The secular and the pious march towards a new collision, with unforeseeable consequences for democracy and Turkeyâ€™s chances in Europe
A demonstrator holds a banner which reads â€œThis is my country tooâ€ as she chants slogans during a protest against the Constitutional Courtâ€™s verdict about headscarves at universities in Istanbul, June 15, 2008. Last week the court annulled a government reform allowing students to wear Muslim headscarves at university, deeming it contrary to Turkeyâ€™s secular system.
WHEN Adnan Menderes, a right-wing politician who spoke up for pious Anatolians, swept to power as prime minister after Turkeyâ€™s first free parliamentary election 58 years ago, a group of officers began plotting a military coup within weeks. Ten years later, with the support of the secular intelligentsia and politicians, they overthrew the government, by then in its third term. A year later, in September 1961, Menderes was hanged.
Yildiray Ogur, a young activist, sees worrying parallels between the 1960 coup and todayâ€™s campaign, spearheaded by Turkeyâ€™s generals and judges, to overthrow Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the prime minister, and his Justice and Development Party (AKP). Turkey has been in upheaval ever since the constitutional court began considering a case brought by the chief prosecutor to ban the AKP and to bar 71 named individuals, including Mr Erdogan and President Abdullah Gul, from politics, on thinly documented charges that they are seeking to impose Sharia law.
The stakes were raised on June 5th, when the court overturned a law passed by a big majority in parliament to let young women wear the Islamic-style headscarf at universities. By voting 9-2 to quash the law the court sent a clear signal that it would vote to shut down the AKP. A verdict is expected by the autumn.
To many the case is like a judicial coup: a last-ditch attempt to cling to power by an elite that refuses to share wealth and social space with a rising class of pious Turks, symbolised by the AKP. It may also further discredit the constitutional court. Above all, says Mr Ogur, the case reveals â€œan army that believes it should have the final say, not elected politicians.â€
A defiant Mr Erdogan vows to fight back. In a fiery speech in parliament this week, he declared that the court had exceeded its jurisdiction and would â€œneed to explain itself to the people.â€ There is talk of changing the rules for appointing judges and limiting their ability to ban political parties. Some AKP officials dream of unleashing millions of supporters on to the streets. But they know that doing so would risk provoking a real military coup. â€œWe are like lambs being taken to slaughter, we are resigned to our fate,â€ sighs one AKP deputy.
A few hardy souls pin their hopes on Western support. The European Union has hinted that it would suspend membership talks if the AKP were banned. But thanks to the growing opposition to Turkish accession in countries such as France and Austria, few Turks believe they will ever get in anyway. â€œWith no carrots left to offer, the EU has no stick to wield,â€ opines Cengiz Aktar, who follows EU affairs.
The biggest deterrent to overthrowing the AKP may be Turkeyâ€™s wobbly economy. After six years of steady growth the economy is slowing down, inflation has crept back to double digits and this yearâ€™s current-account deficit is expected to rise to 7% of GDP. Faik Oztrak, a former treasury under-secretary and opposition parliamentarian, reckons that Turkey will need at least $135 billion in foreign inflows to plug the gap. As he asks pointedly, â€œwhere will it come from?â€
Investor confidence has been rattled by the governmentâ€™s indecision over extending an IMF deal that expired in May. â€œWith financial markets remaining jittery, Turkey is walking on a tightrope, making policy errors potentially costly. In particular, new initiatives that jeopardise the achievement of the announced fiscal targets, such as the planned reform of municipal finances, could tilt the balance of policies and should be avoided,â€ Lorenzo Giorgianni, the IMFâ€™s mission chief for Turkey, says. He is referring to the governmentâ€™s plans to boost local spending.
Yet in Istanbul many financiers seem unfazed. They see no reason for alarm, even if the AKP is banned. A chastened, wiser AKP would simply regroup under a different name and it will be business as usual, the argument goes. Certainly, when a party is banned (they tend to be either pro-Kurdish or pro-Islamic) its members usually come together under a new banner. But Islamic parties often come back even stronger. The AKP itself is an offshoot of Virtue, a party that was banned in 2001. It romped to power in 2002 and won a second term last year with a bigger share of the vote.
Even if it were disbanded, the AKPâ€™s surviving parliamentarians would remain as independents in sufficient numbers to be able to force another snap election. Indeed, the million-dollar question, as one European diplomat puts it, is â€œwhether those who are perpetrating this strategy against the AKP will let them come back even stronger. They are stuck between a coup and a hard place.â€
Not everyone thinks that the AKP will emerge unscathed. Even his allies agree that Mr Erdogan made a strategic blunder by passing the headscarf law instead of blending it into a package of broader reforms embodied in a new constitution. Instead of appeasing secular fears, some AKP members crowed that the headscarf would soon be allowed in government offices as well. Many say the void left by Mr Gul, who moved up from foreign minister to become president last August, is partly to blame for Mr Erdoganâ€™s mistakes. As number two in the AKP, Mr Gul had often curbed Mr Erdoganâ€™s rasher instincts.
Meanwhile, support in the Kurdish south-east, where the AKP made big gains last year, has been waning ever since Mr Erdogan yielded to army pressure and authorised cross-border attacks on PKK terrorists in northern Iraq. He also snubbed members of the pro-Kurdish Democratic Peopleâ€™s Party (DTP) in parliament. Police brutality and mass arrests during a May 1st demonstration in Istanbul have not helped his image.
Yet, for all his and the partyâ€™s failings, recent opinion polls suggest that the AKP retains a big lead over its rivals. â€œYou may criticise us for going slow on reforms, but the truth is that we made more changes than Turkey was able to absorb,â€ says Abdurrahman Kurt, an AKP member from Diyarbakir. By giving pious Turks a political voice, the AKP has also bolstered their faith in democracy.
By overturning the headscarf law, says Mazhar Bagli, a sociologist at Diyarbakirâ€™s Dicle university, the court is running the risk that â€œradical groups will now seek their rights through illegal means.â€ In other words, the threat of radical Islam in Turkey may have increased thanks to the secularistsâ€™ attack on the AKP.