Wednesday, 26 March 2008

Challenging Times For Turkey's Democracy

Published in Articles

By the Editors (vol. 1, no. 3 of the Turkey Analyst)

Turkey’s regime crisis, ongoing since 2007, has reached an unprecedented, dangerous level. If not checked, it could threaten recent advances in Turkish democracy. Indeed, the Turkish state itself shows signs of breaking up into confrontation along ideological lines. Turkey is adrift, putting extra strain on the country’s partners, the European Union and the United States. They need  to reexamine their assumptions about the character of the Turkish crisis and its protagonists, and draw policy conclusions that will serve theirs and Turkey’s interests in the long term.

BACKGROUND: Political stability and calm continue to elude Turkey. The country is fast approaching a climactic showdown in the spiraling confrontation over secularism that has rocked the country since 2007. The ruling Justice and Development Party (the AKP) is threatened with dissolution following the submission by the chief prosecutor, Abdurrahman Yalcinkaya, of a 163-page case for its closure on account of constituting a focal point for undermining secularism. 71 of its members, among them Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan and President Abdullah Gül, could be barred from politics for five years. 

Faced with this case, now pending in the Constitutional Court, the AKP has reacted viscerally, with heavy criticism leveled at the chief prosecutor, and with its own “declaration of war”, challenging the rule of law. Bülent Arinc, the former speaker of the parliament and a prominent figure in the ruling party, has even ominously reminded the chief prosecutor that ultimately “death is the final arbiter”.

The AKP has scheduled a proposed change of the constitution, curbing the powers of the chief prosecutor and altering the rules governing the constitutional court. Deniz Baykal, leader of the opposition Republican people’s party (CHP), has warned that such a move will have extremely serious consequences. The AKP is planning for a referendum to decide the matter. Such a referendum inevitably risks becoming a referendum about secularism itself, further exacerbating societal tensions.

The chief prosecutor’s move against the AKP was followed a week later by a dramatic middle-of-the-night round-up of several prominent opponents of the AKP. Those summoned included the 83-year old publisher of Turkey’s oldest newspaper, Cumhuriyet, prominent secularist Ilhan Selçuk; Kemal Alemdaroglu, former President of Istanbul University; and Dogu Perincek, the leader of a fringe, left wing-nationalist party – all charged with engaging in “terrorist activities”. 

Perincek was subsequently arrested, while the other detainees were eventually released, pending forthcoming trials.  Prime Minister Erdogan referred to the rule of law, and furthermore declared his government to be in “solidarity” with the prosecutor in the case against the alleged secularist coup-plotters. One worrisome fact exposed by this case is that the judiciary is politically divided, mirroring the division of society. The chief prosecutor is taking action against the government; while another prosecutor takes action against regime opponents, at a time and in a way that raises questions about the government’s motives. This in turn risks endangering the legitimacy of the investigation into the very real threat posed by shady and violent nationalist organizations. 

Similarly, the police force is believed to have a growing Islamist inclination, pitting it against the staunchly secularist military. The increasing ideological gap and tension between these key institutions of the state do not bode well.

IMPLICATIONS: It is likely that Turkey will experience more of the same rather than a move toward compromise. Political commentator Fehmi Koru, who is known to be close to the AKP government – and who interestingly could foretell the detention of Ilhan Selcuk – has named three former generals, one of them a former army chief, as being in line for arrest. Ahmet Altan, another commentator supporting the government, has declared that “Kemalist putschists are to be cleansed from the state”. After his release, Ilhan Selcuk expressed his worry that the prosecution is aiming at “the secular military and the independent judiciary”, with possible dire consequences.

Selcuk, Alemdaroglu, Perincek

While the lawsuit against the AKP has been widely condemned internationally, the spectacular arrest of secular opposition figures was barely noticed outside Turkey. Western commentators and policymakers have generally interpreted the confrontation in Turkey as one where freedom and democracy is represented by the ruling moderate Islamists; and authoritarianism by the secular opposition. The interpretation of recent developments in such a light would however amount to a superficial reading of Turkish politics.

In assailing the judiciary for opening a case against it, the AKP has painted itself as a principled defender of democratic freedom. But this stance lacks in credibility, since the AKP did not object to the chief prosecutor’s recent and parallel move against another party, the Kurdish nationalist DTP. Prime Minister Erdogan, on the contrary, approved of this case. But if Erdogan’s reaction has been belligerent, reactions from the secular camp to the latest events have been rather nuanced. Secular commentators in the media have generally deplored the pending lawsuit against the AKP, and have expressed their support for the judiciary’s continued investigation of the alleged activities of the “deep state” – the shady connections between violent nationalist groups and elements within the state bureaucracy.

While the moderation of the AKP is still largely taken at face value internationally, it has been increasingly challenged at home. As described in detail in the 22 February issue of the Turkey Analyst, the AKP has not tried to assuage the worries of the secular half of the population. Its insistence in electing a “religious” president, the calls for a “redefinition” of secularism, declarations by Erdogan such as “individuals can’t be secular”, the refusal to pay attention to the secular opposition regarding the symbolically charged issue of the Islamic headscarf, and the systematic insertion of Islamist cadres in the bureaucracy and judiciary have combined to erode the AKP’s image of “moderation”. 

Words and deeds such as these have inevitably added credibility to the allegations of the chief prosecutor that the AKP in fact aims at altering the secular order. While this does not mean that closing the party could be a solution to Turkey’s problems, it does imply that the support for this rather extreme action has grown in recent months.

The AKP’s confrontational tactics in the face of the threat of dissolution have further alienated former liberal supporters. The association of the Turkish Industrialists and Businessmen’s Association, Tüsiad, recently issued a warning, describing the current crisis as a societal “trauma” and calling upon the government to seek accommodation, instead of confrontation, with the opposition. “The future of our country depends on the government abandoning its narrow interpretation of democracy as the simple rule of the majority”, declared the business association. Ertugrul Özkök, influential editor-in-chief of the largest daily,Hürriyet, wrote that Turkey needs a societal consensus: “We can come together in a consensus that shields secularism and that doesn’t create suspicions in people’s minds”.

In fact, Turkey has reached an impasse precisely because the foundations of such a consensus are lacking. The Islamists, whether moderate or not, seem unable to resist their impulse to challenge secularism, while secularists, on their part, remain unable to translate their actual societal strength into a political force that can resist the Islamists at the ballot box. As formulated by social democratic commentator Zülfü Livaneli, “the secular democrats in this country are not an insignificant constituency, but they have unfortunately been unable to unite politically.” 

The official custodians of the state’s secularism thus resort to party closure, damaging the image of the Turkish brand of secularism at home as well as internationally. Many of the comments following the latest attempt at closing down the Islamist party – the AKP’s antecedents, the Welfare and Virtue Parties were both successively closed down – indicate a growing appreciation of the democratic unacceptability as well as the long-term impracticability of such measures. However, with the AKP opting for confrontation, the scope for secular moderation will be limited.

The Islamists may be gambling that the secular camp will ultimately, and unlike earlier showdowns, not dare to stand up to them. The judiciary’s investigation of a plot emanating from the “deep state”, with implied connections to the military, serves as a not very veiled warning to the General Staff. But the actions of the AKP can also be interpreted as a deliberate provocation by a party which is seeking – or wanting to appear to seek – martyrdom, a concept that is not alien to the Islamist tradition. Statements such as Arinc’s above-quoted one about death could be indications of such a mind-set.

CONCLUSIONS: Turkey is at a historical turning point. The country could be drifting towards growing authoritarianism, be it either of a religious or a secular shape. Meanwhile, the democratic third way appears increasingly squeezed between the two extremes. 

What is clear is that the AKP has interpreted its landslide victory in the general election of summer 2007 as a green light for Islamicization, and has since acted as if might is by definition right. The secular camp has once again – this time more or less out of desperation – resorted to a counter-measure that will find few supporters internationally, and that will further contribute to the ideological isolation of Turkish secularism from the West. If that seems to be a logical, immediate conclusion in the face of current events, these should not obscure the fact that Turkey’s secular tradition has historically been the vector of Turkey’s Westernization, and thus of its democratization. The current and very peculiar situation in Turkey, where the country’s moderate and centrist secular forces lack strong representation in the political spectrum, and where traditionally pro-Western, secular forces are increasingly tempted by an isolationist neo-nationalism, does not detract from this longer-term reality. It rather raises the question whether or not the secularism of Turkey can reconnect to the West. 

Prime Minister Erdogan has the ultimate power to defuse the crisis and avert Turkey’s descent into chaos. It would go a long way to ease tensions if the government desists from its scheduled plans to tailor the constitution according to its particular needs. In such a case, Erdogan would be hailed as a responsible statesman by broad sections of a relieved Turkish society, and the deliberations of the constitutional court would take place in a radically different political atmosphere.

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The Turkey Analyst is a publication of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Joint Center, designed to bring authoritative analysis and news on the rapidly developing domestic and foreign policy issues in Turkey. It includes topical analysis, as well as a summary of the Turkish media debate.


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