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A democratic choice for Turkey?

Bust of Ataturk and Blue Mosque in the background
Bust of Ataturk and Blue Mosque in the background

On 31 March 2008 the 11-member Constitutional Court decided unanimously to hear the full case for the dissolution of the AKP. This is an ominous sign, and it leaves the Turkish government and Turkish supporters of European integration with a limited number of choices. But there still are choices and some are much better than others.

Essentially, there are three options open to the AKP.

  1. Await the judgement and trust in the fairness of the Court
  2. Negotiate or push through constitutional changes to make closing down the AKP more difficult
  3. Pass a new liberal constitution that both makes closing down parties more difficult and breaks with the model of authoritarian (and limited) democracy that is at the heart of the post-coup 1982 constitution.

The AKP could, of course, resign itself to its fate and await the judgement of the Constitutional Court. It would then prepare its defence, trusting in the integrity of the Turkish judicial system.

This is, however, a high-risk strategy. It is also likely to fail. There is growing determination within the party to resist, using the instruments at its disposal: a more than 3/5 majority in the parliament and its continued popularity among the Turkish electorate. Given the strong democratic mandate that the party has received in June 2007 one could argue that it owes it to its electorate to uses all available legal and political instruments to safeguard their choice.

A second option already discussed inside the party is to attempt to block its dissolution through amendments of those articles in the Constitution that govern the dissolution of political parties. There is already talk of "fierce bargaining" between the AKP and the nationalist MHP to find "compromises" in Ankara. There are, however, many problems with this strategy.

It is in fact highly unlikely that the AKP will find allies in parliament. If it does not, and passes the changes itself, it will need to go to a referendum. If the referendum is seen to be only about a change to protect the AKP, but not about a wider reform of the constitution, it is not clear that the party will be able to mobilise the strong support required for it to resist the judicial assault. The real problem does not lie in specific paragraphs of the constitution. It lies in the concept of a constitution drawn up following a coup and "protected against" elected representatives by self-appointed and unaccountable elites with a clear ideological agenda.

This leaves a third choice. It is the boldest, the most visionary and the most constructive. It means going on the offensive, in a game where one side continues to want to change the rules and control the referee at the same time: to turn this into a matter of principle and to reconstruct a broad alliance.

It is the option pushed by all those in Turkey who see this confrontation as the perhaps inevitable but probably decisive battle between an authoritarian mind-set and a future democratic and pluralist Turkey. Umit Kardas, a former military judge and today critic of the military's political influence argues that:

"the AK Party has to do something both for democracy and for its own survival. It should promise a method that would open the way for complete democratisation and freedoms. This is a fight. Turkey has now entered into a process of settling of accounts between two camps. One of the two camps will lose. If the other side wins, Turkey will enter a period of being shut off form the outside world."

It is crucial that the AKP regains legitimacy among the disillusioned liberals who had supported the Party with the conviction that it would move forward forcefully on reforms and freedoms that benefited wide segments of the society. As long as they see the AKP working for its own survival at the expense of other legitimate demands for change, they will not lend the support that is necessary. Nor will other minority groups in Turkey and those who care about EU integration. Kerim Balci says of the AKP:

"Through their unwillingness to cope with the undemocratic forces, disclosed in their lack of determination to investigate the dirty relations of the state organs and mafia, they brought about their own ends. The government's latest willingness to dig into the depths of the Ergenekon junta is first of all late. It is not only late, but its incentives are ill-perceivable. Though the government was late, this doesn't mean that it deserves to be abandoned. It is our duty to support the government in stepping forward in the face of the Ergenekon junta, but it is the duty of the prime minister to make us believe (and keep his word) that he will step further steps on other freedom-related issues as well."

Therefore the most effective choice for the AKP is to reconstruct the broad pro-democracy, pro-European alliance that the party has benefited from and led between 2002 and 2004. And the best way to do this is to pass a new constitution to finally break with the legacy of the 1980 coup, while vigorously pursuing the Ergenekon investigation.

The new liberal draft constitution drawn up by the Ozbudun commission already has provisions that make party closure more difficult and the current practice in Turkey, which cries out for reform. But it also offers things to minorities, reassures liberals and modern secularists about the European direction of AKP-policy. The AKP has the necessary votes to adopt the Ozbudun draft. It would then have to put it to a popular referendum. Such a course would posit a very clear choice: to the Turkish electorate and to the rest of the world.

Some might think this is too risky, that such a referendum might be interpreted as a referendum on secularism. There are some who urge "all parties" to take a step back, for fear that in the worst case a judicial coup might give way to a real coup. Some fear that the country could not "bear any more tension." In fact, such a referendum would above all be a referendum on democracy as well as on Europe. And there is little choice. The potential fall-out from effectively disenfranchising the majority of the Turkish electorate is an even more risky strategy.

If the government puts its mind to it, it could rebuild a sufficiently broad coalition. The AKP has managed to do so before, including in the run-up to the 2007 elections. And the EU should in this case lend its strong support to the pro-reform camp.

The best way of doing so is to make clear that a fully democratic Turkey will remain highly welcome as a future member; that Turkish democracy matters to the EU and the wider Europe; and that the fate of Turkish democrats does not leave the EU cold.

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