also criticises the government: “It is a struggle between authoritarian secularism and democracy but the claim the AKP is democratic annoys a lot of people who staked a lot [on taking democratic positions] and the AKP did not”. Ozel continues: “This [government] is still the best we have got. So the real reflection should be on why Turkey can’t establish the rule of law, rights and freedom in this country.”

Some suggest that it is Erdogan, the charismatic leader, rather than the AKP as a whole that is the prime target of the whole judicial coup. And commentators suggest that, off the record, Erdogan is giving the message that if he is strictly banned and cannot even stand again as an independent, he could attempt to lead some sort of broad democratic political front with demonstrations round the country.

But such a scenario may not face up to the disappointment many liberals have in Erdogan. Cengiz Candar says he hoped Erdogan would take a stronger stand against the judicial coup: “He had two options – one to resist as strongly as he did last year and push for constitutional changes and step up the EU accession process and mobilise people or second to take a conciliatory position and say it is a legal procedure and we will follow it… he chose that second option and I am disappointed in him.”

Western Powers Lack Impact

The lack of influence of either the US or the EU on the unfolding crisis is remarked on by many. The EU’s lacklustre approach to negotiating EU membership for Turkey – including the opposition to Turkey’s accession from French president Nikolas Sarkozy – has reduced European influence sharply. Cengiz Aktar calls the EU “completely discredited”. And Yavuz Baydar says “The tragic thing is that the EU lost its leverage…the damage is done.”

Meanwhile, the US is seen as partly preoccupied with its own presidential race,

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May 31, 2008

Economic & Political Weekly


and partly nervous about any further Turkish military incursions into northern Iraq. For Baydar: “Until the installation of a new US president, we are in dire straits”.

And, as Osman Ulagay points out, the Turkish political crisis is hard to explain not only to the western world “but also to the Islamic world who hope this [AKP government] is an example of combining Islam and democracy”.

While most are waiting for the court decision to see which way Turkey’s politics may lurch next, senior members of the judiciary took another step on May 21 issuing a statement accusing the government of attempting to pressurise the judiciary – rapidly labelled a “J-memorandum” by commentators. It is a move that does not suggest a compromising judiciary ready to simply reprimand the government.

Television political commentator Mehmet Ali Birand says: “There is a certain tacit agreement to wait for the court decision and then see what next. It is like waiting for Godot.” In the most pessimistic outcome, says Birand: “This might break this country. There are big uncertainties….we can even go to a point where we have bloodshed….We are confused and waiting.”

Economic & Political Weekly

may 31, 2008

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