Turkey: The constitutional frontline

Turkey: The constitutional frontline

Opinion piece (Open democracy)
Katinka Barysch
14 April 2008

A legal case against Turkey's ruling party reopens the secular-Islamist argument over the country's future. It's time for wise leadership, says Katinka Barysch.

Turkey is no stranger to political turmoil. The country has experienced four coups since 1960. The current government - in which the Adalet ve Kalkinma Partisi (Justice and Development Party / AKP) has an absolute majority - itself only took over after a falling-out among political leaders triggered economic meltdown in 2001.

The AKP brought six years of rare stability. But tensions have mounted since early 2007, when the army threatened to intervene in case the AKP used its parliamentary majority to make Abdullah Gül (then the AKP's foreign minister) president of the republic as a successor to Ahmet Necdet Sezer. In the event Gül did become president, and the AKP emerged strengthened from an early election in July 2007 (see Gunes Murat Tezcur, "Turkey's political opening", 24 July 2007). However, tensions have not ended. On 14 March 2008, Turkey's chief prosecutor Abdurrahman Yalcinkaya lodged a case with the constitutional court that could end in the proscription of the AKP and its leadership. The party stands accused of undermining Turkey's cherished principle of secularism, in particular by ending the ban on women wearing headscarves in universities (see Soner Cagaptay, "Ankara's Quiet Revolution", Newsweek, 14 April 2008).

A hidden agenda?

If the case proceeds, Turkey will return to political instability. Some of the remarkable progress that the country has made since 2001 towards modernisation, democratisation and economic openness may be undone. The European Union has helped to guide that process, especially since membership talks began in 2005. But it has tried to stay out of the battles between (on one side) the AKP, which has its roots in political Islam, and (on the other) the army and the wider secular establishment. It has been right to do so: Turkey's current travails are part of a more protracted transition to a new political system, no longer reliant on last-minute interventions by the army to save Atatürk's legacy from populist democracy. This is about the right balance between the state and religion in a democracy with a predominantly Muslim population. While some EU countries may want to discreetly offer their own experience, the EU itself has very little to say about secularism.

On 31 March 2008, however, Olli Rehn, the EU's enlargement commissioner, spoke out. He said that the court case was unjustified and that issues such as the performance of the ruling party should be discussed in parliament, not in front of the courts. Both he and Javier Solana, the EU's foreign-policy chief, indicated that the accession negotiations would be affected if the constitutional court banned the AKP.

Many people in Turkey were unhappy about the EU apparently taking sides. They argued that Turkey's western European friends often underestimate the threat of creeping Islamisation (see Gareth Jenkins, Political Islam in Turkey: Running West, Heading East? [Palgrave, 2008]). However, the AKP and its supporters have a point when they say that this court case is political, and therefore merits a political response. The 160-page indictment is based more on past statements by AKP politicians than on their actions. Yet not one of the eleven constitutional judges voted against accepting the case. To many in Turkey, this indicates that the outcome is a foregone conclusion.

The AKP would not be the first party to be banned for allegedly violating the constitution: twenty-four have been shut down since the 1960s, including the AKP's predecessors. But the circumstances have changed. The AKP has built up an impressive track record of reforms and modernisation during its seven years in office. It is popular enough to rule without a coalition partner, a rarity in Turkish politics. If the AKP were closed down, it would reappear in a different guise and probably win another election. However, its top leadership, including prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan - and even Abdullah Gül, the state president - would most likely be banned from politics for years. For an organisation as hierarchical as the AKP, this is hardly an acceptable outcome. Instead, the government is thinking about pushing through a constitutional amendment that would make it harder to ban political parties. AKP leaders refer to the Council of Europe, which has said that only parties that support violence should be outlawed. The AKP does not have quite enough votes in parliament to change the constitution. It would need some support from the nationalist opposition, which would come at a hefty price. Alternatively, the AKP could put any amendment to a referendum, which it would presumably win.

Such a strategy may work, in the sense that it would prevent a "judicial coup" against the government. But it would hardly assuage the concerns of those who suspect the AKP of using democracy as a means to pursue a hidden agenda of Islamisation (see Michael Rubin, "Turkey's Turning Point", National Review Online, 14 April 2008).

That is why liberals in Turkey and some of Turkey's supporters in the west are calling on the government not to amend the old constitution but adopt an entirely new, more modern one. They are right that a move to make it harder to ban political parties would be more acceptable as part of a wider reform package. The AKP needs to find a way of rekindling the implicit bargain between itself and Turkey's liberals, who have grudgingly backed the party because of its modernising and pro-EU agenda but have lately become disillusioned.

It is also true that Turkey needs a new constitution: the current one was effectively written by the military in 1982, after the last coup. The AKP started that process last year, by asking a handful of legal experts to work out a new draft constitution that strengthens individual rights and the role of the parliament. Since then, however, this draft has disappeared from view, and AKP promises for a nationwide constitutional debate have so far remained unfulfilled. Instead, the AKP has started doing constitutional change a la carte - most notably by ending the headscarf ban. That was a mistake.

A time to listen

However, it would be equally misguided for the AKP to hastily adopt a new constitution now in an attempt to ensure its own political survival. Such a document would lack legitimacy. Turkey first needs a wider debate in which all voices are represented. Constitutional change is simply too important for the future stability of Turkey to be rushed.

There are other steps the AKP can take to bolster its reformist credentials; and it is taking some already. Recep Tayyip Erdogan has recently been talking more about the government's commitment to European Union accession than he had done in a long time. After years of delay, a group of MPs has finally submitted amendments to the controversial Article 301, under which writers such as Orhan Pamuk have been prosecuted for "insulting Turkishness". There is much more that the AKP could do, from liberalising rules for other religions to promoting women's rights and making it easier for smaller parties to get funding and parliamentary representation.

On 10 April 2008, the president of the European commission arrived in Turkey. José Manuel Barroso explained to the Turks that - unfortunately - the EU could not offer an easy way out of their current dilemma. He also backed the view that whatever the AKP decided to do would be more acceptable if the government also restarted reforms and accession preparations, which have been languishing for two years. If the AKP listens to this advice, the current court dilemma may even take the country forward, rather than back to the bad old days of political turmoil.