April 30, 2008
Is the ruling party of Prime Minister Erdoğan a threat to Turkish democracy? Five experts share their thoughts.
Turkey’s Constitutional Court has agreed to hear a lawsuit brought against the ruling Justice and Development Party (known by its Turkish acronym, “AKP”). This lawsuit would ban the party from politics for five years and would remove the prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, from office. Does that amount to an assault on Turkish democracy? Or does the AKP itself represent a threat to Turkey’s secular and democratic institutions? THE AMERICAN asked five experts. Here are their responses.
“Does that amount to an assault on Turkish democracy?” My answer is simply “yes.” What the Constitutional Court has been asked to do is close down a political party which got 47 percent of the vote in last July’s elections. This means sweeping aside the political will of almost half of the nation and replacing democracy with “juristocracy.”
Of course, the chief prosecutor and the secularist elite who support him present a justification for this extremely unusual case: they say that the AKP is an Islamist party which threatens the secular regime. Thus, the whole issue is perceived by some as a battle between “Islamists” and “secularists,” which naturally implies that the former must be the bad guys and the latter the good ones, in terms of democracy and freedom.
But that is not accurate—because the terms “Islamist” and “secularist” are both quite misleading in this case.
First of all, Turkey’s secularism is one of a kind, and it has almost no resemblance to the separation of church and state in the United States. In Turkey, secularism means that the state can dominate and control religion. Secularism protects only the state, in other words, not religion.
Turkey’s secularist establishment even speaks of the need to protect the society from religion. “The secularism principle,” Turkey’s Constitutional Court argued in a 1989 decision, “requires that the society should be kept away from thoughts and judgments that are not based on science and reason.” (This is also quoted in the indictment against the AKP.)
Turkey’s secularists abhor “moderate Islam” as much as radical Islam. Indeed, they see any sort of religious influence on society as a threat to “modernity.” According to Princeton historian Sükrü Hanioglu, the extreme secularism of the Turkish Republic is rooted in the “vulgar materialism” of late-19th-century Germany, which heralded a post-religious age of “science and reason.” This philosophy, which was emulated by some of the Young Turks and was inherited by most of their republican successors, has become the cornerstone of the official state ideology. That ideology, often called “Kemalism,” also includes a very staunch nationalism, a belief in a protected and state-regulated economy, and, as foreign visitors to Turkey will notice, a cult of personality created around the county’s founder, Kemal Atatürk.
This ideology tolerates no “deviation,” and therefore political parties in Turkey need not be “Islamist” to clash with the secularist establishment. The Kemalists launched a military coup in 1960 against the center-right Democratic Party, which had made Turkey a NATO member and brought in foreign (mostly American) capital. During the coup era, Prime Minister Adnan Menderes was executed after a show trial. Today, many Turkish democrats see the AKP case as the latest example of a state tradition in which the Kemalist establishment cracks down on any deviation from the official line.
It is certainly true that the AKP comes from an Islamist political line, but party members have denounced the old-line Islamists and insisted on defining themselves as “conservative democrats.” In the past five years, they have enacted liberal reforms, accelerated the European Union accession process, and expanded free markets. The cadres of the party are still religiously conservative, and the old rhetoric sometimes surfaces among them, but in general the party has pursued a transition from Islamism to a genuinely democratic stance.
The secularist argument, which is also in the indictment, is that the AKP has a “hidden agenda.” But the evidence is far from persuasive. All of the alleged “crimes” listed in the indictment are nothing more than demands for more religious freedom. These include Erdoğan’s June 2005 remarks to CNN’s Wolf Blitzer: “My daughters can go to American universities with their headscarf. There is religious freedom in your country, and we want to bring the same thing to Turkey.” In another “criminal” statement, made in London in September 2005, Erdoğan said, “My dream is a Turkey in which veiled and unveiled girls will go to the campus hand in hand.”
The other secularist argument is that if conservative believers are given religious freedom, this will be the beginning of a slippery slope that leads to a sharia state. But how can one expect pious Muslims to accept perpetual second-class status? No Turkish university, private or public, accepts students with headscarves, and the AKP’s major “crime” was trying to set them free.
A final note: A few commentators in Washington have blamed the AKP for Turkey’s rampant anti-Americanism. But compared to its chief rivals, the AKP is in fact the most pro-American party in today’s Turkey. Indeed, the ultra-secularists constantly accuse it of being an “American puppet.” (A recent Kemalist bestseller depicts Erdoğan as a crypto-Jew who serves the “Elders of Zion.”) No wonder that the chief prosecutor, in his indictment, attacks not only Prime Minister Erdoğan’s party, but also the U.S. government, which supposedly tries to create “moderate Islamic regimes” in the Middle East in order to “rule” the whole region.
The truth is that Turkey has been breeding a remarkable strain of “moderate Islam” for several decades, but the secularists, whose rigid ideology is a relic from the 1930s, are now trying to crush it by authoritarian means. Their success will be Turkey’s loss. It will also be a setback for Muslim democrats around the world.
Mustafa Akyol is a columnist for the Turkish Daily News.
Determining whether the lawsuit brought to Turkey’s Constitutional Court amounts to “an assault on Turkish democracy” requires an examination of the conditions out of which the need for such a lawsuit arises.
No one who believes in democracy would be happy to see a ruling party which tallied 47 percent of the vote in the last elections face closure and its charismatic leader be barred from political life for five years. Nevertheless, party closure lawsuits may sometimes be necessary to protect democracy.
The Turkish political system appears to be based on a separation of powers among the executive, legislative, and judicial branches. But the reality is murkier.
Since November 2002, the Turkish parliament has been controlled by the Justice and Development Party (AKP). Ironically, the 34 percent of the vote won by the AKP in 2002 corresponded to 363 seats in parliament, while the 47 percent it won in 2007 corresponded to only 340 seats. This highlights one of the problems with Turkish election law.
Under the Turkish system, parties obtaining 10 percent of the nationwide vote get to enter the parliament. If a party falls short of the 10 percent threshold, then those votes are wasted—they do not go to another party. This causes a defect in the representation scheme.
However, the lack of proper representation is overshadowed by a more significant dilemma that undermines faith in Turkish democracy. Quite simply, Turkish voters are not granted the opportunity to elect their own parliamentary members. Instead, they vote for an individual party but then must let the party choose its own representatives. Nor is the intra-party selection process democratic: the party leader determines who the representatives will be.
Thus, Turkish voters lack a direct voice in the very institution that is supposed to represent them. When a single party wins a national election and its leader becomes the prime minister, as happened with the AKP, the prime minister essentially controls both the executive and legislative branches, leaving only the judicial branch to “check and balance.”
The AKP government had a chance to implement the necessary democratic reforms—which Turkish voters expected—yet it failed to act. Now the lawsuit has given Prime Minister Erdoğan a golden opportunity to prove that the case against the AKP is not justified. The government should move to change Turkish political party and election laws and give the people a real say in choosing their parliamentary representatives. If the AKP enacted a genuine reform package, it would ease the fears that Erdoğan & Co. secretly want to eradicate Turkish democracy in favor of an Islamic state.
The indictment by Turkey’s chief prosecutor, right or wrong, reflects the concerns of millions of Turkish voters—at least half of the country. The judicial process may turn out to be a blessing in disguise for the AKP, assuming the party’s goal really is to improve Turkish democracy, as Erdoğan has stated numerous times. Initiating work on a new Turkish constitution that embraces all different viewpoints and beliefs may be the perfect recipe to resolve the present crisis. Turkey just needs for Erdoğan and his party to lead in the right direction.
Okan Altıparmak is a Turkish filmmaker based in Istanbul and Los Angeles.
“Is this lawsuit compatible with democracy?” is only one of four questions that ought to be asked. The other three are: Is it legally coherent, is it reasonable, and is it wise? The answer to the first question is “sort of.” The answers to the others are, in turn, “not really,” “not really,” and “no.”
Less than a year ago, the AKP won 47 percent of the vote in an election generally agreed to be reasonably free and fair. Obviously, the attempt to ban the party, eject the prime minister, and bar 71 of its senior figures from political activity for the next five years is not consonant with the will of the plurality of the Turkish public. In this sense, it is not democratic. But the United States is not democratic in this sense either. American courts can and do overturn unconstitutional legislation, even legislation with wide popular support.
The prosecutor argues that the AKP has violated the Turkish constitution, which was ratified by popular referendum in 1982. The constitution says clearly—in Article 68—that political parties may not “violate the principles of a democratic and secular republic.” It also says—in Article 69—that if they do, they are to be dissolved by the Constitutional Court and banned from politics for five years.
The preamble to the constitution defines secularism in the narrowest imaginable terms: “There shall be no interference whatsoever by sacred religious feelings in state affairs and politics.” According to Article 24, “No one shall be allowed to exploit or abuse religion or religious feelings, or things held sacred by religion, in any manner whatsoever, for the purpose of personal or political influence, or for even partially basing the fundamental, social, economic, political, and legal order of the state on religious tenets.”
In other words, even to print the phrase “In God We Trust” on a coin would violate this definition of secularism. It would thus be entirely consonant with the Turkish constitution to bar from political life any politician who discussed his religious beliefs in the manner that every mainstream American politician does.
This constitution is a remarkably confused document, however, because the very same Article 24 states that “Education and instruction in religion and ethics shall be conducted under state supervision and control.” It adds that “Instruction in religious culture and moral education shall be compulsory in the curricula of primary and secondary schools.” How do you reconcile an absolute prohibition on the “interference of sacred religious feelings in state affairs” with compulsory religious education under state auspices? I have no idea. No one here does.
Then you have the perplexing Article 136, which insists that the government’s Department of Religious Affairs “shall exercise its duties…in accordance with the principle of secularism.” If you cannot see how a Department of Religious Affairs could even exist, much less function, under this definition of secularism, you are not alone.
To ensure complete confusion, you can also find a justification for the AKP’s less restrictive interpretation of secularism in the constitution. Article 24 states that every Turkish citizen “has the right to freedom of conscience, religious belief and conviction.” So even though the AKP has moved to lift the ban on wearing headscarves in universities (this is the gravamen of the prosecutor’s case), it is not entirely obvious that this is unconstitutional. If it is unconstitutional, it is not clear that it should be.
What we have, in other words, is a constitutional mess.
So is the lawsuit an assault on democracy? Not completely, in the sense that it appeals to a democratically-ratified constitution (although in 1982, Turkey was ruled by a military junta, and no public debate on the constitution was permitted). Is it legally coherent? In the logical sense that you can derive anything from a contradiction, yes; otherwise, not really.
Is the lawsuit reasonable? Not really. It is reasonable to be concerned about the AKP’s intentions. Many of its senior figures rose to prominence in the now-banned Refah Party, which unquestionably did represent a threat to Turkish democracy and secularism. The founder of Refah, Necmettin Erbakan, is an anti-Semitic loon who less than a year ago declared that 200 of the world’s countries were controlled by “racist, imperialist Zionism,” deplored Jewish control of the world’s monetary system, and insisted that Jews collect 9 percent of global airline ticket proceeds. That so many of the AKP’s senior figures were once allies of this malignant buffoon should give any reasonable observer pause.
The AKP leadership has renounced its earlier political affiliations and claims now to be in favor of secularism (albeit secularism defined less restrictively). Thus far, AKP governance has been nothing like the Taliban and nothing like Iranian theocracy. There is virtually no popular support in Turkey for the implementation of Islamic law. These points have been widely reported.
Less widely reported—and more reassuring, in my view—is this: the senior figures of the AKP have fallen out, spectacularly, with Erbakan. Believe me when I say that in Turkey, a “falling out” entails a very considerable degree of hostility. To say that the AKP rose from the Refah ranks and is therefore still of those ranks involves a misunderstanding on the order of saying that Christopher Hitchens rose from the British Left and would therefore still be welcome at The New Statesman’s cocktail parties. No, the breach is serious and probably permanent. Encouragingly, Erbakan’s Saadet Partesi—which, unlike the AKP, is clearly just a reconstituted species of the Refah—leaves the Turkish public cold; it captured only 2.5 percent of the vote in the last general election.
Given the thoroughness of the constitutional mess, the widespread popular support for the AKP, and the prosecutor’s inability to assemble a compelling, unambiguous case that the AKP intends to destroy Turkish democracy and secularism, the Court’s actions strike me as unwise. Its maneuverings are unlikely to lead to a durable, stable solution to the problem of reconciling the religious sentiments of the majority of Turkish citizens with safeguards against religious tyranny. The lawsuit has already thrown the country into economic chaos. The 47 percent of the population who voted for the AKP (mostly, according to opinion polls, on economic grounds) will hardly be encouraged by these developments to repose their confidence in the ballot box as an instrument of political change.
The solution ultimately must lie in constitutional reform (which the AKP should be promoting, but isn’t) and in the creation of competent, viable opposition parties with broad popular appeal (which Turks who are concerned about the AKP should be forming, but aren’t). Absent these steps, it is hard to believe that any party to this debate has really grasped the meaning of “constitutional democracy.”
Claire Berlinski is a writer living in Istanbul. Her latest book, “There is No Alternative: Why Margaret Thatcher Matters,” will be published in September by Basic Books.
Later this year, the Turkish Constitutional Court will hear a petition aiming to ban from politics the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and many of its most prominent members, including Turkey’s prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, its president, Abdullah Gül, and several dozen more AKP politicians. Since its establishment in 1962, the Court has heard no fewer than four other petitions to prohibit political parties. It has granted all of them.
The trigger for the latest petition, filed by Abdurrahman Yalçınkaya, the Turkish state prosecutor, was the AKP’s push to allow the wearing of the hijab (head cover) in Turkish universities. The hijab row has caused deep concern among the secular, mostly nationalist elite and state bureaucracy, who believe that the AKP is instigating a creeping “Islamization” of the Turkish Republic. Most Turks do not want to live under sharia law and do not want their country to become another Iran. The extremist wing of the AKP, along with 7 to 8 percent of the Turkish population, probably does.
However, banning the party would provoke a massive controversy. First, there is the issue of popular legitimacy. The AKP won 47 percent of the vote in the last parliamentary elections, giving it a broad popular mandate. It may be easy to ban a small, radical party, but it is very difficult to ban a ruling party with a second-term cabinet, a popular prime minister, and a newly elected president.
Second, a judiciary crackdown will undoubtedly prompt AKP supporters to howl about the “persecution of Muslims,” creating a powerful mobilizing factor for the next elections.
Third, there is the issue of southeast Turkey. In this region, the AKP is splitting the vote with the Kurdish DTP party, which has ties to the PKK terrorist group. Banning the AKP would help the DTP to perform well in the 2008 municipal elections, scheduled for this coming fall.
The Turkish state prosecutor would have a stronger case against the AKP if clear evidence of a conspiracy existed, such as documents outlining a coup plan, tape recordings of a plot to overthrow the secular republic, or blatantly subversive links to foreign regimes or terrorist organizations. Instead, the AKP has an amorphous agenda: parts of its platform smack of Islamization, but the Court lacks a clear evidentiary base to banish it from politics.
The international repercussions of this case are enormous. The vast majority of elite Turks want their country to join the European Union. The AKP has done much to promote Turkey’s accession, despite resistance from many European quarters. The EU and European governments have clearly indicated that if the Court bans the AKP, it will set back Turkish EU membership for years, if not indefinitely.
At the same time, preserving the republic and repulsing threats both external and internal is the top priority for Turkey’s state guardians: lawyers, judges, military officers, and security commanders. They will ignore foreign protests if they feel their country is in peril.
In deciding the AKP case, the Constitutional Court should use a laser scalpel, not a sledgehammer. It could place a sanction on the AKP and block its efforts at Islamization, yet not ban the party and not destroy the democratic foundations of the Turkish state. The Court could bar a handful of the most notorious AKP politicians, but not the popular Erdoğan and Gül. It could deny the AKP state funds for implementation of its Islamization agenda. It could 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 it the best way it can. Americans should respect Turkey’s maturity and independence. But Washington should also emphasize its desire to maintain robust bilateral relations.
Ariel Cohen is a senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation.
The legal case against the AKP is an affirmation of democracy rather than an assault upon it. Democracy rests upon the rule of law and constitutionalism. Neither plurality support nor a majority in parliament should place any politician or party above the law.
The AKP deserves credit for the economic growth that has occurred under its stewardship and for supporting Turkey’s accession into the European Union. There is no doubt that the AKP has revolutionized Turkish politics. In the 2002 election, it trounced the more established parties by out-campaigning them. The AKP has earned its reputation for serving its constituents.
Popularity and democracy are not synonymous, though. Turkish constitutionalism separates religion from party politics in order to preserve democracy. Prime Minister Erdoğan has abused this separation. He has eroded the distinction between religious and public education, sought to retire forcibly several thousand secular judges who questioned his party’s interpretations of the constitution, and then moved to replace those judges with AKP apparatchiks. He also has instituted an interview process—controlled by party loyalists—designed to evaluate government technocrats on the basis of religiosity rather than merit. Turkish Air employees have even been quizzed on their belief in the Koran.
No party or prime minister in Turkey’s history has been so hostile to the press. Erdoğan has sued dozens of journalists and editors. In a strategy borrowed from Iran, he has confiscated newspapers—such as Sabah, the national daily—which he deemed too critical or independent, and transferred their control to political allies. Journalists such as Vatan’s Can Ataklı and Reha Muhtar, television commentator Nihat Genç, Sky Turk’s Serdar Akinan, and Kanal Türk’s Tuncay Özkan are now under fire either for their own criticism or, in the case of the television announcers, for their guests’ criticism of the ruling party.
Erdoğan has treated courts, both international and domestic, with disdain. After the European Court of Human Rights decided against permitting headscarves in Turkish universities, he declared that “only ulama [Islamic religious scholars] could” issue such a judgment. In several instances, Erdoğan has refused to uphold the Supreme Court’s decisions when it ruled against the AKP’s confiscation of political opponents’ property. In a moment reminiscent of Henry II, a follower gunned down a justice after the prime minister launched a fusillade against the Court.
Both AKP supporters and Western officials unfamiliar with the AKP’s record paint the Court’s actions as undemocratic. AKP supporters argue that the party represents democracy, and they seek to equate any opposition—be it secular, nationalist, or judicial—as fascist. This is unfair. Ultra-nationalists who do not abide by the law find themselves in court, just as the AKP now does. The military has stayed on the sideline, as it should. Declaring its support for the constitution in a written statement is not a coup.
Turkey is not alone in holding politicians legally accountable. In April 2000, the European Parliament suspended French demagogue Jean-Marie Le Pen; soon afterward, Austrian politician Jörg Haider also faced sanction. The global community does not allow Hamas’s popularity among the Palestinians to absolve it of responsibilities under international law.
True democracy requires respect for the judicial process. Let Erdoğan have his day in court. We should respect the results as a sign that Turkey’s democracy has matured.
Michael Rubin is resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.