A coup by any other name
Turkey's secularists launched a judicial case to try to topple the JDP, writes Gareth Jenkins
On Friday, Public Prosecutor Abdul-Rahman Yalcinkaya filed a case with the Turkish Constitutional Court calling for the closure of the Justice and Development Party (JDP) on the grounds that it had become a centre for attempts to undermine the principle of secularism enshrined in the Turkish constitution. Yalcinkaya also called for 71 members of the JDP to be banned from all political activity. They include Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan and most of the rest of the party's leadership.
The court is expected to rule on whether or not the application meets the procedural requirements by the end of this month, after which the JDP will have a month to present its initial defence. In the past, party closure cases have usually taken anything from eight months to several years to be concluded.
Hardline Turkish secularists have always been suspicious of the JDP's ultimate intentions. The JDP was formed in 2001 from the remnants of a succession of political parties which had been outlawed for allegedly trying to undermine secularism. There is no dispute that, in their youth, JDP leaders such as Erdogan frequently espoused a hardline interpretation of Islam and even sometimes called for the introduction of Sharia law. However, in the run-up to the JDP's victory in the general election of November 2002, Erdogan and the other party leaders maintained that they had changed and repeatedly expressed their commitment to secularism. Nor, during its first five years in government, did the JDP attempt to introduce any radical, anti-secular measures.
However, if anything, the JDP's moderation appears to have made hardline secularists even more suspicious. They refused to accept that the JDP leaders really had changed, maintaining that they were just biding their time until they felt strong enough to implement a radical Islamist agenda. Nor was the JDP unaware of how it was regarded by the secular Turkish establishment, particularly the country's still powerful military. During its first five years in power, the JDP sought to avoid confrontation and backed down whenever the military expressed disapproval of any of its policy initiatives.
The change came in spring 2007 when the military intervened to try to prevent the JDP from appointing Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul to the presidency. The JDP responded by calling an early general election which it won by a landslide, taking 46.6 per cent of the popular vote. Over the months that followed, the Turkish military adopted a low profile, apparently unwilling to risk another humiliating rebuff from the Turkish electorate.
Emboldened by what it regarded as the secular establishment being cowed into silence, since July last year, the JDP has not only appointed Gul to the presidency but pushed ahead with a series of initiatives which challenge the traditional interpretation of secularism in Turkey, most recently by trying to lift the ban which prevents women wearing headscarves from attending university.
But, even if the military has remained silent, the response from the other bastion of the Turkish establishment, namely the judiciary, has demonstrated that the JDP's confidence was, at best, premature. Yalcinkaya's decision to press for the closure of the JDP stunned not only the party but the entire country and looks set to overshadow the political agenda for months to come.
Yalcinkaya's attempts to close down a party which has the support of nearly half the Turkish electorate has triggered protests from outside and inside the country, including from some of the JDP's opponents.
"Turkey can't get anywhere by closing down parties," said Sinan Aygun, the chairman of the Ankara Chamber of Commerce. "I may be extremely critical of the government but I can't support such a disastrous initiative."
Ollie Rehn, the Commissioner for Enlargement for the EU, which Turkey still hopes to join, dryly noted: "It is difficult to say that this respects the democratic principles of a normal European country."
Erdogan was characteristically blunt. "Our people don't deserve this," he said, warning Yalcinkaya that he, rather than the JDP, would suffer the most from the application.
But the real problem is probably not so much Yalcinkaya's application but the often draconian Turkish laws under which it was filed. A large proportion of his 162 page indictment consists of quotations from speeches given by leading JDP officials. Most are fairly innocuous. However, there are statements which, even if they are acceptable in most countries in the world, would appear to be illegal under Turkish law. For example, Yalcinkaya has indicted four local JDP officials from the provincial town of Nigde who campaigned in the 2007 election under the slogan "An end to 84 years of darkness", in a reference to the 1923 foundation of the Turkish Republic from the ruins of the Ottoman Empire. Regardless of whether or not it should be illegal, under Turkish law, political parties are forbidden from working for the overthrow of the existing constitutional order.
There is a small possibility that the Constitutional Court will simply refuse to consider the case. However, the general expectation is that it will decide to hear Yalcinkaya's application. As a result, even if the court eventually rules not to close the JDP, Turkey faces a long period of uncertainty and potential instability at a time when the economy is slowing and social divisions deepening, not just between the JDP and secularists but also between nationalist Turks and Kurds. Yet even many of the JDP's opponents admit that this is exactly what they want to help them in their efforts to close down the JDP. However, it is crystal clear that banning popular leaders from politics and closing down their party would simply be a recipe for chaos.