Later this week, the Turkish Constitutional Court is expected to hand down a decision that will determine the fate of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP). Many expect that the highest Turkish Court, when judging the legality of the AKP, will be consistent with its earlier decisions and close down the party, which has controlled the Turkish government since 2002. Furthermore, many expect the court to declare a five-year ban from politics for a considerable number (up to 70) of the party’s high-ranking representatives, including Prime Minster Tayyib Erdoğan and President Abdullah Gül. All of this in the name of protecting the laicist order—or, at least, this is the language in which this cause is presented.
Closing political parties that are accused of threatening the laicist order and/or the national unity of the country is a pretty common occurrence in Turkey, and has been a popular political practice ever since the earliest years of the Republic. What is different this time around is that the AKP has an impressive political mandate, having secured a record high 47% of the vote at the last elections in the fall of 2007. When it took over government following a surprise victory in 2002 as reincarnation of the moderate wing of the just banned Virtue Party, it certainly benefited from the electorate’s dissatisfaction with the previous political establishment, which had been widely entrapped in corruption affairs. In its first five years in government, the AKP focused less on Islamic identity politics, and more on a pragmatic politics of services and economic stability, and in this way was successful in earning the trust of people far beyond its traditional electorate. This enabled it to broaden its electorate beyond religious and cultural lines and even increase its vote in 2007. And it should have increased its political leverage, enabling it to move ahead on the path of economic and political reforms in line with the recommendations made by the EU, with which the party had itself closely aligned, hoping to further advance the EU-membership negotiations it had been able to secure in what was its most outstanding political achievement. At first, it indeed looked as if the AKP government was determined and capable to continue its reform politics. However, the party became entrapped in a series of highly sensitive political debates that basically bound all its political energies. Gradually, the government lost political momentum, and found itself in an ever more defensive position.
The current political crisis, and in a sense the fall of the AKP—never mind the outcome of the closure case—started with the struggle over the Turkish presidency in early 2007. Despite its historical position of strength within the Parliament, it proved very difficult for the AKP to move its own candidate into this highest political office. And the political costs of this victory were enormous. The contestation over the presidency mobilized Kemalist Turkey and united it to an extent that the headscarf debate would never have been able to on its own. Laicists perceived an Islamist president as just the next step in the gradual Islamization of the state. In the spring of 2007, encouraged by belligerent political statements from the military, and supported by most of the mainstream media, Kemalists organized mass demonstrations in the name of laicism. Already ruled by a supposedly Islamist government, the fear of a president with roots in the Islamist movement motivated hundreds of thousands of people with apparently very diverse political motives to participate in huge rallies—a truly remarkable event since the Republic had never before seen people from all walks of life taking to the streets in defense of laicism. This successful mass mobilization certainly encouraged anti-AKP forces to continue their attacks. From this point on—only briefly interrupted by the impressive (and for the Kemalist elite, increasingly alarming) electoral victory of the AKP in the fall of 2007—the guardians of Kemalism (i.e., the military, and more recently also the judiciary) increased their pressure on the government.
The final showdown began in February of 2008, when President Gül approved an amendment to the constitution that was meant to allow female students to enter universities with the headscarf. It did not take long for the Republican People’s Party—founded by Kemal Atatürk and convinced that it represents his single legitimate political heir; also currently the AKP’s main opposition in Parliament—to bring the amendment in front of the Constitutional Court. On June 5, the court declared the amendment void and its application illegal.
It was no accident that on the same day, the chief of the Turkish military staff, General Yaşar Büyükanıt, delivered a public speech in which he made clear that neither the Turkish judicial system nor the army would allow modifications of the laicist system. Indeed, when it comes to the protection of laicism, the judiciary and the military tend to walk closely together, and this cooperation appears to be rather concrete, as a scandalous document written from within circles of the General Staff and published by the newspaper Taraf on June 20 revealed. This document, crafted prior to the election of 2007, detailed an action plan—according to official statements, never signed and enacted—for creating a public climate hostile towards the government. The same newspaper has made public secret meetings between high-ranking generals and members of the Constitutional Court in the course of the last year.
Similar procession in tandem can be expected in the last act of the current crisis. The constitutional court commenced its negotiation on the AKP closure yesterday, and can be expected to receive the backing of the army, the highest generals of which will convene for the Military High Council on August 1. Ironically, this council is headed by the Prime Minister, who by the time of its meeting might already have received his (second) five-year ban from politics.