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Turkey's Uncertain Future

by Michael Rubin
The American
April 30, 2008


The legal case against the AKP is an affirmation of democracy rather than an assault upon it. Democracy rests upon the rule of law and constitutionalism. Neither plurality support nor a majority in parliament should place any politician or party above the law.

The AKP deserves credit for the economic growth that has occurred under its stewardship and for supporting Turkey's accession into the European Union. There is no doubt that the AKP has revolutionized Turkish politics. In the 2002 election, it trounced the more established parties by out-campaigning them. The AKP has earned its reputation for serving its constituents.

Popularity and democracy are not synonymous, though. Turkish constitutionalism separates religion from party politics in order to preserve democracy. Prime Minister Erdoğan has abused this separation. He has eroded the distinction between religious and public education, sought to retire forcibly several thousand secular judges who questioned his party's interpretations of the constitution, and then moved to replace those judges with AKP apparatchiks. He also has instituted an interview process — controlled by party loyalists — designed to evaluate government technocrats on the basis of religiosity rather than merit. Turkish Air employees have even been quizzed on their belief in the Koran.

No party or prime minister in Turkey's history has been so hostile to the press. Erdoğan has sued dozens of journalists and editors. In a strategy borrowed from Iran, he has confiscated newspapers — such as Sabah, the national daily — which he deemed too critical or independent, and transferred their control to political allies. Journalists such as Vatan's Can Ataklı and Reha Muhtar, television commentator Nihat Genç, Sky Turk's Serdar Akinan, and Kanal Türk's Tuncay Özkan are now under fire either for their own criticism or, in the case of the television announcers, for their guests' criticism of the ruling party.

Erdoğan has treated courts, both international and domestic, with disdain. After the European Court of Human Rights decided against permitting headscarves in Turkish universities, he declared that "only ulama [Islamic religious scholars] could" issue such a judgment. In several instances, Erdoğan has refused to uphold the Supreme Court's decisions when it ruled against the AKP's confiscation of political opponents' property. In a moment reminiscent of Henry II, a follower gunned down a justice after the prime minister launched a fusillade against the Court.

Both AKP supporters and Western officials unfamiliar with the AKP's record paint the Court's actions as undemocratic. AKP supporters argue that the party represents democracy, and they seek to equate any opposition — be it secular, nationalist, or judicial — as fascist. This is unfair. Ultra-nationalists who do not abide by the law find themselves in court, just as the AKP now does. The military has stayed on the sideline, as it should. Declaring its support for the constitution in a written statement is not a coup.

Turkey is not alone in holding politicians legally accountable. In April 2000, the European Parliament suspended French demagogue Jean-Marie Le Pen; soon afterward, Austrian politician Jörg Haider also faced sanction. The global community does not allow Hamas's popularity among the Palestinians to absolve it of responsibilities under international law.

True democracy requires respect for the judicial process. Let Erdoğan have his day in court. We should respect the results as a sign that Turkey's democracy has matured.

Michael Rubin, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, is editor of the Middle East Quarterly.  

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