Surviving the Turkish political minefield

by Diba Nigar Goksel
15 July 2008
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Istanbul, Turkey - Two weeks ago, the Turkish police detained an additional round of suspects for their affiliation with Ergenekon, described as a mafia-like gang of largely ultra-nationalist Turks, many of whom are linked to various state institutions. It is rumoured that they are plotting to bring down the government through a bevy of methods, ranging from creating chaos to staging a military coup.

Eighty-six people were formally charged on Monday with membership in Ergenekon, some of whom have been in custody since last summer, without being indicted. This most recent operation took place in parallel with the Justice and Development Party's (AKP) hearing. The ruling party has been charged with seeking to establish an Islamic state, sparking what some are calling a "power showdown" and raising speculations of a possible ban if it is found guilty.

On the other end of the spectrum, there are media commentators who imply that Ergenekon is fabricated by the AKP so the government might have the right to detain opponents with whom it has problems. Conspiracy theories abound in Turkey's environment of distrust.

For a few years in the early 2000s, Turkey's society seemed to hold consensus about the future, rallying around Turkey's accession to the EU. This consensus was lost in early 2005 when opposition parties played on increased sentiments of nationalism, and mixed feelings about prospective EU membership in certain European circles decreased both the prospects and the push for European accession.

Since winning the elections, the AKP has been playing its hand well enough to appease half the groups in the country. Unfortunately, at times, it has departed from a pluralistic agenda that would have increased measures aimed at ensuring freedom of expression.

On freedom of expression, the party opted against genuine reform in favour of more cosmetic changes. Regarding minority rights, the AKP has appeared to not want to counter the agenda of so-called nationalists, which is suspicious of minorities and sees them as tools of foreign powers, aiming to weaken Turkey.

The party could have increased its credibility among critics who believe it favours Sunni Muslim religious conservatives by objecting to nationalist reservations on these issues. However, faced with the need for support from nationalist forces in society, the state and the parliament, it is likely that the AKP found it politically expedient not to take a stand on these issues.

Ultimately, they misjudged the benefits of acting in conjunction with the Nationalist Action Party in parliament when, together, they voted for the constitutional amendments allowing women with headscarves to enter universities, a policy later overturned by the Constitutional Court.
Left-leaning secularists who do not support the AKP are not represented by other mainstream parties either. There is no party that supports reforms for EU accession other than the socially conservative AKP.

The interruption of democracy as a result of the court case, which threatens to dissolve the AKP, will not help those hoping for reforms towards greater freedoms. Instead, influential AKP critics should be working towards the establishment of a legitimate political opposition and demanding reforms that will safeguard institutional checks and balances within Turkey's democratic structures.

Istanbulites displeased by the increased visibility of women in headscarves, or restaurants that do not serve alcohol, are blinded to the socio-economic change that both caused and resulted from recent decades of rapid urbanisation. This change was not created by the AKP and banning the AKP will not remedy the cultural clashes between recent settlers of large cities from Anatolia and the city's elites.

In fact, if the party is charged, this can further strengthen the perception of a patronising state and feed existing insecurities, resentment, and economic challenges. Such a scenario, some fear, can lead to heightened instability.

To ensure this era is more than just another round in Turkey's erratic style of democratisation, certain steps are needed: crackdowns on mafioso relationships with illegitimate power bases should be supported. Institutions that are immune from political or state pressure need to be set up to safeguard against corruption, discrimination and other forms of injustice. An efficient Ombudsman mechanism, suggested by the EU's enlargement commissioner, Olli Rehn, to "protect basic civil rights", must be developed. Laws need to be stripped of vague wording and contradictory articles which allow for abuse by authorities.

Formulas also need to be sought to bring accountability and transparency to religious sects (formally illegal thus organised "undergound"). Some of them have leaders who preach how Islam should be practiced and they are influential in society and politics. Followers of these groups are rumoured to be infiltrating state institutions for a "take over". In the east, where tribal social structures prevail to the detriment of the rule of law, stronger investment is necessary in state social services that empower the individual.

The liberal constitutional draft, as envisaged last year, should serve as a domestic anchor for democracy. If, rather than using its political capital to portray leadership in this direction, the AKP opts against a renewal of the Constitution to protect itself from backlash from entrenched guardians of the status quo, it will continue to lose credibility among those who believed the party could be instrumental in changing paradigms in Turkey. In such a case, a self-fulfilling prophecy may be realised.

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* Diba Nigar Goksel is a senior analyst at the European Stability Initiative in Turkey and editor-in-chief of Turkish Policy Quarterly. This article was written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews) and can be accessed at www.commongroundnews.org.

Source: Common Ground News Service (CGNews), 15 July 2008, www.commongroundnews.org
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