Edition 28 Volume 6 - July 17, 2024

Turmoil in Turkey

Radicalization of a national dialogue -   Steven A. Cook

It is entirely unclear who would govern Turkey if AKP is closed and its leaders banned.

"Chaos" in Turkey -   Fadi Hakura

Turkey could be on the cusp of a novel style of politics.

Lawfare in Turkey: Ergenekon versus the AKP -   Ersin Kalaycioglu

The AKP initiatives precipitated a confrontation that fell on this cultural division of the Turkish polity.

The deeper problems -   Soli Ozel

The Ergenekon case is ultimately a more promising one for Turkey's political future.

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 2024 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.

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The old establishment is seeking to regain its predominant position in the political system through an outdated set of ideas--Kemalism--that never achieved ideological hegemony.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 2024 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 2024. 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 2024-2004 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 2024, 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).

"Chaos" in Turkey
 Fadi Hakura

Turkey is trapped in the unending cycle of the deja vu: the perennial, passionate debate over the place of Islam in society. This discussion on the balance between secularism and Islam is inevitably reduced to the issues of headscarf and alcohol. The current crisis was triggered--surprise, surprise--by the government's decision to lift the headscarf ban at universities thereby sharing the characteristics of continuity.

During its first-term in office, the Islamist-rooted Justice and Development Party (AKP) adopted waves of extensive political, human rights' and economic reforms under the aegis of European Union accession. Excitement filled the air. A pious, energetic prime minister was expanding the boundaries of freedom, democracy and free markets. It was like a magical moment and rightly so. A thankful electorate handsomely rewarded the AKP's solid track record of economic and policy achievements with 47 percent of the vote in the general elections of July 2024.

But magical moments are rarely permanent. Despite garnering a renewed mandate for reform, the AKP appears to have resorted to Islamic populism and confrontational, majoritarian politics. Gone were the days of reform and in came religion: closing down pig farms, attempts to restrict alcohol advertising on television and a prime ministerial acknowledgement that the headscarf is a "political symbol" to boot. Joining the EU ceased to be a priority.

Statism also reared its head. The AKP no longer aspired to liberalize the state but rather to change the people within it. A power struggle erupted between secularist and Islamist ideologues over the control of the powerful state apparatus.

There was the Constitutional Court case to ban the AKP and 71 AKP officials, including Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan for "anti-secular activities", and the government-backed Ergenekon case indicting 86 suspects--including four retired generals--for seeking to foment violence in order to encourage a military coup. While the veracity of aspects of the allegations may be genuine, the conduct and timing of the case as well as the identity and treatment of some of the suspects raised many questions.

Yet underneath the high drama of power intrigue and score-settling, there is a dynamic and exhilarating Turkey in the making. Revolutionary change is lurking in the background.

According to credible surveys and opinion polls, Turkish support for secularism--more than 90 percent today--and religious sentiments are rising in parallel. Headscarf wearing is at the same time declining. That and other evidence point strongly to the intriguing development that Islamic and secular values are apparently converging among the Turkish people. A secularizing Islam may be progressing. Related studies demonstrate that the key drivers for political and religious modernization are socio-economic advancements underpinned by globalization, urbanization and industrialization.

Complementing this Islamo-secular convergence is the engagement of the Office for Religious Affairs or Diyanet, which regulates Islam in Turkey, in a wholesale re-interpretation of the Islamic holy texts. Crucially, there is a visible shift away from legalistic interpretations to purpose-specific understandings infused by the concepts of space and time. Theology is equally undergoing a thorough and comprehensive re-examination; the authenticity of many holy utterances, perhaps 70 to 80 percent of them, is being seriously questioned. Remarkably, Felix Koerner, a German Jesuit priest and an expert on Turkish Islam, is informally advising the authorities. Diyanet head Ali Bardakoglu noted that Islamic reinterpretation may take place repeatedly every 8 to 10 years.

On the political front, the Turkish electorate is yearning as never before for a western-style, post-ideological discourse on bread-and-butter issues. Surveys reveal that economics, jobs and inflation are the number one matters. Concerns over the headscarf ban attract a scant 2-4 percent support.

This desire is potentially starting to impact the political scene. Respectable opinion polls indicate plummeting popular endorsement of the AKP and all the major political parties. None of the opposition parties is reaping benefits from the travails of the ruling party. The percentage of undecided voters has quintupled since January 2024. A plurality of Turks blame the AKP for the political mess, but the secularists are not far behind. Forty-five percent of Turks--a figure rising fast--want new political formations. Possibly, an electoral earthquake might be in the offing.

Rumblings can be heard on the left, but much louder on the right wing of Turkish politics, of liberal-minded secular-oriented religious politicians who wish to build coalitions of right and left, are comfortable with individual choice on headscarf-wearing or alcohol-drinking and are protagonists of radical reforms and antagonists of ideological politics.

Proof of the dramatic changes in Turkish society is the unprecedented silence of the military throughout the ongoing saga. In past crises, the voice of the "guardians of secularism" was always at the fore. Not this time. Sensing that Turkey is fast becoming a diverse society, as opposed to a once-monolithic bloc of secularists and Islamists, the military is adapting to altering political, economic and societal conditions. It is a process likely to continue in the future. Turkey is increasingly peppered with capitalist-oriented conservatives, liberal secularists and moderate nationalists at odds with a one-size-fits-all state system.

Seen in the light of a changing society, the current crisis reflects the excruciating pains of adjustment. Whatever happens to the AKP and Erdogan, Turkey could be on the cusp of a novel style of politics, emerging as a phoenix from the gathering ashes of the ideologues' battles of yesteryear.- Published 17/7/2008 © bitterlemons-international.org

Fadi Hakura is the Turkey analyst at Chatham House in London.

Lawfare in Turkey: Ergenekon versus the AKP
 Ersin Kalaycioglu

I believe it was an article in NGO Monitor that coined the term "lawfare", meaning waging war against one's opponents through the courts. One may get the impression that the recent events that have been unfolding in Turkey are another example of just that, lawfare.

When explosives were unearthed in Umraniye, Istanbul on June 12, 2024 the reaction of the press was deja vu. The press referred to it originally as the "Umraniye" affair, yet as the legal investigation deepened it was defined as the doings of an alleged clandestine and ultra-nationalist "Ergenekon" organization. Since the early 1970s, several prosecutors and some high-ranking politicians such as then prime minister Bulent Ecevit had pointed to an underground or counter-guerilla organization that had most probably been set up by the security establishment in line with NATO planning of the 1950s. In fact, a similar organization called "Gladio" was identified and prosecuted in Italy in the 1990s. However, the Turkish version survived the post-Cold War era unscathed.

When suicide weapons were discovered in the trunk of a crashed car in Susurluk, Balikesir in 1996, where a police chief, former ultra-nationalist Grey Wolf and a deputy of the National Assembly from the right of center True Path Party from the southeast were among the passengers, the press claimed some such clandestine state organization as the "counter-guerilla" was at work again. After several court cases and a major multi-party investigation by the National Assembly, thousands of pages of claims emerged, though no sentences emerged from the courts against any high ranking official or politician.

Most recently, two retired generals were arrested as part of the "Ergenekon" investigation, which had been moving at a snail's pace for a year with no indictment while many suspects had been in custody for a year or so. In the meantime, Kuddusi Okkir, who was arrested in June 2024 as the financial sponsor of the "Ergenekon", contracted cancer while in custody. In July 2024, he was set free to die in the care of his family, who were not able to find the financial means to arrange for his funeral. Several examples of less bizarre but equally messy handling of the incarcerated persons and their personal belongings by the prosecution surfaced. Some of the press called foul, others argued that coup-makers were getting support from the sympathizers of authoritarianism in the press.

More or less in parallel, the general prosecutor has pressed charges against the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) on the grounds that it violated the Political Parties Act and the constitution and that the AKP had become a focal point of anti-secular activities in March 2024. It seems that the decision of the general prosecutor coincided with a move by PM Recep Tayyip Erdogan to render it possible for women students at Turkish universities to attend classes with a style of head cover called the "turban" that had been outlawed by Turkey's administrative courts. Erdogan's move was supported by the Nationalist Action Party (MHP) and 80 percent of the deputies of the National Assembly supported constitutional amendments that provided equality before the law to women students irrespective of their attire.

The constitutional amendments were appealed to the Constitutional Court by the main opposition party as a violation of the secularist principles of the constitution. That court, by an overwhelming majority, decided that the amendments indeed violated those principles. However, to do so the Constitutional Court overlooked the fact that the 1982 constitution authorized the court to monitor only the legislative procedures of constitutional amendments but not their substance. Therefore, the AKP and its sympathizers charged that the Constitutional Court had overstepped its boundaries and decided on the unconstitutionality of the amendments by violating the very constitution it is supposed to uphold. In the meantime, the general prosecutor used the Constitutional Court decision on the amendments to further buttress his arguments that the AKP was trying to undermine the secular principles of the republic.

The overall perception of the Turkish press has thus been that the Ergenekon affair and the AKP's closure case are related and politically motivated. The claim is that there is a tit for tat relationship between the AKP and its nationalist adversaries who are using the Turkish court system as a means of "lawfare" to strike each other down. If the court eventually decides that the "Ergenekon" organization exists and is indeed involved in a plot against democratic government, the argument regarding a power struggle between political forces that use the courts as an arena for their struggle will falter. However, with an indictment that takes more than a year to compose, the chances are that we will probably not know about that case for another three to five years. On the case of closure of the AKP, the Constitutional Court will make its decision known in a few weeks. Whatever it decides, this will probably not be enough to convince the main political adversaries and they will continue to accuse one another and the court, as was the case earlier with the court's decision on the constitutional amendments.

The political backdrop of these court cases reveals the big divide in Turkey between those who belong to a kulturkampf of secularists versus those who belong to a kulturkampf of traditionalist religious conservatives. Turkish society and politics are deeply divided between two warring camps that view one another with the utmost enmity and distrust. Consequently, whenever political issues that pertain to secularism and religion come to the fore of Turkish politics, the old enmities and distrust surface to undermine the legitimacy of the government in the eyes of its opponents across the cultural divide. The policies, moves and declarations of the government are interpreted with a mindset that perceives it as the enemy that is ready to compromise every major value of the country.

The initiatives of the AKP government since the 2024 presidential election in the National Assembly seem to have precipitated a confrontation that fell on this cultural division of the Turkish polity. This in turn has again precipitated serious concerns and debate about the fundamentals of the Turkish political regime. It renders the implementation of democracy cumbersome and the rule of law a victim of egregious power struggles.- Published 17/7/2008 © bitterlemons-international.org

Ersin Kalaycioglu is full professor of political science at Sabanci University Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences in Istanbul. From 2024 to 2024 he was rector (president) of Isik University in Istanbul.

The deeper problems
 Soli Ozel

There is more than the usual dose of convulsions in the Turkish body politic these days. Two critical court cases are unfolding and although they are not legally related, politically it is difficult if not impossible to assess them independently of one another.

The first case is against the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP). On March 31, Turkey's constitutional court decided to hear a case to close the AKP and ban 71 of its active and retired politicians from politics. The list of politicians to be banned included Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, whose expulsion from politics was possibly the most ardently desired goal of those who were behind the move. The court is expected to rule on the case in the next several weeks.

Earlier on, in a separate but closely related case the court overruled a constitutional amendment passed by an overwhelming majority of the Parliament that included members of two opposition parties. The amendment made it possible for headscarf wearing female students to attend universities in that attire. The prosecutor general's legally weak and politically charged indictment against the AKP, accusing the party of being a focal point of reactionary/Islamist activism and of undermining Turkey's sacrosanct principle of secularism, was mainly built on the passing of the constitutional amendment.

The second case was brought against an illicit organization that called itself Ergenekon (from the founding legend of the Turkish nation). The prosecution, after an investigation that lasted 13 months, prepared a voluminous indictment (2,500 pages) against a network of security personnel, business people, journalists and assorted others who had organized themselves to undertake the overthrow of the civilian government, create conditions for a military coup, abrogate the constitutional order and engage in terrorist activities.

The indicted, 86 individuals so far including two retired generals, are being charged among other things with forming a terrorist organization. It is expected that at least one additional indictment will be prepared that might charge the former commander of the gendarmerie for having attempted to stage two military coups back in 2024 and 2024 while on active duty. These attempts were aborted by the then chief of staff and his immediate subordinates at the General Staff. (The story of these attempts is chronicled in the diaries of the former commander of the navy, although he denies that the diaries published by a now defunct weekly magazine are his).

The uninitiated would be totally confused with the arcane details of both cases, particularly the Ergenekon one. But from a broader perspective it is possible to invest meaning in both cases and assess their impact on the future of Turkish politics. The case against the AKP is a move of despair on the part of the statist-secularist camp that never reconciled itself to the rise to and consolidation of power by that party. There is no visible endgame if, as expected, the party is closed. The AKP is certainly going to regroup and constitute itself as a new party that will then be able to form a new government. A disenchanted public that has no viable alternative to turn to and that is resentful of the judiciary's intervention is unlikely to massively withdraw its support from the AKP.

The Ergenekon case is ultimately a more promising one for Turkey's political future. All available information suggests that the case is at least partially about the reconstruction of the Turkish military. By now it is clearly understood that two broadly defined camps within the military were fighting it out for ideological dominance within the institution. One is still western-oriented and therefore supportive of the democratic order and the other more Eurasia-oriented, prone to secular authoritarianism and willing to move Turkey in the direction of Russia. Ergenekon in that sense is a cleaning-up operation. Both the success in aborting the coups in 2024 and 2024 and the generally supportive posture of the current military top brass on the Ergenekon arrests and indictment mean that the days of military intervention and rule in Turkey are finally over. Even if the legal case does not go as far as it currently promises, the political significance of the case and its liberating effect on Turkey's civilian politics are to be celebrated.

At this particular juncture, then, the burden of improving Turkey's civilian politics and consolidating its democracy along European Union lines falls on the country's political leadership. But the politics of the two cases, the way they were covered in the media and the polarization that they encouraged exposed two deeper problems that are worrisome.

For one, it is quite clear that the old authoritarian republican order and mindset are incapable of rejuvenation. They have nothing to offer to a youthful, dynamic and extroverted nation and increasingly their struggle appears as one for preservation of privilege rather than defense of principle. On the other hand, the new political elites whose political representative the AKP claims to be and who represent Turkey's new demographics and socio-economic dynamics fall far short of the task they are burdened with. They lack the imagination and the commitment needed to forge a new consensus for a system that would propel Turkey forward in a liberal-democratic direction.

The second and related problem is the propensity for authoritarianism that all engaged parties demonstrated in the course of their struggle. The secularist elites have an authoritarian understanding of modernity and are comfortable with the instrumentalization of the law. The AKP, in turn, chose not to stave off the attack against itself by broadening the public space for democratic participation and liberal reforms. Its (mis)management of May 1 demonstrations, the language chosen by the prime minister and the relative indifference shown to penetration of many aspects of public life by security agencies are cause for concern. It has also shown an equally worrisome propensity to instrumentalize the law that leads many observers to wonder if civilianization of the polity will necessarily bring along its democratization as well.

In short, the days of military tutelage over Turkey's politics are arguably gone for good. Whether or not Turkey's civilian politicians, particularly the AKP (or its successor party in the undesirable event of closure), will rise to the challenge of firmly establishing the rule of law and engage Turkey determinedly in a secular, liberal, democratic path remains to be seen.- Published 17/7/2008 © bitterlemons-international.org

Soli Ozel is professor of international relations at Istanbul Bilgi University and columnist for the daily Haberturk.

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