On May 21 Turkey’s Supreme Court of Appeal, the Yargitay, issued an official statement bluntly accusing the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) of conducting a systematic campaign to undermine the influence and independence of the judiciary in the run-up to several important decisions by the Turkish Constitutional Court. (www.yargitay.gov.tr)
Over the next few weeks, the Constitutional Court is expected to rule on an application by the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) for the annulment of the constitutional amendments of February 9, which were designed to lift the headscarf ban in Turkish universities (see EDM, February 11). On March 14 Abdurrahman Yalcinkaya, the public prosecutor at the Yargitay, applied to the Constitutional Court for the closure of the AKP on the grounds that it had become a focus for anti-secular activities. In his indictment, Yalcinkaya cited the AKP’s opposition to the headscarf ban (see EDM, March 17). The Constitutional Court is expected to issue a ruling on the AKP closure case either late this year or in early 2009.
The Yargitay’s statement of May 21 was one of the most damning public attacks on a ruling party ever issued by a Turkish judicial body. It followed a series of articles, comments and speeches by leading AKP officials that had portrayed the application for the party’s closure as being politically and ideologically motivated rather than being based on legal considerations. The Yargitay’s statement accused the AKP of trying to erode the credibility of the Yargitay in order to secure favorable rulings when the Constitutional Court finally delivers its verdicts on the constitutional changes and the AKP closure case.
The Yargitay also severely criticized the government for the opportunistic manner in which it had abruptly sought to force through the lifting of the headscarf ban. In addition, it accused the AKP of disingenuously exploiting public support for partial changes to the current constitution while secretively drafting an entire new constitution. It warned that the AKP was engaged in a broader campaign to wear down the independence of the judiciary and undermine the “fundamental characteristics of the republic,” which it summarized as being “a democratic, secular state governed by the rule of law.” The statement also refuted suggestions that Yalcinkaya had acted on his own initiative, insisting that the application for the AKP closure was the product of an institutional rather than an individual initiative. It dismissed attacks on Yalcinkaya’s personal integrity and ideological independence as “incompatible with intelligence, logic and the law” (www.yargitay.gov.tr).
The Yargitay’s statement triggered a furious reaction from the AKP government, which described it as “undermining public trust in the judiciary.” Deputy Prime Minister Cemil Cicek bluntly declared that the Yargitay’s statement lacked “no democratic or legal legitimacy,” describing it as a “political statement which cannot be accepted” (Yeni Safak, Zaman, May 22). In response to the claim that the AKP was trying to erode the independence of the judiciary, he said that it was the Yargitay that had violated the division between judicial and executive powers, which is enshrined in the Turkish Constitution. Cicek accused the Yargitay of acting “like an opposition political party” and of trying to influence the Constitutional Court as it evaluates the evidence in the closure case against the AKP (Today’s Zaman, May 22).
At first sight, Cicek’s decision to react aggressively to the Yargitay’s statement rather than respond with a dignified silence might appear to be a miscalculation. Although the two bodies are distinct, the members of both the Constitutional Court and the Yargitay are drawn from the Turkish judiciary. Even if individuals disagree with each other over points of law, there is nevertheless a very strong sense of institutional solidarity. In such circumstances, attacking the one will not endear the AKP to the other.
However, even if Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan continues to insist in public that he expects the Constitutional Court to issue a ruling in the closure case as early as July and that he is confident that the party will remain open, most leading members of the AKP privately believe that it is a question of when, not if, the party is likely to be closed down.
“If Prime Minister Erdogan is sincere when he says he believes the court will not close his party, he is alone in his judgment,” wrote columnist Fehmi Koru, a committed, and often combative, AKP supporter, who is very close to many in the party leadership. “Members of [Erdogan’s] council of ministers confide in their close friends, and almost all of them are negative in their expectations. I haven’t come across a single party member, neither senior nor junior, who predicts the survival of the AK Party. Once in a while their hope increases, only to be brought down again after hearing from more senior members” (Today’s Zaman, May 22).
As a result, fueling a confrontation with the judiciary may actually appear to be in the long-term interests of the current members of the AKP, inasmuch as it bolsters their contention that the closure case is not about Islam and secularism but a clash between a democratically-elected government and a handful of unelected reactionary officials. If they can succeed in this characterization, even if the AKP is eventually outlawed, any successor party will be able to base its popular appeal on a claim to democratic legitimacy rather than on potentially much more hazardous arguments about whether the AKP really did represent a threat to the traditional Turkish interpretation of secularism.