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The battle for Turkey's soul

Ankara - Ataturk Mausoleum
Ankara - Ataturk Mausoleum

2007 was a dramatic year for Turkish politics and society, even by the standards of a country used to political drama. However, few people would have expected 2008 to be even more volatile, and potentially catastrophic, for Turkish democracy.

The fact that the Turkish Constitutional Court agreed unanimously on 31 March this year to hear an appeal by the Chief Prosecutor to close down the governing Justice and Development Party (AKP) and to ban 70 of its members from political life is a blow to the credibility of Turkish democracy.[1]

The Chief Prosecutor accused the party of being "the focal point of anti-secular activities." The triggering event was the government's rather cautious moves to end the headscarf ban in Turkey's universities. The charges are, however, incoherent and obviously political. Opinion polls reveal overwhelming public support for allowing women with headscarves to attend university in Turkey. There is no other country in Europe where this is a problem at the level of higher education.[2] In fact, the headscarf ban in Turkey has no clear legal basis. The constitutional amendments adopted by Parliament in January this year merely reaffirm the principle of non-discrimination and equality before the law, that are in the current constitution, without any specific reference to either religion or the headscarf. They were passed with the support of the opposition Nationalist Action Party (MHP), which, unlike the AKP, has not been targeted by the judiciary. Moreover, another centre-right party, ANAP, which had a parliamentary majority in the late 1980s, had then tried to pass legislation to affirm the right of religious women to wear headscarves in university. In fact, from 1989 until 1997 Turkish women were largely able to attend universities with headscarves as a result.

Yet today the headscarf has again become a potent symbol of the struggle between the conservative AKP government, reelected in July 2007 with overwhelming public support, and its Kemalist opponents. The question is now whether the Constitutional Court, with its record of siding with the Kemalist establishment, is prepared to attempt a judicial coup, plunging Turkey into a deep constitutional crisis.

The prospect of a judicial coup seems extraordinary for a country that is a member of NATO and the Council of Europe and is negotiating for EU membership. But sadly, derailing Turkey's move towards Europe may be the very goal of this political manoeuvre, by those who prefer international isolation to giving up their traditional power and privileges.

This legal action turns out to be the culmination of a number of attempts over the past four years to destabilise a popular Government. There are strong indications that coup preparations by high-level military officials were taking place throughout 2004. This was followed by a series of political assassinations and mysterious murders which recent investigations have linked to a shadowy ultra-nationalist organisation with close links to the security establishment. A year ago, the military issued a dire warning to the Government over the election of a President whose wife wears the headscarf only to back down when the government demonstrated the strength of its popular support through a snap election.

So what could the Turkish government do? What should the EU do in response? To help policy makers answer this question, ESI has put together this background briefing.

We believe that Turkey's friends and allies should urge the Government to go on the offensive. The AKP should use its popular mandate to push ahead with plans for an overhaul of the current constitution, not waiting for the judgement of the Court. The present constitution, dating from 1982, is still all too obviously the product of the military coup that took place in 1980. As the chair of the working group which produced a draft for a new constitution, Ergun Ozbudun, wrote in 2005:

"A constitution, which should be an ideologically neutral instrument as far as possible, should not impose the same social and economic choices on all contesting parties. If it does, the essential meaning of multi-party politics and inter-party competition will be lost."

A referendum on a new, more liberal constitution would under current conditions become a referendum on the very essence of Turkish democracy. In this way, in one of the many ironies that characterise political life in Turkey, it may very well be that the headscarf, the symbol most feared by Turkey's secularists, could become the trigger finally pushing Turkey to adopt a modern European constitution.


[1] The prosecutor had proposed to ban 71 politicians from political life for 5 years. The court agreed to study hat proposal for all politicians except President Abdullah Gul.

[2] The restrictions on the headscarf in France only apply in schools, not universities.

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