Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Lagendijk Condemns Judicial Interference, Politics of Fear

Joost Lagendijk, Co-chairman of the delegation of the Joint EU-Turkey Parliamentary Committee authored an op/ed in Today's Zaman. In it, Lagendijk stresses that the closure case is a blatant defiance of democracy and raises serious questions about separation of powers in the Turkish government.

Notably, Lagendijk also raises questions about the politics of fear that CHP and others in the opposition to AKP have used for political gain. Last fall, I was struck when a former professor of mine informed an audience of people that fear was democracy's greatest threat. As Lagendijk writes, what has happened in Turkey is certainly evidence for such a claim.

The entirety of the text is excerpted below.

Efforts by one of the country's top prosecutors to close down the Justice and Development Party (AK Party) are a clear example of the mindset that is still dominant within the Turkish judiciary. They see themselves as the ultimate guardians of the foundations on which the republic is based. Even if most people reject their claims, these hard-core secularists do not hesitate to stage a constitutional coup against the party that represents almost 50 percent of the Turkish people.

In the run-up to the elections in July 2007 many accusations were thrown at the AK Party, putting their secular credentials in doubt. Then President Ahmet Necdet Sezer, Chief of General Staff Gen. Yaşar Büyükanıt and Republican People's Party (CHP) leader Deniz Baykal all warned the Turkish population that by electing Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Abdullah Gül the country would be in danger of losing its secular character. The accusations against the AK Party were all expressions of a worldview that I would call "aggressive" secularism. According to this view, the "beliefs" of a religion should be pushed back into the private domain, if necessary through coercion and prohibitions.

In July this strategy, based on fear and suspicion, totally backfired. On top of the support from its core electorate, the AK Party received the votes of many Turks that did not believe Erdoğan was leading Turkey in the direction of Iran. Almost 50 percent of the population rewarded the government for its economic policies and were open to a new interpretation of secularism (let's call it "passive" secularism) resembling the one practiced in Europe and the US, where the state adopts a neutral position on all religions and has no objection to religious expressions in the public domain.

Taking advantage of the defeat suffered by the army after their e-coup, the government managed very cleverly to strike a deal with Büyükanıt. The army would remain silent on politics for the foreseeable future but would get the opportunity to prove themselves in the fight against terrorism.

It made them so confident (some would say arrogant) that they pushed the changes to the Constitution through Parliament without bothering to create trust among many doubtful moderate secularists. Erdoğan should have spent much more energy in trying to convince AK Party skeptics that lifting the ban at universities was part of a new consensus and not a stepping stone to allow the wearing of headscarves at other public places as well. Distrust in Turkey and in Europe could also have been prevented when the government had presented these changes as part of a package of reforms (or a proposal for a new Constitution)that should have contained other reforms on freedom of speech and minority rights as well.

The AK Party self-confidently ruling the country without effective opposition left the hard core of the dogmatic secularists desperate. The CHP had lost the elections and the army was busy in northern Iraq. How to stop the AK Party now? The only method available was to use the last secular bulwark not touched (at least for the moment) by the new spirit in the country: the judiciary, full of people that deep down think they know better than the majority of the people. Most judges and prosecutors feel so strongly about the perceived dangers to the Turkish state that they believe the rule of law and the outcome of democratic elections can be overturned if necessary. They said so in a recent opinion poll, they acted accordingly last Friday. The state had to teach the people a lesson.

The constitutional coup we are now witnessing is the action of desperate people, afraid of what the future will bring. They know the present Constitution, based on the idea that the state has to be protected against its citizens, will soon be replaced by a new civil and democratic one that will protect the citizens against the state. This coup is the ultimate effort to stop history. It may succeed in the short run because the present highest judges share the same mindset. It will fail in the long run because the Turkish people will punish the politicians, the military and the judges supporting this coup.

What will be the effect on Turkey-EU relations? That depends of course first and foremost on the decision of the Constitutional Court: Will they open a case against the AK Party or will they not? If there is no case, the damage will be small also because it will show that Turkey has moved beyond the point where political disputes can be decided via court cases. If the AK Party has to defend itself before the court, the effects could be worrying -- at least in the short run. The court case will stop the efficient functioning of the government and Parliament. Reforms the EU has been waiting for for such a long time will be postponed again. Turkey skeptics in Europe will use the situation to prove they were always right and that the EU better forget about integrating such an unstable and undemocratic country. Defenders of Turkish accession will have a hard time making the case for ongoing negotiations while the reform process is halted and the pro-European elected politicians in Turkey are in danger of losing out to the anti-European bureaucrats.

In the long run I am much more optimistic. This crisis might well turn out to be a turning point in Turkish history. I am also deeply convinced that many AK Party opponents will come to the conclusion that this is not the way to fight Erdoğan and his policy. If one thinks that Turkey would be better off with another policy, then the next elections are the moment to prove the AK Party is wrong and to convince the people. The irony is that most probably after a court case or after a possible closing down of the AK Party, its successor will gain even more votes because most Turks do not want either the army or the judiciary to tell them what is right or wrong. This means the process of reform will continue. There will be a new Constitution. There will be a new generation of prosecutors and judges that are willing to serve the people instead of bullying them. The EU will see that things are moving on in Turkey and that it is in the self-interest of Europe to have Turkey as a member state where democracy has defeated the self-appointed guardians of the status quo.

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