Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 5 Issue: 59

The deepening political and social polarization triggered by the attempts by the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) to change the Turkish constitution to lift the headscarf ban in universities (see EDM, February 11) currently shows no sign of abating ahead of the expected Constitutional Court decision on March 31 on whether or not to begin hearing a case filed by the public prosecutor for the AKP’s closure (see EDM, March 17).

Initially, the indictment presented to the court by the public prosecutor on March 14 appeared to offer an opportunity for reconciliation. Many of those who had been opposed to the manner in which the AKP was trying to lift the headscarf ban were nevertheless appalled by what they regarded as an attempted judicial coup. For the AKP, which had been becoming increasingly authoritarian and intolerant of those whose views differed from its own, the case should have enabled it to boost its democratic credentials by portraying itself as the victim of undemocratic interference in the political process.

However, the AKP immediately undermined its claimed commitment to democratic principles by beginning to discuss amending laws and the constitution to avoid being closed down (see EDM, March 21); initiatives that would have had considerably more credibility if they had been discussed when the public prosecutor filed a case for the closure of the pro-Kurdish Democratic Society Party (DTP) on November 16 (see EDM, November 19, 2007).

To make matters worse, many in the AKP press interpreted Yalcinkaya’s indictment as part of a conspiracy by the secular Turkish establishment and began to see connections with the arrest early this year of an ultranationalist gang, known as “‘Ergenekon,” with alleged links to what Turks call the “deep state” – a network of clandestine organizations based on elements in the intelligence and security services. In fact, the Ergenekon gang appears to consist primarily of deep state has-beens and wannabes, rather than a powerful conspiracy backed and coordinated by elements in the Turkish intelligence and security community(see Terrorism Focus, January 29).

On March 22, with the AKP press still trying to draw parallels between Ergenekon and the party closure case, the police arrested a number of outspoken opponents of the AKP on alleged suspicion of connections with the Ergenekon gang. Most notably, they raided the home of Ilhan Selcuk, the editor of the long-established and fiercely anti-AKP daily Cumhuriyet, at 4.30 am. Selcuk is 83 years old and, following threats to his life from extremist elements, has been under police protection for the last 15 years. He was eventually released without charge after being held and questioned for nearly 40 hours. The only evidence against him appears to be that one of the Ergenekon detainees had praised his articles. In a culture which traditionally has great respect for the elderly, the early morning raid on a doyen of the Turkish press, who anyway had a policeman sitting outside his door, triggered a storm of protest; particularly when it emerged that Fehmi Koru, a prominent pro-AKP columnist, had written an article in January calling on the party to target Cumhuriyet. Unlike the judiciary itself, the Turkish Interior Ministry, which oversees the police, has always been highly politicized. AKP denials that the arrests were politically motivated may or may not have been true. What is undoubted is that they were not believed by the AKP’s opponents. A series of statements by high-ranking AKP officials calling on their critics to respect the independence of the Turkish judicial system did little to defuse the tension; not least because they were in marked contrast to the AKP’s criticisms of the judiciary followed the filing of the case for the party’s closure (Yeni Safak, Zaman, Milliyet, Cumhuriyet, Radikal, Hurriyet, NTV, March 22-23).

The arrests of March 22 destroyed any hope of reconciliation between the AKP and its opponents, as each accused the other of double standards. On March 25, the Turkish Industrialists’ and Businesspersons’ Association (TUSIAD), whose members are primarily drawn from the large Istanbul-based corporations, issued a statement calling on both the AKP and its opponents to reduce tensions and use their “common sense” (Hurriyet, Yeni Safak, Sabah, Milliyet, Zaman, March 26). On March 26, the Turkish Union of Chambers (TOBB), which mainly represents the small and medium-sized businesses of Anatolia, held a press conference to call on all sides to take a step back and avoid inflammatory rhetoric (Radikal, Milliyet, Sabah, Hurriyet, Today’s Zaman, March 27).

But neither side appeared willing to listen. “Why should I take a step back?” demanded Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. He then apparently confirmed his opponents’ long-standing suspicions that, although the AKP first came to power in November 2002, it has only been since its landslide election victory in July 2007 that it has felt confident enough to try to implement its agenda. Erdogan dismissed suggestions that the AKP should try to reduce tensions by adopting a more conciliatory approach to issues such as lifting the headscarf ban. “Why should I,” he asked. “I’ve waited five years for this” (NTV, CNNTurk, March 28).

Many of the AKP’s supporters and opponents are increasingly referring to the polarization in almost Manichaean terms. For its secularist opponents, the AKP’s decision to focus exclusively on trying to lift the headscarf ban while ignoring the many other restrictions on freedom of expression is the final proof that it has a long-term, radical Islamist agenda. While the AKP’s supporters have started to regard those who disagree with them in almost demonic terms.

Writing in the Islamist daily Today’s Zaman, which is run by supporters of the exiled Islamic preacher Fethullah Gulen, Bulent Kenes dismissed suggestions that the two sides should try to seek common ground, declaring that in “cracking down on the axes of evil that threaten our democracy, we don’t need such common sense or conciliation” (Today’s Zaman, March 28).

Ironically, although opinion polls suggest that the majority of Turks support lifting the headscarf ban in universities, there is also little doubt that the main reason that nearly half of the Turkish population voted for the AKP in July 2007 was that they believed that it was more able than any other party to offer continuity and stability, particularly as the Turkish economy was beginning to slow down. Such hopes now appear unlikely to be fulfilled.

On March 31, the Constitutional Court is expected to deliver its verdict on whether or not to hear the case for the AKP’s closure. Even if it rejects the application, no one doubts that the public prosecutor will simply amass more evidence and apply once again. But if, as expected, the court accepts the application, Turkey will embark on a period of sustained uncertainty with no guarantee of stability at the end. Despite the claims of the AKP’s supporters, the confrontation is increasingly less like one between democratic and undemocratic forces but between two authoritarian ones, each equally intolerant of the other.