Turkey Breathes a Sigh of Relief
All over the country, people awaited the decision with bated breath. The Turkish Constitutional Court, the highest court of the land, was to decide on whether the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) should be banned. Prime Minster Recep Tayyip Erdogan's name headed the list of 71 people who would be prohibited from political participation for the next five years should their party be shut down.
Just two months ago, the same judges unanimously passed a ban on headscarves at Turkish universities, preventing the AKP from pushing through its most cherished plan. It seemed a sure thing that the court would go on to prohibit the AKP itself. After all, nine of the eleven judges had been appointed by ex-President Ahmet Necdet Sezer, the most adamant critic of the AKP.
The surprise was great when the president of the highest court, Hasim Kilic, announced the ruling: the governing AKP would not be banned. No one was forbidden from political participation.
"A serious warning"
This time around, though, the majority on the bench had shrunk. Only six judges voted in favor of a ban. This was still the majority, but it was not enough – seven of the eleven would have had to agree to put an end to the party. The judges did agree, however, to cut the party's state funding in half for the next election year. "A reprimand," said Kilic. The judgment should be seen as "a serious warning." But the cut in financing does not really hurt the party, which can rely on powerful and deep-pocketed supporters.
Thanks to the ruling, the Turkish government crisis has been averted for now. The constitutional judges, as representatives of the secular powers in the Turkish state, have deliberately given the AKP and Erdogan a second chance.
Yasar Büyükanit, Chief of the General Staff of the Turkish Armed Forces, reserved comment on the ruling. The secular employers' association TÜSİAD announced that it was pleased with the decision. And the secular urban middle classes are happy that the Constitutional Court did not make the AKP and Erdogan into martyrs by tying their hands. Almost all Istanbul newspapers carried the same headline: "Turkey Breathes A Sigh of Relief."
Erdogan's second chance
Turkish society is tired of all the infighting and wants to finally enjoy "justice and progress" after the long, grueling years of inner struggle. The party that has chosen just this slogan as its name will now have to live up to its promise. Religious themes will henceforth take a back seat to more worldly issues, such as the high unemployment rate, increasing inflation, dwindling production, the decline of agriculture and the unresolved problems in the educational system.
The fact that the AKP and its 54-year-old charismatic head will be allowed to continue ruling Turkey is surely the result of a major compromise between the party leadership under Erdogan and the Kemalist elite that had previously governed the country. Most powerful among the Kemalists are the General Chiefs of Staff of the Armed Forces. Erdogan conducted two one-on-one meetings in an effort to resolve the differences between the two sides: last year with the head of the army at that time, Yasar Büyükanit, and a few weeks ago with his designated successor, Ilker Basbug.
What was said at these talks was kept top secret and has yet to leak out. People assume that the issues of PKK terrorism and separatism were the major points on the agenda. Just this weekend a bombing in Istanbul – possibly the work of the PKK – killed eighteen.
"Number one danger"
But what prompted this unexpected compromise, after there had even been rumors of an upcoming military putsch against the Erdogan regime?
The issue of the Kurds surely played a major role, a problem regarded as the country's "number one danger," not only by the Turkish man on the street, but also by the Turkish Chiefs of Staff. On this point, the AKP constituency shares the views of the party's opponents.
The AKP's rivals have already tried everything, including a military solution. Now, with the establishment of a Kurdish state in northern Iraq, Kurdish separatism seems more of a threat than ever. In this case, Erdogan thinks along the same lines as his adversaries. And his AKP is the only force that can oust the separatist Kurdish movement in the upcoming elections, both nationwide and in eastern Anatolia. This makes the AKP irreplaceable.
The closer the party gets to the center, the more it will be a regular, national, conservative party just to the right of the middle. Erdogan's AKP will thus become somewhat more nationalistic, and its secular rivals somewhat more tolerant toward visible signs of religion, which they have heretofore refused to accept in the public sphere.
This in turn will bring Erdogan more votes, and Turkey can indeed breathe easy again. Now "there can be real politics again," as one Istanbul taxi driver remarked. "Turkey can once more gather its strength."
The "reprimand" by the Constitutional Court is Erdogan's last chance – a fact he has acknowledged and will take full advantage of.
The AKP can become the voice of the Kurds
The losers in this "great reconciliation" are the radical Kurdish representatives, first and foremost the Kurdish Party for a Democratic Society, DTP. A case is currently being heard before the Constitutional Court calling for their disbanding. The same judges will perhaps reach a different decision this time and, as with its predecessors before it, ban this Kurdish party as well. To date the injunctions have not had the desired effect, a new party simply springing up to take the place of the old one. But even without an official ban, the DTP is going downhill fast.
At the last parliamentary elections in 2007, the DTP was almost unseated by the AKP even in the Kurdish regions. The radical Kurdish politicians could only just barely prevail over the AKP candidates. At the next municipal elections, experts predict that Erdogan's party will even take over the mayor's office in Diyarbakir, the "secret capital" of the Kurds.
This is tantamount to saying that the AKP will become the voice of the Kurds and hence the party that could finally end an almost 30-year war between the state and the Kurdish separatists, uniting the warring factions for the first time "under one flag."
Turkish society longing for peace
The ruling was the right one, strengthening Turkish democracy. The Islamic forces no longer need to feel as if they are victims or martyrs and can now act from a position of strength and demonstrate their maturity. We can assume that Erdogan will act more prudently in the future. In the head scarf question as well, a compromise will surely be sought.
Liberal forces that have up until now supported the AKP as opposed to the hardliner Kemalists will work harder to stop the creeping threat of alcohol prohibition or a blanket spread of the veiling of women. Social issues will no longer be discussed in courtrooms or barracks. Crippling tensions will be eased.
Instead of war, Turkish society is longing for peace. The highest judges of the land have picked up this signal and taken it to heart.
© Qantara 2008
Translated from the German by Jennifer Taylor
Dilek Zaptçıoğlu (48) studied history and politics in Istanbul and Göttingen. She works as a journalist and writer in Istanbul. Her most recent book is a volume of essays called "Türken und Deutsche" (Brandes & Apsel, 2007).