Turkey at a crossroads

The Turkish legal system is becoming a hazardous battleground for the country’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and its secular opponents.

As the prosecutor this week made his opening statement to the Constitutional Court in a case against the AKP, which could lead to the party’s dissolution and the banning of its leaders from politics, police arrested a number of prominent secularists, including two retired generals. Few imagine the two events are unconnected.
Each side is baring its teeth. The danger is that they could together rend Turkey’s political and constitutional fabric irreparably.

The country came to this pass because an old elite, used to exercising­ influence without paying much attention to parliamentary politics, could not come to terms with the new social forces that have captured parliamentary power. Equally, it is at this crossroads because the AKP has unwisely pushed its advantage, backing a less than neutral political figure as president, filling positions in the civil service with religiously conservative supporters, and seeking changes in the law that would allow women attending universities to wear headscarves, this last an issue of totemic importance for some on both sides in Turkey.

The AKP’s ideology suggests a modest Islamic restoration, healing­ what one of its leaders calls the “trauma” of the too-brutal modernisation of Turkey nearly a century ago, while that of the secularists insists on a sharp distinction between religion and the state as the essential basis of the Turkish republic. But ideological labels may matter less than class, with secularists regarding the AKP and its supporters as yokels just off the farm, and the AKP setting its face against what it sees as an overprivileged group whose sense of entitlement is only matched by its disdain for the realities of life for ordinary Turks. The result is that just at the moment when agreement over Cyprus seems a real possibility, opening­ up Turkey’s clouded European prospects, the country might have to cope with the cumbersome charade involved in reinventing its ruling party.

Banned leaders would then have to run things from the sidelines, bitterness might lead to reprisals and further polarisation, and what is left of Turkey’s road to accession would be constricted by additional obstacles.

Opportunities for compromise have been missed, but they may not have disappeared. The prosecutor’s case, absent of any revelations of secret plotting, may turn out to be thin, allowing the court to avoid a ban, while, behind the scenes, the parties make up, or at least agree that Turkey’s national interests deserve the priority they have not so far been afforded.—

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