29 Jul 2008
Turkish democracy in the dock
Facing a crucial legal test of its legitimacy, Turkey's ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) is seeking to stave off dissolution as it quietly moves to tip the domestic balance of power in its favor.
By ISA staff for ISA Consulting
The Turkish government is teetering on the brink of dissolution as the country's highest judicial body, the Constitutional Court, considers closing the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP).
The 11-strong panel began deliberations on Monday, 28 July, on the fate of the AKP, which won re-election in a landslide victory in 2007 with 46.7 percent of the popular vote and is charged with violating the country's constitutionally protected secular character via measures and statements.
The judicial panel will meet daily until it makes a decision, and if the AKP is found guilty, has a variety of potential punitive measures at its disposal ranging from a fine and/or the cut off of Treasury funds to full dissolution of the party.
Most analysts believe the court will vote to disband the AKP and accede to a prosecution request to ban 71 AKP leaders - including President Abdullah Gul and Premier Recep Tayyip Erdogan - from all political activities. There is speculation that if AKP parliamentarians are banned from party politics they could run as independents in a snap election expected as early as November.
The justices may fear that a decision to acquit could lead to the elaboration of AKP plans for constitutional amendments - to be backed by a referendum - weakening the powers of prosecutors and the court to bring similar cases in future.
Interestingly, court-appointed rapporteur Osman Can advised the justices to dismiss the case last week, claiming the statements attributed to AKP leaders and officials fell under the aegis of legal protections guaranteeing freedom of expression.
However, the likelihood that the Constitutional Court will take a firm line against the AKP appeared to increase with last month's decision by the panel to overturn constitutional emendations ending a ban on the wearing of headscarves by women in universities.
Today's court session takes place against the background of twin bombings in Istanbul on Sunday that killed 17 and wounded at least 154. Police are reportedly focusing their inquiries on the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), given recent Turkish military attacks on PKK targets in northern Iraq and south-eastern Turkey.
However, with no group claiming responsibility and the blasts occurring the night before the court session, the involvement of secular ultranationalist or Islamist militants could not be discounted as of publication.
With tensions high, the AKP-affiliated Zaman newspaper has led a pro-government counterattack in recent weeks, seeking to play up the alleged association of the publisher of daily Cumhuriyet, Ilhan Selcuk, with the secular ultranationalist Ergenekon militant group, accused in a 14 July indictment of seeking the violent overthrow of AKP rule.
A second pro-government daily has also alleged a coordinated effort by the secular media to downplay the activities of the group, whose alleged members include businessmen and two senior retired generals, some prominent in organizing anti-AKP rallies in the wake of the government's decision to seek the overthrow of the headscarf ban.
Erdogan has denied claims that the timing of the Ergenekon indictment was designed to raise pressure on the Constitutional Court over the party closure case.
An important measure in the institution of secular predominance in the wake of the Young Officers coup of 1919 and subsequent establishment of the republican government, the headscarf ban in public buildings has increasingly seemed anachronistic given the significant rebound in religious sentiment and influence in recent decades, while held to as a sine qua non of women's emancipation by supporters.
The veil issue is a symbol in a wider struggle that poses a significant threat to the predominance of the traditional secular military-political-judicial-academic elite, which had succeeded until recently in maintaining control of the public sector despite recurrent periods of Islamic party political predominance.
The scarf ban effectively prevented a significant sector of the traditional conservative female population from attending university or courses relating to government service, cementing the role of secular women in the public sector.
The AKP has played on this impression in defending its term in office with Erdogan arguing in a Hurriyet interview published Saturday that "there is no problem in the nation, there is a problem with the elitists." In largely placatory comments, the premier added that his government had "made mistakes."
The growing integration of AKP supporters into key public service positions - a purported campaign that has allegedly seen secularist judges, teachers and others sacked or pushed into early retirement and replaced with AKP supporters - has been a major casus belli for the secular elite and is a symbol of their waning power amidst ongoing disarray in linked republican and nationalist political movements following repeat electoral drubbings.
Importantly, this domestic diminution of republican and nationalist power has taken place parallel to a significant push from the AKP government to demonstrate its trustworthiness as a diplomatic player to major foreign allies and to take a more determined role in regional affairs.
Turkey has made significant strides, though far from complete, towards improving its human and civil rights record, in keeping with strictures demanded for EU integration. The country has also enjoyed significant economic growth in recent years confirming the AKP's effective movement away the social welfare orientation of previous incarnations towards a neo-liberal economic platform.
While the long-term prospects for incorporation in the EU still appear bleak, it is clear that the AKP's Islamic roots and associated domestic political controversies have not played a role in dissuading France and other holdouts from supporting Turkish membership.
Military ties with the US and Israel have continued to deepen under the AKP government, while Turkish business interests have emerged as major players in reconstruction work in Kurdish Regional Government-controlled northern Iraq. This is a mitigating factor preventing the Turkish military from pursuing a more aggressive policy vis-à-vis the PKK despite a surge in cross-border Turkish operations and PKK assaults in recent months.
An AKP ban also increases the likelihood of a parallel legal closure of the Kurdish Democratic Society Party - which threatens to promote the interests of hardcore irredentist tendencies.
Turkish relations with Iran are in the process of being extended and strengthened through a major natural gas deal, while the progressive warming of relations with the Baathist administration in Damascus has allowed the Erdogan government to assume a key role as trusted facilitator in the early stage of Syrian-Israeli talks.
The important work undertaken in building trust between the two sides ahead of potential formal talks is threatened by the likely fall of the AKP government, which promises an uncomfortable interregnum ahead of the formation of a successor administration in Ankara, during which the outgoing AKP government loses effective mediating authority.
The likely dissolution of the government also comes at a crucial time for the renewed Cypriot dialogue. However, the clear interest of the Turkish Cypriot administration in a federated Cypriot entity appears to offset any potential impact to the course of Cypriot negotiations from Ankara of secular nationalist elements emerging as important players within the next Turkish government.
The country remains in the throes of an uncomfortable transition from autocracy to democracy in which limiting the military's traditionally pivotal role in determining the country's political course remains a crucial sine qua non.
Recent history has taught that the potential fall of the AKP does not presage the death of moderate political Islamic tendencies, which accurately reflect the zeitgeist and religious and ideological propensities of a significant and increasingly predominant sector of the Turkish populace.
Ultimately, the Turkish experiment in the political incorporation of Islamic tendencies within a sharply defined secular democratic society has potential repercussions throughout the Middle East, where similar calcified ruling elites hold sway in most states amid mounting popular disaffection.
This must be allowed to continue with the judiciary interpreting its role as constitutional guardian to protect and extend civil and sectarian protections - in particular safeguarding and extending the role of women in public life.
It is in the success or otherwise of this balancing act that Turkey's future ultimately lies.