On April 30, Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) presented its preliminary defense to the country’s Constitutional Court in the case filed for its closure by Public Prosecutor Abdurrahman Yalcinkaya on March 14 on charges of becoming a center for anti-secular activities (see EDM, March 17).
In the run-up to the May 2 deadline for the submission of the AKP’s defense, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan admitted that he was uncertain whether the party would ask for an extension (see EDM, April 27). “We managed to complete it early,” said AKP Deputy Chairman Dengir Mir Mehmet Firat as he arrived at the Constitutional Court in Ankara on April 30. “The defense is 98 pages long. There are also three files of appendices” (Milliyet, Vatan, Radikal, Hurriyet, Yeni Safak, May 1).
Firat described the AKP’s defense as “thematic,” saying that the party had not bothered to respond to the charges against all of the 71 current and former members of the party named in Yalcinkaya’s indictment but had concentrated on demonstrating the commitment to secularism by the party as a whole.
“The indictment includes information and documents that do not reflect reality,” Firat said. “We have shown that the indictment is inaccurate” (Radikal, Milliyet, May 1).
The AKP’s defense will now be copied and distributed to the 11 members of Constitutional Court, who are later expected to call both Yalcinkaya and members of the AKP to give an oral presentation of their cases. It is unclear how long the court will take to reach a decision, although a ruling is not expected until late 2008 or early 2009. Under Turkish law, at least two thirds of the members of the court must support a decision for a political party’s closure in order for it to be banned.
There is also still no indication as to whether the AKP will attempt to pre-empt the court’s decision by changing the Turkish Constitution to make it more difficult to close down political parties. In the early hours of April 30, however, the AKP did finally succeed in amending the notorious Article 301 of the Turkish Penal Code, which has been one of the main instruments used by the Turkish authorities to try to restrict freedom of expression. On May 1 the Turkish press gleefully printed pictures of their elected representatives falling asleep in their seats during an all night parliamentary session in which they voted to replace Article 301’s previous injunction on denigrating “Turkishness” with one on denigrating the “Turkish Nation, Turkish Republic, Turkish Parliament, Turkish Government or the state judicial organs.” Further amendments included a reduction in the maximum jail sentence for those convicted under Article 301 from three to two years, while making any prosecutions under Article 301 dependent on a decision by the Justice Minister (Radikal, May 1).
Few neutral observers doubt that the timing of the AKP’s decision to amend Article 301 after years of prevarication is part of an effort to court the EU, which has repeatedly pressed the Turkish government to ease restrictions on freedom of speech, in the hope that Europe will rally behind the party as the case for its closure is heard by the Constitutional Court. Although the EU has welcomed the amendment of Article 301, which they believe will reduce the number of prosecutions, privately many EU officials admit that they are still bewildered by a political culture that is so insecure that it feels it necessary to punish criticism rather than simply ignore it.
The changes are also unlikely to satisfy either critics or supporters of the original wording of Article 301 inside Turkey, with many of the former still arguing that the article should be abolished in its entirety. The amendments are also unlikely to affect what a recent opinion poll suggests is a recent wavering in support for the AKP. According to a survey conducted by the Center for Social Research (ANDY-AR) from April 8 to 21, 70.2 percent of the Turkish electorate believes that the case currently before the Constitutional Court will end with the AKP’s closure, compared with 12.3 percent who think that the party will be allowed to remain open and 17.5 percent who are undecided. More worrying for the government, the poll suggested that if an election were to be held immediately, only 41.1 percent of the electorate would vote for the AKP, down from 46.6 percent in the last general election in July 2007 and from the 52.6 percent in the previous ANDY-AR poll in January, shortly before the AKP’s attempts to amend the Turkish Constitution to lift the headscarf ban in Turkish universities triggered Yalcinkaya’s application for the party’s closure (see EDM, February 11).
Voters do not appear to be shifting to other parties, however: 13.6 percent of those questioned in April said that, in the event of an immediate election, they would vote for the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), down from 14.1 percent in January. Support for the ultranationalist Nationalist Action Party (MHP) slipped from 14.5 percent to 14.2 percent, while the pro-Kurdish Democratic Society Party (DTP) edged up from 2.8 percent to 3.1 percent and the center-right Democrat Party (DP) from 2.4 percent to 2.8 percent. A further 4.7 percent of those questioned said that they would vote for other small parties, down from 5.4 percent in January while 2.2 percent said that they would not vote for any of the parties, up from 1.5 percent in January. ANDY-AR estimated that all of the figures had a margin of error of 2 percent.
The most striking change was in the number of participants who said that they were undecided, 18.3 percent in April, up from 6.7 percent three months earlier (Center for Social Research, www.andyar.com)
Perhaps the most interesting statistic came in response to a question about whether any of the current members of the AKP had the ability to lead a successor party if the Constitutional Court eventually closed down the AKP and banned Erdogan from being a member of a political party (see EDM, March 21). Some 11.4 percent opted for Foreign Minister Ali Babacan, while Firat received the support of 3.6 percent. But 68 percent of participants believed that none of the current members of the AKP had the ability to lead a successor party if Erdogan were banned; once again demonstrating the extent to which not only the AKP but also Turkish politics are now indexed to the health and political fortunes of one man (see EDM, February 1, February 21).