Turkey’s Constitutional Dilema

Date: 05-01-2008 | Category: Articles, Middle East

This year the Turkish Constitutional Court will hear a crucial petition aimed at banning the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), including its leader, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, President Abdullah Gul, and 70 more AKP politicians. This will be the fifth petition in the history of the court to prohibit political parties. It granted four in the past. The flashpoint for this petition, filed by state prosecutor Abdel Rahman Yalcinkaya is the hijab (head covering worn by women from traditional or conservative Islamic backgrounds). The secular Turkish republic, founded by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk in the 1920s outlawed the hijab, which was seen as a symbol of women’s oppression, from schools and other public spaces. The AKP wants to allow wearing of the hijab in colleges, and possibly in government offices in the future. Other Islamization agenda items being pushed by the AKP include criminalizing adultery and facilitating access to (secular) universities for graduates of religious schools. Secularists are concerned that the Islamists may also move to impose gender-segregated medicine. The hijab and other issues introduced by the AKP to press its Islamization agenda have caused deep concern among the secular, mostly nationalist Turkish elite and state bureaucrats, who believe that the AKP is instigating creeping Islamization of the Turkish republic. Most Turks do not want to live in a Sharia (Islamic law) state or to become another Iran. The extremist wing of the AKP and 7-8 percent of the Turkish population probably do. Yet Turkey’s problems are far from being cut-and-dry. Banning the AKP or allowing it to continue unencumbered may both be bad choices, astute Turkish political observers believe. First, there is the issue of popular legitimacy. The AKP gained 47 percent in the last parliamentary elections – a broad popular mandate. It is easy to ban a small, radical party. It is difficult to ban the ruling party with a second-term cabinet, a popular prime minister, and a newly elected president. Second, a judiciary crackdown will undoubtedly bring cries of "persecution of Muslims" from the AKP – a powerful mobilizing factor in the next elections. Instead of undermining the AKP, the court may hand it a victory. Third, there is the issue of southeast Turkey. There, the AKP and the Kurdish Democratic Society Party (DTP) – with ties to the terrorist Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK)– are splitting the vote. Banning the AKP may hand DTP (and PKK) an electoral victory in the municipal elections scheduled for the fall of this year, and beyond. Lastly, the Constitutional Court would have had a strong case if clear evidence of a conspiracy existed, such as documents outlining a coup plan, tape recordings of a plot to overthrow the existing secular republic, or blatantly subversive links with foreign regimes or terrorist organizations. Instead, the court will deal with an amorphous agenda, which indicates the general direction that the AKP is going, but seems to lack a clear evidentiary base. The international repercussions of the case are enormous. The vast majority of the Turkish elite want their country in the European Union. The AKP has done much to accomplish this elusive goal despite resistance in many European quarters. The EU and the European governments have clearly indicated that if the court bans the AKP, it will set back Turkish membership for years, if not forever. The United States values its strategic relationship with a stable Turkey, which is developing toward a genuine democracy. Many in Washington would be uncomfortable with either an Islamizing Turkey, or with a military/judiciary coup or the return of a dictatorship. Yet, preservation of the republic and repulsing the threats, both external and internal, is the top priority for Turkey’s state guardians: lawyers, judges, military officers, and security services commanders. They will ignore foreign protests if their state is at peril. As the AKP may be appointing justices sympathetic to its cause to the Constitutional Court, and/or meddling with military and security services appointments, the "deep state" may think they are running out of time to save Atatürk’s vision and legacy. The best thing the Constitutional Court could do is use a laser scalpel, not a sledgehammer. It could sanction the AKP and block its efforts at Islamization, yet not ban the party and destroy the democratic foundations of the state. For example, the court could ban a handful of the most notorious AKP politicians, without outlawing the popular Messrs. Erdogan and Gul; it could deny the AKP state funds for implementation of its Islamization agenda; and warn the cabinet not to ignore the country’s secular spirit and legacy. Turkey is a vital ally of the United States in a region wrought with danger. Washington is well advised to stay out of Turkey’s existential crisis and let the court settle the matter as best it can. Americans should respect Turkey’s maturity and independence. Yet, Washington should emphasize its desire to steadfastly maintain the alliance with Ankara in the NATO framework, as well as nurture the robust bilateral relations between the two countries – in trade, investment and security.

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