Turkey faces a looming constitutional crisis arising from the constitutional court’s unanimous decision to consider the chief prosecutor’s case for banning the ruling Justice and Development (AK) Party. Some 70 individuals, including the prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and the president, Abdullah Gul, will be barred from politics for at least five years. The case threatens to undermine the reform process linked to Turkey’s efforts to join the European Union.
The 162-page indictment recommends that the AKP be closed on the grounds that it has violated the constitution by becoming “a focal point for anti-secular activities.” Article 2 of the constitution, which cannot be amended, mandates that Turkey is a secular state. Since being returned to office in July 2007′s landslide election victory, the AKP government has offended and alienated the traditional secular Kemalist elite by permitting Islamic headscarves on college campuses and by initiating constitutional reform.
EU accession appealed to the Kemalist dream of modernisation, says Istanbul-based journalist Andrew Finkel. But the reforms required to incorporate the EU’s 80,000 page acquis communautaire and the perception of European backtracking on Turkish accession have prompted a neo-nationalist backlash. While some liberals are more concerned to protect secularism, few will countenance military intervention. “No Sharia, No Coup” is the position of Turkish democrats, equally opposed to military rule as they are to an Islamic republic, says Richard Holbrooke.
Events took an ominous turn after revelations of a conspiracy by ultra-right groups led to the arrests of 47 activists and retired army officers. The Ergenekon investigation into a series of attacks, including the murder of Turkish Armenian journalist Hrant Dink, appears to have exposed a neo-nationalist “strategy of tension” on the part of Turkey’s “deep state” to destabilize the country and depose the AKP government. “Ergenekon is a structure targeting the Justice and Development Party and the EU process,” says journalist ?amil Tayyar, “using all kinds of illegal methods to reach their aims.”
The affair has exposed deep divisions within Turkish politics and society. “The cleavage is deep: every institution, every social class, everybody is divided,” said Professor Murat Belge of Bigli University, Istanbul. “I am deeply apprehensive about what is going on now and what might happen.”
The conspiracy reveals “a psyche that is based on a new and extreme nationalism,” according to Cengiz Candar , a leading journalist. “The idea is that to preserve Turkey it is necessary and legitimate to resist in any way. And anyone who is pro-European, liberal, who argues for increased rights for minorities and so on is a traitor.”
The Kemalist elite see themselves as the guardian of the secular state even in defiance of democratic sentiment – “For the people, despite the people.” They resent the eastward shift in the axis of power to the country’s Anatolian heartland and the empowerment of the AKP’s largely rural and small town base. “Secular urban forces headed by the army look at these people as if they were aliens from outer space,” notes Dogu Ergil, a sociology professor at Ankara University. “But they are the products of the very regime that left them out.”
The current constitution, drafted by the military after the 1980 coup, fails to meet the European Union’s Copenhagen Criteria for EU membership. A working group of largely liberal experts is drafting a constitution that will meet EU standards for protecting individual rights. The working group, led by Ergun Ozbudun, a professor of constitutional law at Ankara’s Bilkent University, presented its draft constitution in September 2007, after consultations with legal associations, universities, NGOs and journalists.
Neo-nationalists and secularists are offended that the Ozbudun draft amended the current constitution’s preamble and its reference to “the reforms and principles introduced by the founder of the Republic of Turkey, Ataturk, the immortal leader and the unrivalled hero” and its affirmation of “the eternal existence of the Turkish nation and motherland and the indivisible unity of the Turkish state.”
By contrast, and in line with EU requirements, the Ozbudun draft’s proposed preamble is less statist, stressing individual rights, tolerance and diversity. Yet it still makes concession to Kemalist sentiment, recognizing “national unity as the basis and devises rules and institutions of the democratic and secular republic” and noting that the constitution will be “adopted with the free will of the Turkish nation as a symbol of devotion to the target of a modern civilization set by the founder of the republic, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk.”
The Constitutional Court’s decision is “an ominous sign,” suggests an analysis from the European Stability Initiative. But Turkish democrats and supporters of EU integration still have the options to await the judgment and trust the judiciary’s integrity; implement constitutional changes to prevent closure of the AKP; or pass a new liberal constitution that breaks the authoritarian mould.
“In 50 years, people will write that this was the time Turkey started to come to terms with its own people,” suggests AKP parliamentary deputy Suat Kiniklioglu. Formerly a foreign policy expert with the German Marshall Fund, Kiniklioglu was one of several liberals recruited to the AKP in an attempt to broaden its base.
If Turkey is facing an existential question, it is not about “whether and to what extent the secular democratic republic established by Atatürk’s principles and vision will prevail.” Rather, it is about whether the Kemalist establishment can accommodate itself to a more inclusive, liberal and pluralist dispensation and accept that democracy need not be married to its rigid interpretation of secularism.
The “real question behind the crisis is what sort of democracy will prevail in Turkey,” argues the AKP’s Kiniklioglu, “one under a secular elite with an authoritarian flavor, or an open and transparent democracy under Muslim democrats.”