BACKGROUND: Nothing is where it is supposed to be – or where it was surmised to be after the decisive victory of the neo-Islamic Justice and Development Party, AKP in 2007. It was thought, or feared, that having acquired a strong electoral mandate, the party would now feel free to implement its “real agenda”, especially after the election Abdullah Gül as president, despite strong resistance from the secularist quarters.
During the first five years of AKP rule, the office of the presidency, then held by Ahmet Necdet Sezer, was considered to be the final safety valve of the secularist system. Almost anything could happen now that Sezer was gone. As result, the attempt by the re-elected AKP to draft a brand new constitution was perceived in this framework and led to automatic resistance. As the country was polarized, the discussion was immediately politicized. The opposition narrowed its objections to a limited number of proposed articles that had a bearing on secularism; the foremost of which was the ban on Islamic headscarves in university campuses. This being the traditional red line between the staunch secularists and the dedicated Islamists, the debate became increasingly acrimonious. The AKP, which had stayed clear of the issue because of its potential ramifications during its first term, seemed hesitant until one day Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan upped the ante in an ad-lib speech by saying “What if headscarves are a political symbol. Such symbols cannot be banned in democracies!” These remarks generated a fierce debate. The Nationalist Movement Party, the MHP, also favoring the lifting of the ban, quickly extended a helping hand to the AKP. The AKP could not back out. The constitution was hastily amended.
However, collaboration with the MHP in the National Assembly proved near-disastrous for the AKP in the medium term. Not only was the constitutional amendment nullified as unconstitutional by the Constitutional Court, it was also placed in the AKP file as strong evidence of its anti-secularist intentions. The AKP barely survived the case for its closure in the Constitutional Court, where the Court did find it guilty of anti-secularist activities.
These two decisions redrew the Turkish political map and has taken the wind out of AKP’s sails. In the new map, the AKP’s room for maneuver seems to be seriously curtailed. The headscarf issue is even more risky now than before, after the rulings of the Constitutional court. Having been shown a yellow card, so to speak, by the high court, the AKP has to watch its steps in matters that are related to religion and secularism.
What is even more important, the Constitutional Court has made it clear that all constitutional amendments passed by the National Assembly are under its jurisdiction lest they contain elements pertaining to the first, four “unchangeable” articles of the constitution. The AKP’s supporters have objected to this interpretation, arguing that this would be tantamount to a government by judges rather than by the parliament which represents the people’s will. Others, supporting the decision, have responded by stating that such judicial limitations are a natural outcome of the checks and balances of modern democracies. In either case, in terms of maneuvering room and compared to what it enjoyed when it came to power in 2002, the AKP has effectively lost ground.
Obviously, Prime Minister Erdoğan is frustrated, as he is able to do nothing more than advice patience to his grass roots backers (a virtue, though, in Islamic faith) “until the fruit ripens”. His intellectual supporters, both Islamist and liberal, on the other hand, have begun work to remove the immediate obstacles, i.e. the powers of the Constitutional Court and the “unchangeable” articles of the constitution. There are even those who go so far as calling for the outright abolition of the Constitutional Court in a new constitution. Likewise, the existence of “unchangeable articles” in a democratic constitution is questioned, although those who do question them have been quick to point out that they have no quarrel with the content itself of those articles. (That Turkey is a secular, democratic, social republic adhering to rule of law.) Notably, the Chief Justice of the Constitutional court, Hasim Kilic, has himself called for a discussion about the “unchangeable” articles. It looks like this debate will simmer in the backburner for a while.
And while the debate simmers and the fruit “ripens”, to cite Prime Minister Erdogan, what is the governing party to do? Just fill time? In a dynamic society like Turkey, where high level crisis management skills are constantly called for, disorientation may prove costly, especially at a time when a global economic disaster is unfolding. During its first term, or rather during the first three years of its first term, the AKP was lucky enough to have inherited a program for action from the outside: The economic stability program of former Economy minister Kemal Derviş, based on World Bank-IMF precepts, and the political reform program of the European Union, comprising of the fulfillment of the Copenhagen criteria. Yet, once these goals were achieved, the AKP started to waver as if it did not know what more to do in way of economic and political reforms. Now, this uncertainty has been further exacerbated as a result of the restraints that the recent rulings of the Constitutional Court inevitably imply.
IMPLICATIONS: The AKP seems to be zigzagging or spinning to the right; most notably, it is using a fiercely nationalist rhetoric against the Kurdish nationalists. Some liberal supporters have expressed disappointment in Erdoğan for “cozying up” to the military on the Kurdish issue. The disappointed liberals say the party of their hopes, which was making a “heroic” move against the “deep state”, has now been “nationalized” by the state.
What they are referring to is obviously the Ergenekon case, allegedly filed to prosecute (former) members of the Turkish deep state who stand accused of having tried to create an atmosphere of anarchy, in turn to pave the way for a military coup. Prime Minister Erdoğan has given strong support to the case, even stating that he is indeed one of its chief prosecutors. Meanwhile, the leader of the opposition Republican people’s party (CHP), Deniz Baykal, has declared himself a defender of the “wrongly accused”. Thus, the case is deeply politicized. And it has come under criticism for dilution and lack of focus, as wave of arrests have expanded to such unlikely hitmen and coup-mongers as film stars and transvestite singers.
Operations against the deep state are obviously always sensitive and risky undertakings. The question “How deep should we go?” is intricately problematic. If the cut does not go deep enough, then the malignant growth cannot be removed. If it goes too deep, one runs the risk of harming adjacent organs. There is always a real possibility that the growth may have spread too far or that the operation may get out of control. One of the hitmen of the secret paramilitary groups that carried out death squad raids against the PKK and other leftist terrorist organizations in the mid-1990s, when Tansu Çiller was Prime Minister, recently appeared on a television newscast and said he was ready to pay a price for what he had done, provided his superiors who gave him his orders were also held accountable. He said those superiors included civilians and politicians. Who might they be? Police chiefs, governors, ministers, even prime ministers? When Pandora’s box is opened, it is probably impossible to control the chain of culpability. It is likely that other alleged hitmen who are standing trial in the Ergenekon case may use the same reasoning if they conclude that they are being singled out for the sins of others. It is highly unlikely that the political establishment – of which the AKP is increasingly becoming a part – is brave enough to go that far.
Anyway, the case is proceeding ponderously with lessening public interest and is likely to last for several months, if not years. In the meantime, the AKP’s state of disorientation and shift to the nationalist right seems to have created maneuvering room for the opposition parties. The main opposition Republican people’s party’s invitation to devout believers in Islamic garb to join their ranks is one example. Likewise, the MHP’s changed stance vis-à-vis the Alevis has come as a surprise to many. Obviously, both parties are trying to expand their political base at the expense of the disoriented AKP. The AKP’s monopoly of flags may be coming to an end.
CONCLUSIONS: In my book “Liberaller, Ulusalcılar, Islamcılar ve Ötekiler” (Liberals, nationalists, Islamists and the Others) I pointed out that one of the reasons behind the huge success of the AKP was its zeal for capturing political flags of all colors, whether deserved or not. The party unabashedly reached out in all directions. As a result, it seemed to be marching behind many flags including those of “religious freedom”, economic development, membership in the European Union, democracy, modernization, liberalization, even social justice. By contrast, the CHP, the traditional agent of Westernization and modernization in Turkey, confined itself to a single flag, that of secularism, while the MHP stood behind its standard banner, Turkish nationalism. The recent moves by CHP and MHP indicate that they are no longer pleased with this imbalance. They are mustering up courage to engage in forays into new lands.
Are these just cosmetic moves on the eve of the local elections or is the ideological deck of Turkish politics being reshuffled? It seems likely that the latter is true, even though we have must until we have the results of the March 29 elections to make more definitive statements.
AUTHOR’S BIO: Haluk Sahin is Professor of Journalism at Istanbul Bilgi University and a columnist in the daily Radikal. He has recently published “Liberaller, Ulusalcilar, Islamcilar ve Ötekiler”, a book about the ideological paradigm shift in Turkish politics.