On April 14 Turkish Speaker of Parliament Koksal Toptan formally forwarded a draft amendment to Article 301 of the Turkish Penal Code to the Parliamentary Justice Committee. This notorious article makes it an imprisonable offence to denigrate “Turkishness.”
The hopes of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) that the amendment will boost its democratic credentials, however, look set to be frustrated. Perhaps more worrying for Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan, the draft bill has also triggered the first public expression of internal dissent within the AKP since Public Prosecutor Abdurrahman Yalcinkaya applied to the constitutional court for the closure of the AKP on March 14 (see EDM, March 17).
Under Turkish law, the speaker is elected by parliament from among its members, thus effectively ensuring that any party with a majority can appoint its own candidate. Although the decision-making core of the AKP consists of politicians with a background in the Turkish Islamist movement, the party also includes deputies from the center and nationalist right of the political spectrum and a handful of disgruntled former liberals.
When it first came to office in November 2002, the AKP appointed Bulent Arinc as Speaker of Parliament. A former member of a string of Islamist parties, Arinc’s often abrasive manner and outspoken criticism of the prevailing interpretation of secularism in Turkey made him a highly controversial figure, and his public statements tended to reinforce secularist suspicions that the AKP nurtured a secret, hard-line Islamist agenda.
After the AKP was returned to power in the general election of July 22, 2007, Erdogan opted to appoint a less controversial figure as speaker. Koksal (born in 1943) qualified as a lawyer before serving in three center-right governments in the 1980s and early 1990s. He was elected speaker on August 9, 2007.
In the immediate aftermath of Yalcinkaya’s indictment, many hard-liners in the AKP advocated amending the Turkish Constitution to prevent party closures, while at the same time cultivating foreign support, particularly from the EU, by bolstering the AKP’s democratic credentials by amending Article 301.
The liberal wing of the AKP, however, has privately warned the AKP leaders that it regards any attempt to amend the constitution merely to protect the party against closure as unprincipled, even suggesting that it might refrain from supporting such amendments if they were brought before parliament. Although the AKP leadership has not definitely abandoned the idea of amending the constitution, such a move looks increasingly unlikely (Vatan, April 11). Now, the AKP’s plans to amend Article 301 also appear to have run into trouble.
Proposed changes to Article 301, including replacing the injunction on denigrating “Turkishness” with one on denigrating the “Turkish nation,” were formally submitted to parliament on April 7. The draft changes also foresaw making any prosecution under Article 301 dependent on the approval of the president (see EDM, April 8).
At the time the amendments were submitted to parliament, Toptan was abroad on an official visit. His deputy, Guldal Mumcu of the opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), refused to forward them to the Parliamentary Justice Committee. On his return to Turkey, Toptan duly forwarded the bill to the committee. He then held a press conference to say that it was his “personal opinion” that the proposed change making prosecutions dependent on presidential approval would place the president in a “difficult position,” not least because the Turkish Constitution makes a clear separation between executive and judicial powers (Hurriyet, Vatan, Milliyet, Radikal, NTV, CNNTurk, April 15).
Toptan’s gentle expression of dissent drew a swift response from Erdogan. Speaking at a press conference during an official visit to Qatar, Erdogan dismissed Toptan’s concerns, saying that the amendments would not create any problems as “the presidency is above party politics” (NTV, CNNTurk, April 14).
Erdogan’s statement appeared to indicate a failure to grasp Toptan’s point. His comment about the president being above party politics raises the question of why the AKP exerted such efforts in 2007, including risking a military coup, in order to appoint one of its own leading members to the presidency.
The disagreement between Toptan and Erdogan has reinforced the impression that, since July 2007, and particularly since Yalcinkaya filed his indictment in March 2008, the AKP is a party in disarray and apparently lacks both a clear vision and the ability to form a coherent strategy to avoid closure. Perhaps most critically, the AKP appears unaware that the proposed changes to Article 301, even if they are legislated, will satisfy neither liberals in Turkey nor the EU, which has made no secret of its desire for the article to be abolished in its entirety.
On April 15, in response to a parliamentary question, Justice Minister Mehmet Ali Sahin said that 1,481 new cases had been filed under Article 301 from the beginning of 2003 (just after the AKP first came to power) to the end of September 2007. A total of 6,075 people had gone on trial, of whom 745 had so far been found guilty. Over 600 cases are still continuing (NTV, April 15).
In an indication of how Article 301 can be abused, on April 15 Radikal published details of the problems faced by Eren Keskin, a lawyer and human rights activist. On March 16, 2002, in a speech delivered at a conference in Cologne, Germany, Keskin criticized the Turkish military, which she claimed was sexually harassing and torturing female detainees. “Women’s problems can never be solved in a country where the administration is not in the hands of civilians,” she was reported as saying. When she returned to Turkey, Keskin was tried under Article 301 by the Third Penal Court in Kartal in Istanbul. One year later, charges were filed under Article 301 for exactly the same speech at another court in Kartal, the Fifth Penal Court. Keskin was acquitted by the fifth Penal Court but found guilty and sentenced to 10 months in prison by the Third Penal Court (Radikal, April 15).