Turkey’s Courts Should Respect the Will of the People

Mark R. Parris
Mark R. Parris Former Brookings Expert

May 17, 2008

You’d hardly know it from the muted reaction in Washington or the nonexistent press coverage, but a key U.S. ally and one of the Middle East’s most important democracies is sliding inexorably toward crisis. Turkey’s constitutional court is currently considering arguments for closing down the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), and banning its top leadership from politics for threatening the secular nature of the Turkish state.

The court’s action can arguably be justified under the Turkish Constitution’s proscription against political parties’ violating “the principles of a democratic and secular republic.” The language is vague, and the constitution is widely condemned in Turkey as an outmoded document dictated by the military a quarter century ago — but there is a patina of compatibility here with the rule of law.

Nor can one overlook the behavior of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, chairman of the AKP, since his Islamic-rooted party’s landslide victory last July. Contrary to his postelection commitment to be the prime minister of all Turkey’s citizens, he has narrowed his circle of advisers, failed to follow through on promised economic and political reforms (including an overhaul of the constitution), and displayed a disturbing degree of paranoia toward Turkey’s press and civil society. He has also allowed himself to be maneuvered by the nationalist opposition into a premature — if not inevitable — showdown over the right of religiously observant university women to wear headscarves on campus.

In short, Mr. Erdogan has squandered his substantial political capital of last summer, estranged himself from political and economic interests that supported him then, and fueled suspicions of a secret agenda to make Turkey a more Islamic place.

These factors may explain Washington’s agonizingly balanced approach to the AKP case thus far. Administration figures typically avoid the subject. If pressed, they express a tortured commitment to both Turkish “democracy” and “secularism,” and the hope that the issue will be resolved through established “institutions” (the court?) and in accordance with the Turkish electorate. Or as the head of the State Department’s European Bureau has put it, “We don’t take sides.”

That’s a cop-out. Here’s why.

The notion that Turkey’s “institutions” should resolve this matter presumes the constitutional court to be above politics. In fact, the court has shown a growing appetite for muscling into Turkey’s partisan fray, notably when it solicited and then jumped at the opportunity last spring to change — to AKP’s disadvantage — parliamentary goalposts for picking a new president. That ploy failed. But it left little doubt about the constitutional court’s evenhandedness.

On what basis is the court considering closure of Turkey’s only truly national party — a party generally acknowledged to have given Turkey since 2002 its best governance in years, which less than a year ago received an unprecedented vote of confidence from Turkey’s electorate, and enjoys the support of world financial markets? A compendium of anecdotes from the hostile press suggesting Mr. Erdogan and his colleagues intend to turn Turkey into an Islamic Republic. The case is so dubious it is hard to imagine that even the staunchest Kemalists take it at face value.

A more relevant consideration may be that the AKP’s 2007 political gains create, for the first time in Turkey’s modern history, a serious threat to the hegemony of elites who came to power with Turkey’s first president Mustafa Kemal Ataturk in the 1920s and ’30s, and whose outlook has not much changed since. That outlook is encapsulated in a slogan from the days of Ataturks’s Westernizing reforms: “For the people, despite the people.” Revealingly, it is a view one still hears today, without irony, from those pressing the case against the AKP.

“Despite the people” may have been a justifiable approach as Ataturk sought to wrench an exhausted, defeated remnant of the Ottoman Empire into modernity after World War I. It ought to be an anachronism in the young, dynamic, globally connected Turkey of the 21st century. Turkey is a candidate member of the European Union and a country widely held up as the Muslim world’s only credible democracy.

Turks, including members and supporters of the AKP, nonetheless seem increasingly to be resigned to the prospect that the party will be closed down and that its most effective leaders, including Mr. Erdogan, will be barred from affiliation with any successor for five years. But that won’t be the end of the AKP or Mr. Erdogan. Based on past precedent, the party will likely emerge to dominate parliament under a new name. Mr. Erdogan will remain a key actor, if necessary from behind the scenes.

The consequences for Turkey are as grim as they are predictable: parliamentary and bureaucratic dysfunction as the case makes its way through the court (a process that could consume months); political churning and a greater likelihood of disruptive and polarizing new national elections; evaporation of foreign investor confidence and economic slowdown; undermining of Turkey’s already fraught candidacy for admission to the EU; and the devaluing of its image and influence abroad. In short, a lost year, or more, for a country of enormous strategic importance and almost unlimited potential.

The loss will not be Turkey’s alone. While some have sought by labeling the party “Islamist” to suggest its hostility to Western values, and thus to avoid a discussion of the merits of the case to close it down, the fact is that the AKP — with all its warts — is the closest thing to a liberal democratic party in Turkey today. None of the alternatives even come close. Yes, the AKP has made mistakes that have has raised questions about its ultimate intentions. And Turkey’s voters ought to hold its leadership accountable at the ballot box. But the party’s neutering would be a serious setback for democracy in a region where — and at a moment in history when — it matters greatly.

“Nothing” is often be the best thing to do or say, particularly when it involves an allied country’s internal politics. But to suggest, as the Bush administration has come close to doing, that the U.S. is indifferent to the AKP’s fate would be myopic. It is not carrying a special brief for Mr. Erdogan or his party to state clearly the fundamental incompatibility between “being Western” or “modern,” as Ataturk urged Turks to be, and closing down political parties on the dubious grounds presented against the AKP.