Interview with the Political Scientist Cemal Karakas

"A Ban on the AKP Would Be a Setback for Democracy"

Turkey is veering towards a full-scale domestic political crisis. The German-Turkish political scientist Cemal Karakas from the Peace Research Institute Frankfurt (PRIF) fears a provisional end to the reform process if the governing AKP is banned. An interview by Dogan Michael Ulusoy

Cemal Karakas (photo: HSFK)
According to Cemal Karakas, an expert on Turkey, to allege that the AKP harbors undemocratic tendencies would be going much too far

​​Mr. Karakas, what would be the consequences of a ban on the AKP with respect to the domestic political situation in Turkey?

Cemal Karakas: Political parties being banned in Turkey is nothing unusual. Many parties have been re-established under different names and with modified programs. This is also how the AKP arose. No other party, however, has been nearly as successful, especially in the areas of economic and financial policy. Economic growth in the past six years has been stable, the budget has been consolidated, and inflation fell to under ten percent. The economy would suffer considerably if the AKP were to be banned.

Would a ban on the AKP mean an end to all efforts towards reform?

Karakas: Certainly in the short term, as the AKP is Turkey's greatest champion of EU membership. Both the opposition parties, the CHP and the MHP, are considerably more reserved. Unfortunately, over the last two years even the AKP has put the brakes on the EU reform process. A major factor here is the dispute over the Cyprus issue with the EU, where Turkey sees itself at a vast disadvantage.

How would the EU react to a ban on the governing party?

Karakas: It all depends on how such a ban would be justified. Should it prove judicially incontestable that the AKP has been pursuing anti-democratic goals, then the reaction of the EU will be neutral. Negotiations will continue as previously. Yet, should the ban fail to be legally watertight or not correspond to EU standards, then negotiations could be suspended for a certain length of time. The EU Commission has the right to do so in cases of serious breaches of the rule of law.

Supporters of the Justice and Development Party wave Turkish and party flags (photo: AP)
In July 2007, AKP supporters celebrated the landslide election victory by their party. The "big tent" party is now facing a ban

​​Is it possible to accuse the AKP of having anti-democratic tendencies?

Karakas: Just as other ruling parties, the AKP also adheres to a clientele policy and finds government positions for individuals close to the party. To claim that this amounts to an Islamization from above or implies that the AKP harbors undemocratic tendencies is, in my opinion, going much too far. I hold that a ban on the AKP would be a setback for democracy in Turkey. The AKP has, of course, politicized religion, but I don't believe that it has a secret Islamist agenda to transform Turkey into an "Islamic Republic."

What makes you so certain?

Karakas: I think that they would have more to lose, as the political costs would be extremely high. First of all, there is no majority in Turkey to support such a transformation and this would result in a loss of legitimacy for the AKP. Secondly, the Turkish military would step in and remove the AKP from power. Thirdly, the government would frighten off some of their main supporters, the Turkish business community and foreign investors, as this policy goal would lead to a massive flow of domestic and foreign capital out of the country. And fourthly, the two largest champions of Turkey, namely the EU and the USA, would be highly critical of such a transformation.

Some Turkish commentators refer to a normalization of the population's attitude towards religion. What do they mean?

Pro-secular demonstrators during a rally in Istanbul (photo: AP)
In April 2007, thousands of Kemalists and pro-secular demonstrators marched in the streets against the government and a feared Islamization of politics and society

​​Karakas: Turkey is a country with a 99 percent Muslim population. Under Atatürk, the founder of modern-day Turkey, as well as under his successors, the country was never de-Islamified, but rather secularized. Islamic symbols were pushed out of the public sphere into the private realm. What is meant by normalization is that in the last 25 years, religion has once again taken up a stronger role in the public sphere.

Many Turkish opinion makers say that nationalism in the country is much more dangerous than the supposed Islamization. Do you concur?

Karakas: Definitely, yes. Nationalism is the strongest ideological movement in Turkey. This is why it has been so difficult to completely abolish Paragraph 301, which makes the denigration of Turkishness a punishable offense. Any change to this paragraph has to take into consideration that officially the country has only one nationality and it is Turkish.

What is the origin of this ideologically motivated nationalism?

Karakas: The blame has to be laid on the country's founding myth. Of course, other countries, such as France and Poland, are known for their prominent nationalism. In Turkey, however, it serves much more the purpose of homogenization. It is a nationalism that propagates Turkishness and Turkish identity and language as a negation of the multi-ethnic and multi-religious traditions of the Ottoman Empire.

Might not this nationalism prove to be the greatest barrier to Turkey joining the EU?

Karakas: Yes, it is conceivable that at some point in the accession negotiations the country's Kemalist elite could say that they have had enough of what they see as a massive sellout of national interests and apply the emergency brakes.

Turkish and EU flags (photo: dpa)
The AKP has moved Turkey closer to Europe, yet many still accuse the governing party of harboring a hidden agenda

​​Will Turkey belong to the EU in ten years?

Karakas: Viewed from the current state of affairs, full membership is an illusion. The framework for EU negotiations already envisages the possibility of alternatives to membership. By signing the negotiation framework, Turkey in effect accepted these options. Should Turkey one day truly become a member of the European Union, then the EU has the right to implement a whole range of permanent protective clauses. These would, however, relegate Turkey to "second-class" membership.

What kind of protective clauses do you mean?

Karakas: These protective clauses would ensure that Turkey received less finances from the EU structural and agricultural funds. In addition, any EU member state could limit the freedom of movement of Turkish citizens. Protective clauses already exist, but these cannot extend for more than seven years. In the case of Turkey, these clauses could be permanent. This would be unique in the history of EU enlargement and would clearly discriminate against Turkey. I therefore support the model of stepwise integration, which envisages a successive integration of Turkey in the supranational EU structures without overextending the EU.

Turkey would receive the right to have a say in the EU Council of Ministers, although without the right of veto. In addition, the prospect of full membership would remain. All in all, this model is more attractive than a privileged partnership, which merely envisages a strengthening of existing EU-Turkey relations, mainly in the areas of economic and security issues, without granting Turkey the right to participate in the decision making process.

The interview was conducted by Dogan Michael Ulusoy.

© Kölner Stadt-Anzeiger / Qantara.de 2008

Translated from the German by John Bergeron

Cemal Karakas is expert on Turkey and Fellow at the Peace Research Institute Frankfurt. From 2001 to March 2008 Karakas was Administrator in the European Parliament. He works at the Peace Research Institute Frankfurt since 2005.

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