by Katinka Barysch
Political convulsions are nothing new in Turkey. But recent events have made some observers gloomy about the fate of the country and its suitability as an EU member. Tensions are escalating between the ruling AK party, on the one hand, and the army and the secular opposition, on the other. Some observers warn that another military coup cannot be ruled out completely. Others think that the highest court could launch a new case to ban the AKP. Political disputes, however heated, do not disqualify Turkey from EU accession. The danger is that the government and its opponents damage state institutions and undermine the rule of law by using the police, courts and other public bodies in their battle for political survival. This is where the EU must focus its efforts.
Dozens of former generals and other military personnel have been jailed in recent months, accused of plotting coups against the government of Recep Tayyip Erdogan. This followed hundreds of arrests under the ‘Ergenekon’ case against an alleged terrorist network of arch-secular judges, professors, soldiers and officials. More than 100,000 Turks have had their phones tapped, say media reports. Many ordinary Turks fear being caught up in the continuing investigations.
The opposition accuses Erdogan’s AK party of transforming Turkey into an Islamist state and of using the police and the judiciary to get rid of its opponents. They feel vindicated by the government’s hasty moves to amend the constitution in a way that would give the AKP more influence over the composition of the constitutional court and the ‘supreme board of judges and prosecutors’.
AKP leaders say that the constitutional amendments are needed to get the country closer to the EU. They point out that the legal package contains some bits that are needed to allow for the opening of new ‘chapters’ in the accession talks (like allowing civil servants to strike) and others that are long-standing EU demands (such as making it harder for the courts to close down parties). They say that recent waves of arrests are part of a much-needed process of democratisation at the end of which elected politicians – not generals, judges and other unaccountable figures – will have the last say in Turkish politics.
A complex mix of social change, internal power struggles and clashing ideologies is behind the current commotion. A changing Turkey needs a new system of political checks and balances. For too long, Turkey’s secular establishment has relied on the army, the constitutional court and the (traditionally secular) president to keep elected politicians in check. In each decade since Turkey became democratic in 1950, the army has forced an elected government from power. The constitutional court has banned scores of political parties suspected of undermining the secular order or the unity of the state. Much of the media and the education system used to spread Kemalist ideology. These are not the ingredients of a modern democracy.
Change was inevitable. And in a country with many fault lines and a fair number of fanatics, it was never going to be smooth. Nevertheless, the new system that now seems to be emerging is flawed. The president now hails from the AKP and is accused of using his wide-ranging powers of appointment to fill public bodies with party supporters. The armed forces no longer appear unified or strong enough to depose of the government (they last tried, and failed, in 2007). But they are still fighting to forestall what they regard as the AKP’s growing dominance. The judiciary appears torn in the clash between secularists and pious conservatives. The media is deeply polarised.
Perhaps most importantly, Turkey’s political parties do not present a proper choice to the Turkish people. The main opposition parties – the Kemalist CHP and the nationalist MHP – proffer little more than identity politics. Both lack a vision for a modern, dynamic Turkey at peace with itself and its neighbours. Their tired slogans and obstructionism have limited appeal. The rigid hierarchy within these organisations (“Shrinking cults for outsized egos” FT columnist David Gardner recently called them) make internal renewal improbable.
The AKP promised to be a political force of a different kind: a grass-roots movement, transparent (ak means white or pure in Turkish), representative of a more diverse nation, focused on policies rather than ideologies. But eight years after winning its first election, the AKP has started to resemble its political opponents. Erdogan, it is said, takes all important decisions. Corruption allegations have become more frequent – as have the party leadership’s attempts to use state power to deflect them. Media outlets that criticise the government have come under pressure. The AKP used to accuse the CHP of using the courts and the security apparatus to intimidate its opponents. Now such allegations are heaped onto the AKP itself. Public bodies, such as the higher education board, have become more, not less politicised under AKP influence.
There are some stirrings in Turkey’s political system, with old parties trying to regroup and new ones springing up. But lack of money and a prohibitive 10 per cent threshold to enter parliament make life very tough for smaller parties and newcomers. Although Erdogan promised years ago to reduce the 10 per cent threshold, such a change is conspicuously absent from the constitutional reform package that the AKP has now sent to parliament.
The new enlargement commissioner, Stefan Fule, has said that “the proposed reforms [in the constitutional package] go in the right direction”. But while broadly satisfied with the substance, Fule and his colleagues are unhappy about the process. They are right. Even if the AKP manages to push through its package (it will probably have to resort to a referendum since it lacks the necessary super-majority in parliament), it is questionable whether the current antagonistic climate is a good time for a very incomplete constitutional reform. The move smacks of political manoeuvring and could discredit the very process of constitutional renewal. Given that Turkey’s democracy badly needs better rules, rights and institutions, this would be a tragedy. The AKP should wait until after the 2011 parliamentary election and then start the broad constitutional debate, including opposition parties and civil society, that it has promised ever since 2007. The EU is right not to take sides in Turkey’s current political battles. But it should not be afraid to say loud and clear that a more thorough reform of the constitution and the law on political parties is necessary if such battles are not to undermine Turkey’s accession chances in the medium term.
Katinka Barysch is the deputy director at the Centre for European Reform
I think what is going on in Turkey is not a sign of good deeds towards becoming a member state of EU. I think yeah, Turkish democracy is not mature and is hasty and unstable but I totally disagree with you that EU is a heaven of democracy as well. I know you do not say it explicitly but implicitly you imply. Your tone as well shows a bit of an indication of punishment and a big clip behind the ear for a misbehaving child. I think EU should first clear out the mess it is in with the Gree disaster and turmoil as well as Romanina, Bulgarian, Polish etc bigotries, treacheries, undemocratic and instable political climates before it embarks on a mission to punish candidate countries. Maybe it should not enlarge at all. It should think of it status quo and where it is going before it dons to become an hard power with force and sanctions. Conditionality on EU membership is bunch of loose loopholes that can be circumvented with beseeches from some MS towards their whims. EU itself is not a flawless Pantheon of democracy at all. If it was, it could have forced Ireland to shy away from its anti-abortion laws and to put human life and dignity before religious chauvinism
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