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July 17, 2008 Edition 28

Radicalization of a national dialogue
Steven A. Cook

After almost six years of political stability and democratic progress, Turkey is once again in turmoil. This turn of events should not be terribly surprising, however. The roots of the country's present instability date back to April 2007 and the struggle over who would succeed Ahmet Necdet Sezer as Turkey's eleventh president. When Abdullah Gul, the foreign minister and the ruling Justice and Development Party's (AKP) deputy leader, finally became head of state last August over the objections of the military establishment, it was abundantly clear to most observers of Turkish politics that it would only be a matter of time before the officers and their civilian allies responded.

Articles in this edition
The deeper problems - Soli Ozel
Lawfare in Turkey: Ergenekon versus the AKP - Ersin Kalaycioglu
"Chaos" in Turkey - Fadi Hakura
Radicalization of a national dialogue - Steven A. Cook
For the army to accept passively a Gul presidency and an AKP dominated parliament would have required the General Staff to abdicate its historic role in the Turkish political system--a step the officers are decidedly unwilling to take. Although the days of putting tanks and troops on the streets of Ankara and Istanbul are long gone, Turkey's military establishment has a long reach. Like-minded members of the bureaucracy such as the state prosecutor and the Kemalist stronghold that is the judiciary are critical partners of the military in the effort to undermine the AKP. The confluence of interests among these groups produced the present case before the Constitutional Court that seeks to close the party and ban 70 of its members from politics for five years.

The old establishment is seeking to regain its predominant position in the political system through an outdated set of ideas--Kemalism--that never achieved ideological hegemony. Their adversaries in the AKP represent a collection of pious business elites from the Anatolian interior, new members of the middle and upper middle class, some liberal democrats, Kurds and a core group of religious conservatives. Many observers regard the current political difficulties in Turkey as a struggle between secular and religious forces. At first blush this seems true, but what is really unfolding is the radicalization of an informal national dialogue that began after AKP was first elected in 2002 about the sources of power and legitimacy in the political order.

The Justice and Development Party's virtual lock on power over the last six years has allowed members of its constituency to express their Muslim identity in relative safety. It has also given them enough confidence to show up in restaurants, clubs, boutiques, cultural venues and commercial centers that were once the exclusive preserves of Turkish secularists. The concomitant relaxation of the drab conformity that Kemalism demands, the higher-profile of AKP's religious constituency and, importantly, the Anatolian business community's accumulation of power has frightened the military and its allies, compelling them to seek redress in a judicial system rigged in the Kemalist elite's favor.

To be sure, AKP made a number of egregious errors after its electoral victory in 2007. Believing they had an overwhelming mandate to govern, the party's leaders dispensed with the discretion of their first five years in office and embarked on a series of initiatives that were sure to inflame Kemalist suspicions. For example, instead of incremental changes--a hallmark of the party's 2003-2004 reform program--to the existing constitution that was written at the behest of the military after the 1980 coup d'etat, the AKP unveiled an entirely new document. This led to accusations that the party sought to dismantle the republican political system. Yet it was not until early 2008, when Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan responded positively to a proposal from the Nationalist Movement Party to lift the ban on headscarves at publicly funded universities, that the AKP handed its foes an issue that would ultimately be used to try to destroy it. Until then, the party had done relatively little to advance a religious agenda. Permitting headscarves--a symbol of reaction (irtica) in the context of Turkish politics--on campus, however, made it easier for the state prosecutor to claim that AKP was a "center of anti-secular activity" and must therefore be closed.

The consequences of the political turmoil in Turkey should not be underestimated. The reform process that provided so much hope for Turkey a few years ago is likely wrecked beyond repair, which is a severe blow to the prospects for a democratic transition and Ankara's bid for European Union membership. If the Constitutional Court ultimately decides to close AKP as many expect, these problems will be accentuated. Moreover, the economy, which has slowed recently, is likely to be adversely affected as investors flee Turkey's instability.

Of perhaps more profound importance, it is entirely unclear who would govern Turkey if AKP is closed and its leaders banned. The left of center Republican People's Party is weak, anti-democratic and anti-western and the nationalists of the right are no better, if not a good deal worse. Finally, if AKP and the Kurdish-based Democratic Society Party--which is also in the dock--are both closed, a significant portion of Turkey's Kurdish population will suddenly be disenfranchised. This raises the prospect that more Kurds will be drawn to the terrorists of the Kurdistan Workers' Party. It is hard to think of a worse scenario for a country that until recently was poised to consolidate hard fought democratic gains and economic progress.- Published 17/7/2008 © bitterlemons-international.org

Steven A. Cook is a Senior Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and the author of Ruling But Not Governing: The Military and Political Development in Egypt, Algeria, and Turkey (Johns Hopkins University Press).

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