Turkey’s Islamic-rooted government was elected last year with a huge majority, continues to bask in popular support, has raised living standards across the nation of 70 million — and will probably fall within a month.
The strange state of affairs is not due to any internal revolt or opposition threat, but to a case in Turkey’s Constitutional Court that seeks to ban the ruling party on charges of undermining secularism.
With the court stacked with members of the secular elite, Turkey faces the likelihood of seeing its democratically elected government booted out by forces seeking to preserve the nation’s secularist values.
The consequences for Turkey’s EU bid — and for stability in this strategically located country — could be grave.
Foreign investors could be unsettled and political gridlock would halt crucial reforms. Perhaps most importantly, such a radical measure would trigger questions in the EU about whether Turkey is the mature democracy it makes itself out to be.
Supporters of the ban, which could not be appealed, say the secular values canonized by modern Turkey’s founder Mustafa Kemal Ataturk must be defended at all costs.
“Secularism is the backbone of the regime in Turkey and it is out of question to allow a political party to pursue Islamic policies to chip away at it,” said Ulku Azrak, a law professor at Istanbul’s Maltepe University.
The court has shut down political parties in the past, but never a ruling party and none as popular as that of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
The Constitutional Court is considering claims by the country’s top prosecutor, Abdurrahman Yalcinkaya, that the Justice and Development Party, known by its Turkish acronym AKP, is engaged in a systematic effort to impose Islam on Turkey — a charge vehemently denied by the party itself, which is far from a proponent of Islamic fundamentalism.
The indictment cites efforts to lift a ban on wearing Islamic head scarves in universities and other measures aimed at expanding the rights of devout Muslims in the educational system, as well as attempts to shut down pig farms and restrict alcohol advertising on TV.
If the court rules for the prosecution, several party members, including Erdogan, could lose their seats and be barred from joining a political party for five years, although they would still be eligible to run for parliament as independents.
Under such a scenario, the party would regroup under a different name and the barred legislators would run and likely be elected as independents, who would then informally align themselves with the newly established party.
But more than a name change is at stake.
While Erdogan and his allies would likely triumph in new elections, the ban would severely damage the old AKP machinery — leading to the seizure of US$37 million in public funds allocated to the party this year as well as its assets, including a newly built party headquarters.
Secularists have been alarmed at what they see as Erdogan’s attempt to use his large parliamentary majority to impose political Islam on Turkey — notably through the exploitation of the head scarf issue.
“Erdogan’s acknowledgment that the head scarf is a ‘political symbol’ fed the fears of the secular groups,” said Fadi Hakura, a Turkey specialist at Chatham House, a London think tank.
“The government was perceived as resorting to a majoritarian, confrontational approach as opposed to seeking consensus on sensitive issues,” Hakura said.
Any attempt to relax the state’s uncompromisingly secular stance in this 99 percent Muslim country is met with strident protests from the urban elite as well as the army, which has staged three coups after civil strife or political turmoil.
But some observers, including EU leaders weighing Turkey’s membership bid, are beginning to see the AKP as better for democracy than the secularists, whose intolerance of religious symbolism is seen as running counter to the liberal values they claim to embrace.
In turning the principles of Ataturk into a rigid orthodoxy, the secularists have shown a strong authoritarian streak that sits ill with the nation’s European ambitions. And their nationalism has led them to bridle at most EU demands for reform.
The secularists point to the aggressive posture of Islamic groups around the world as justification for their tremendous sensitivity on the issue.
By contrast, the government has been credited with maintaining the political and financial stability seen as critical to bringing about the reforms needed to revive the nation’s EU bid, including curbing the military’s say in politics and expanding free speech.
As a NATO member and US ally, Turkey’s stability is of vital strategic importance, particularly because it neighbors Iraq and Iran and is seen as the West’s gateway to the Middle East.
Government supporters say the prosecutor’s argument ignores a record of Western-style reforms and amounts to a fear-mongering.
“AKP represents a pathway to freedom for the people,” said Osman Yuksel, a 41-year-old shop owner. “Closing the AKP would be wrong and will not solve any problems. I do not think AKP is a threat to secularism, that idea is just a fixation of the military.”
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