/ 19 June 2008

Turkey: PM fights for survival

Turkey’s embattled prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, launched an attempt to save his political skin this week by seeking to reduce tensions in a power struggle with the state’s secular establishment that threatens to split the country, close his party and oust him from office.

After days of simmering government anger Erdogan pleaded with his supporters and Turkey’s most senior judges to avoid a ”clash of powers” following a ruling by the courts that overturned a law allowing female university students to wear the Islamic headscarf.

”Everyone should refrain from actions that make the rule of law, absolute supremacy of the Constitution and our constitutional institutions matters of discussion,” he said in a televised address to Parliament in the capital, Ankara. ”No one should try to benefit from such attempts. We have to take Turkey out of such a ‘clash of powers’ environment.” His tone was markedly more conciliatory than that of other government figures and appeared calculated to avoid antagonising the constitutional court before it hears a separate case calling for the ruling justice and development party (AKP) to be shut down, and Erdogan and 70 other leading figures to be banned from politics for five years for alleged anti-secularism.

Some AKP members had taken a much harder line after the court last Thursday ruled that the headscarf was a symbol of political Islam that threatened Turkey’s secular system established under Ataturk. Many MPs accused it of usurping the government’s powers and demanded parliamentary action to annul the ruling. But Erodgan merely called on the court to explain its actions.

”Legislative powers belong only to the elected Parliament. No one has the right to put itself in the place of the legislature,” he said.

Last week’s ruling, which prompted the government to hold six hours of emergency talks, has led many to conclude that Erdogan is doomed when the court delivers its verdict in the party closure case, which is expected in the autumn. The case is based on a 162-page indictment compiled by the chief prosecutor. It cites the headscarf law, a host of Erdogan’s statements and AKP actions at local government level, including bans on alcohol sales.

Some analysts depicted this week’s remarks as a last-ditch effort by the prime minister to placate his enemies in the judiciary and armed forces, the ultimate arbiters of Turkish political power.

”Erdogan is trying to save his skin but it’s too late,” said Cengiz Aktar, a professor of European Union affairs at Istanbul’s Bahcesehir University. ”The guy has been yielding to the demands of the establishment for weeks, but they don’t want to listen any more. He is considered an outsider and there are a lot of personal animosities. Many people in the old establishment simply hate him — they think he represents a sort of Antichrist.

”Even if he does survive, what then? This country’s Constitution was not designed for reform but to protect the state against its citizens. The era of reform is over.”

Soli Ozel, an analyst at Bilgi University, said Erdogan was trying to prevent possible military intervention: ”The whole aim of the closure case is to get Erdogan’s head. But further polarisation doesn’t suit the AKP’s interests. It’s much better to form a new party than be more confrontational and bring about a final clash — the ultimate form of which would be a military takeover.”

The long-standing headscarf ban was lifted by Parliament in February to much acclaim from religious conservatives, who saw it as ending unfair discrimination, but it was greeted with dismay and protests from secularists.

The AKP, which has roots in political Islam but draws support from across the middle class, championed the reform on grounds of religious freedom and insisted that it posed no threat to secularism.

Analysts expect the AKP, which won an emphatic majority at last year’s general election, to re-form under a different name if it is closed down. Some say the party’s parliamentary majority would allow the new party to continue in office without Erdogan and the other figures subject to a possible ban. —