Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Cynical Voices

The below analysis is from Yiglal Scheifer and was posted on the EurasiaNet website. EurasiaNet is based in New York and is operated by the Central Eurasia Project of the Open Society Institute. It reflects increasingly cynical views from outside of Turkey about the country's political stability in loom of the pending closure case.
Faced with the looming possibility of being closed down by Turkey’s Constitutional Court, the governing Justice and Development Party (AKP) seems to be making a political turn back toward the center. Perhaps hoping Brussels might come to the rescue, party leaders in recent days have refocused attention on European Union-oriented reforms as a way of staving off the threat to their political future.

The Constitutional Court opted March 31 to hear arguments in a suit that could lead to the AKP’s closure. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Political analysts initially believed that the AKP would try to engineer constitutional amendments that would shield it from court-ordered closure. But concern that such a move could backfire, and encourage the polarization of Turkish politics, prompted AKP leaders to take a different legislative approach. Now it appears that the party is readying a democratization package for parliamentary consideration that would make it harder to shut political parties down in the future.

The planned reforms might not be enough to prevent the AKP’s closure, some experts say. But they add that the changes would nevertheless have a positive impact for its members. "At least it [the intended legislation] does something that puts them [AKP members] in a more legitimate and stronger position. Even in a case that the AKP is closed down, a new party that is opened to replace it will be on firmer ground for enacting reforms," says Ibrahim Kalin, director of the Foundation for Political, Economic and Social Research, a think tank based in Ankara.

"I don’t see the [AKP] losing anything politically through these reforms. They will probably even gain public support," he continued.

Turkey’s reform process, much of it centered on the country’s effort to become an EU member, has stalled in recent years. The AKP-dominated government seems to have lost its zest for EU accession, and instead expended energy on promoting changes that blur mosque-state separation in Turkey. For example, the party vigorously supported a measure to permit women to wear headscarves on university campuses, while dragging its feet on amending Article 301, a vague law used to punish those who "insult Turkishness." [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. The law has figured prominently in several recent cases that have drawn criticism from EU officials. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].

The Constitutional Court threat seems to have reinvigorated the AKP’s reformist intentions. The government now says it will present to parliament an amendment that would make it harder to for cases to be opened under Article 301. The bill would make the Turkish president responsible for approving any prosecution related to law, taking it out of the hands of prosecutors who may be acting with nationalistic motives. Other reforms also appear to be in the offing.

"We are currently preparing a national program. It will set out the short-term, medium-term and long-term reform priorities for Turkey," Foreign Minister Ali Babacan told reporters at a recent press conference. "It will also set out a calendar for us for political reforms."

Amanda Akcakoca, an expert on Turkey-EU relations at The European Policy Centre, a Brussels-based think tank, says the closure case against the AKP left the party with few options. "They have gotten themselves into a corner and now they are becoming actively engaged with the EU. Basically there is no other way out," she says. "I haven’t heard so many positive things about the EU coming out of [Prime Minister Recep Tayyip] Erdogan’s mouth as I have in the past week, to be blunt."

In a recent conference in Sweden, Erdogan said Turkey’s "patience is unlimited" when it comes to negotiations with the EU, a sharp turnaround from previous statements made by the prime minister, where he made it clear that Turkey wouldn’t tolerate long delays to join the bloc. EU officials have already made clear their concerns about the move to shut the AKP down, suggesting that, if successful, it could derail Turkey’s membership negotiations.

"The prohibition or dissolution of political parties is a far-reaching measure which should be used with the utmost restraint," Olli Rehn, the European Commissioner for Enlargement, said in a statement.

"I do not see any such justification for this case," he added. Rehn is due to arrive in Turkey on April 10 for a three-day visit, along with European Commission president José Manuel Barroso.

On April 8, the EU’s foreign policy troubleshooter, Javier Solana, bluntly stated that a court decision that resulted in a ban of the AKP would "be a blow for Turkey’s relations with us in Europe."

While any return to the reform path would be welcomed in Brussels, it still would not alleviate some of the deep concerns the EU has about the upcoming months, says a European diplomat based in Ankara. The AKP is currently preparing its defense against the closure motion and it will be at least six months before the court issues its decision.

"A concern is that if this period [of political uncertainty] continues, it will just drag on the loss of momentum on reforms," the diplomat says. "The AK party is the only party that has openly supported the EU process, so if that party is gone, the question then is who in this country will be pushing the EU process at all? Who will be a plausible partner to continue on this road?"

Whether the party will be closed or not is, of course, the big question that will haunt Turkey for the next few months. Besides shutting the party down completely, the court could also decide to keep it open, but to ban some of its leaders from politics. It could also decide to simply punish the party by cutting it off from public funding sources.

The court, observers say, is in a tight spot. Acquitting the party would very likely strengthen the AKP, which would be able to bolster its image as a scrappy underdog fighting the secular establishment in the name of democracy. If it is banned and its top leadership is prohibited from practicing politics, Turkey could face the suspension of its EU talks and the possible flare-up of a host of domestic problems, from the Kurdish issue to Cyprus, on which the AKP has presented more forward-looking policies than its political rivals.

"I see a bleak future for Turkey is the AK party is banned," says Akcakoca. "It would be a total and utter breach of democracy."

Editor’s Note: Yigal Schleifer is a freelance journalist based in Istanbul.

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