The European Commission has issued what is expected to be the first in a series of warnings to Turkey’s moderate Islamist Justice and Development Party (AKP) to restart the stalled EU reform process.
AKP has not implemented any substantive new reforms since formally opening accession negotiations with the EU in October 2005. In the 12 months leading up to the July 22 general election, EU officials had been reluctant to pressure the AKP to introduce long-promised reforms for fear of strengthening the nationalist opposition. However, in conversation with this Jamestown correspondent, they were adamant that they were only prepared to allow the AKP a temporary respite.
Since the AKP’s landslide election victory on July 22, EU officials have begun to increase the pressure on the AKP to restart the reform process before the European Commission issues its annual progress report on Turkey’s candidacy on November 7 (Milliyet, September 3). EU officials insist that the Turkish government has to ease continuing restrictions on freedom of expression, particularly the notorious Article 301 of the Turkish Penal Code, which makes it a crime to insult “Turkishness” and which has been used to prosecute a string of prominent writers and journalists. They are also pressing for greater democratization, the abolition of the legal discrimination against non-Muslim associations and charitable foundations, and greater “cultural rights,” particularly for Turkey’s substantial Kurdish minority (NTV, September 9).
On September 7, Arzuhan Dogan Yalcindag, the head of the Turkish Industrialists’ and Businessmen’s Association (TUSIAD), which represents the largest businesses in Turkey, bluntly warned the AKP of the consequences of further delaying the reform process. “Over half of all Turkey’s exports go to the EU,” she said. “Our economy is integrated into the European economy and will be affected by the November Progress Report. Article 301 needs to be amended as a matter of urgency” (Milliyet, September 8).
Yalcindag also expressed TUSIAD’s disappointment that the AKP appeared to be reneging on its pre-election claim to be a party of the center-right rather than the religious right. She noted that, although the AKP included some moderate figures on its list of candidates in the July 22 election, they were all excluded from Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s new Cabinet, which had also included just one token female minister. “This is not what we were led to believe before the election,” said Yalcindag, adding that the government program read out in parliament in August lagged far behind the commitments in the AKP’s election manifesto (Radikal, September 8).
Yalcindag also warned the government to ensure that the new constitution that is currently being drafted continues to “respect the basic characteristics of the republic,” which is assumed to be a reference to the principle of secularism enshrined in the current constitution (Hurriyet, September 8).
Yalcindag had a special warning for Abdullah Gul, who was appointed Turkey’s 11th president on August 28, reminding him to remember his responsibility to protect secularism (Hurriyet, September 8). On taking office Gul promised that he would represent the entire Turkish population and be equidistant from all political parties. But his sincerity has been called into question by his choice of support staff at the presidency, including, the naming of a trained Islamic preacher, Professor Mustafa Isen, to the post of presidential undersecretary (Radikal, September 9).
The AKP has responded angrily to Yalcindag’s criticisms. “The electorate gives no one outside parliament the right to monitor the government,” said AKP Deputy Chairman Egemen Bagis, who is also a member of Erdogan’s small inner circle of trusted advisors (Radikal, September 10).
However, Ali Babacan, Turkey’s new foreign minister, has adopted a more conciliatory approach. Speaking in Portugal on September 8, Babacan avoided commenting directly on Yalcindag’s warnings, preferring to pledge that the EU would transform Turkey into a “truly democratic country.”
“We have a very clear intention to change things in Turkey, to make Turkish democracy a first-class democracy, make Turkey a truly democratic country where the rule of law works, where people exercise their freedoms and where fundamental rights are respected,” he said (Anatolian Agency, September 8).
However, he refused to be drawn on whether or not the AKP would abolish Article 301. “I don’t want to talk about a specific article of a specific law right now. But we are working on a new constitution,” he said (Anatolian Agency, September 8).
However, AKP officials have already announced that the new constitution is unlikely to be promulgated until early 2008 at the earliest, several months after the European Commission publishes its Progress Report (CNNTurk, September 3). Over the months ahead, neither EU officials nor concerned secularists inside Turkey are likely to be satisfied with mere words and promises.