Saturday, March 22, 2008

Democracy Interrupted

Excerpted below is an op/ed in Today's Zaman authored by political analyst Sevgi Akarçeşme:

Whenever we Turks begin to think that, finally, good things are happening to us as well and we are getting out of a vicious cycle in which the country has been struggling, our hopes are sabotaged.

We have gotten accustomed to disappointment so much so that, even in times of brief intervals of political and economic stability, our anxieties based on previous experience come to the surface. Thanks to a shocking decision of the highest-ranking prosecutor in the nation to start a closure trial against the ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Party), once again our fears have been confirmed. It feels as if there is an "invisible hand" factor in Turkish politics that disrupts stability and possible reforms toward becoming a truly liberal democratic state.
In 2007, during the process that led to the presidential election, Turkey witnessed anti-democratic interventions in politics not only by the military, but also indirectly from the judiciary. Following an April 27 e-memorandum that attempted to discourage the AK Party government from nominating a candidate from its ranks, the judicial establishment approved an unprecedented "367 criteria" for the presidential election procedure as a result of a very unusual interpretation of the Constitution. Such a tailored decision by the Constitutional Court convinced public opinion that the judiciary is not impartial and has become highly politicized. As a result of the passive political culture in Turkey, instead of a loud and public reaction to such unlawful and unjust attempts, the people spoke out at the ballot box. In national elections, which almost turned into a referendum, the AK Party was rewarded with a landslide victory coupled with the legitimacy to determine its own candidate for the presidency. Notwithstanding such a broad mandate for the AK Party's candidate, Abdullah Gül, it was surprising -- at least to me -- to see that his journey to the presidency was not aborted, given the desperate combined attempts by a small, but influential coalition of pundits, the judiciary and the military.

Last week's news, which shocked all rational and democratic members of the nation, demonstrated that the establishment did not give up that easily. While we thought that the elitist center of the state finally came to terms with the realities and unwillingly acknowledged the democratic procedures, a prosecutor who acted on behalf of the "people" played the last card. In a "normal" country, an attempt to ban a political party, let alone the one that has been in power for the last six years with a renewed mandate, could not be expected at any time. However, in Turkey, a country that more often than not has witnessed the unlikely becoming likely, a couple of signs were there for suspicious minds. Shortly before the trial request, remarks by another high-level prosecutor praising the 1960 military coup that resulted in the execution of the prime minister of the era along with two leading ministers went unnoticed. Similarly, a speech by the former head of the unusually politicized Higher Education Board who vehemently opposed Gül's presidency was disclosed on YouTube. In the voice recording, he implied an "accident" in the event an AK Party candidate makes it into the presidency. Again, under normal circumstances, one would expect such unfortunate remarks by high-level bureaucrats to be investigated. Instead, the state came up with an indictment against the AK Party on the grounds that the party has become the center of anti-secular actions.

For any impartial eye, the indictment is nothing less than humorous material. What the prosecutor calls actions are a combination of various speeches made by leading AK Party figures coupled with newspaper clippings, some of which were already proven to be wrong. The indictment demands a ban on political activities of President Gül and Prime Minister Erdoğan along with many other AK Party politicians. The requested number of bans is meaningful as it could prevent the current government from forming a majority in Parliament if is taken seriously. The "evidence" for anti-secular activities is so ridiculous that certain civil society groups -- such as the Young Civilians -- have begun to use it for mockery.

In even a less than perfectly normal country one would expect such an indictment to be dismissed. Unfortunately, our very recent collective memory warns us to be cautious as "anything" can happen in Turkish politics thanks to the invisible hand factor.

Clearly, the indictment reflects more than a legal case againstthe ruling AK Party. It probably constitutes the final battleground for the power struggle between the status quo and change. The establishment is desperately trying to cling to the final trump card it has by undermining whatever is left in the name of rule of law in the country.

Regardless of the outcome of the process, which has already had a negative impact on the economy, it is Turkish democracy and the trust in the judiciary that will suffer more damage. The people of Turkey have seen enough visible and invisible interruptions in politics every time we strive to "normalize." Is it too much to ask to live in a country in which people's main concerns are gas prices or the climate instead of what a "man of law" or a general would say?

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