Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 5 Issue: 63

With less than a month to go before it is due to present its initial defense before the Constitutional Court in the case for its closure filed with by Public Prosecutor Abdurrahman Yalcinkaya on March 14 (see EDM, March 17), there are signs that Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) may be rediscovering its EU aspirations.

On April 2, during an official visit to Sweden, Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan declared that his government was determined to push ahead with liberalizing reforms to enable Turkey to meet the criteria for EU accession, including further easing of restrictions on broadcasting in Kurdish and reforming the notorious Article 301 of the Turkish Penal Code, which makes it a criminal offence to denigrate “Turkishness.”

“For us, the EU is a strategic target on our path to modernization,” declared Erdogan. “Turkish accession to the EU has always been a priority for our government” (Radikal, Milliyet, Hurriyet, April 3).

In truth, this is not how it has always appeared to outside observers, least of all to the EU itself. The AKP introduced a battery of reforms in the first three years after coming to power in November 2002, and it officially opened accession negotiations in October 2005. Since then the AKP has appeared to lose interest in the EU process. Not only did it fail to introduce any new reforms but it was reluctant to implement fully those that it had already legislated or to honor all the commitments it had given to the EU in order to open accession negotiations. The most notable of these was a promise to open its ports and airports to ships and planes from the Greek Cypriot Republic of Cyprus.

Writers and intellectuals have also continued to be prosecuted under Article 301. On March 31, in a response to a parliamentary question, Justice Minister Mehmet Ali Sahin admitted that in 2006 the Turkish courts had heard 835 cases under Article 301, involving 1,533 people, of whom 1,314 were men and 219 women. During the first three months of 2007, the latest period for which Sahin gave figures, a further 185 cases were opened under Article 301. (Hurriyet webpage, March 31) Although, Sahin did not provide statistics, the majority of cases concluded to date appear to have ended in acquittal. Most of the minority found guilty have received suspended sentences rather than time in jail. Nevertheless, for every person prosecuted there are undoubtedly dozens, perhaps hundreds, who are reluctant to express an opinion for fear of ending up in court. Even more worryingly, prosecution under Article 301 frequently results in the accused receiving death threats from ultranationalist extremists and–as happened with the murder of Turkish-Armenian journalist Hrant Dink in January 2007–can flag them as targets for assassination.

Turkish politicians have a long tradition of being hawks at home and doves abroad, placating their foreign listeners with promises of democratizing reforms and then failing to implement them when they return home for fear of antagonizing authoritarian opinion. However, this time at least, self-interest appears to be on the side of liberalism.

Ever since Yalcinkaya first filed his application for the closure of the AKP, and particularly since it was formally accepted by the Constitutional Court on March 31 (see EDM, April 1), party members have been feverishly discussing the introduction of a reform package. The only serious point of contention is whether the government should only seek to amend the articles of the constitution that allow political parties to be closed (see EDM, March 21) or whether these amendments should be part of a broader democratization package that would also lift other restrictions.

All major decisions in the AKP are taken by Erdogan himself (see EDM, February 15). If he consults with anybody else at all, it is with an inner court of trusted advisors rather than the party as whole. Before Erdogan left for Sweden, the indications were that he had yet to make up his mind. Privately, however, some members of the AKP parliamentary party admit that they would be very uncomfortable with a reform package that only benefited the AKP. There is even a possibility that, if such a package came before parliament, they would join with the opposition in voting against it.

Erdogan’s statement in Sweden has reinforced the impression that he will actively seek foreign support in staving off what many in the AKP regard as an attempted judicial coup. Whether the Constitutional Court will eventually rule to outlaw the AKP remains unclear. In the past, Turkish political parties have been closed down by the court on much flimsier evidence than that contained in Yalcinkaya’s indictment.

One of the many ironies of Turkish politics is that each time an Islamist party has been closed, it has been replaced by a more liberal one. In the 1970s, Erdogan was a member of the National Salvation Party (MSP), whose members often explicitly called for the establishment of an Islamic state. After the MSP was closed down following the 1980 military coup, its former members established the Welfare Party (RP), which was less hard-line than the MSP but still very anti-Western and committed to establishing a state based on religious principles. When the RP was outlawed by the Constitutional Court in 1998, it was replaced by the Virtue Party (FP), which was still very conservative but which nevertheless became the first Turkish Islamist party to support EU accession. When the FP too was closed down in 2001, it was replaced by the AKP. On taking power in November 2002, the AKP introduced more pro-EU, liberalizing reforms than any other political party, Islamist or otherwise, in recent Turkish history.

There is little doubt that on each occasion the prosecutors who filed the closure cases simply wanted to remove the party in question from the political arena. Yet, through the use of authoritarian and undemocratic methods, they appear to have inadvertently browbeaten them into becoming more liberal.