On April 7 the National Executive Committee of Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) held a six-hour meeting to discuss the party’s response to the closure case filed with the country’s constitutional court by Public Prosecutor Abdurrahman Yalcinkaya (see EDM, April 1).
Speaking after the meeting, AKP Vice Chairman Dengir Mir Mehmet Firat said that the committee had decided to initiate discussions with opposition parties in order to push a series of unspecified measures through parliament (CNNTurk, NTV, April 7). The Turkish media subsequently quoted unidentified sources as saying that the majority of the committee members had favored introducing a comprehensive package of democratizing reforms rather than merely concentrating on amending the constitution to prevent the AKP from being closed (see EDM, April 3). No details of the possible contents of the package were given (Hurriyet, Radikal, Milliyet, Anka, April 8). Earlier in the day, the AKP had submitted a proposal to parliament to amend the notorious Article 301 of the Turkish Penal Code, which makes it a criminal offense to denigrate “Turkishness” and in recent years has been one of the main instruments used by the Turkish authorities to restrict freedom of expression (Radikal, Zaman, Yeni Safak, April 8).
The proposal to amend Article 301 appears to confirm speculation that the AKP will attempt to bolster its democratic credentials, and thus enlist foreign support, by restarting Turkey’s long-stalled EU accession process before it has to present its initial defense in the closure case brought by Yalcinkaya. In the three years before Yalcinkaya filed his indictment against the party on March 14, the AKP had made little effort to introduce the numerous reforms required for membership in the EU. In late March, however, government officials quietly contacted the office of the European Commission in Ankara and asked for details of the necessary reforms. On April 7 the Commission presented the AKP with a long list, including a dozen major legislative amendments.
Although Article 301 of the Penal Code has achieved international notoriety through being used to prosecute famous Turkish intellectuals, including 2006 Nobel Laureate Orhan Pamuk, the commission made it clear that it was far from alone. The list presented to the AKP government included six other articles of the Penal Code which needed to be abolished or amended in order to ensure EU standards of freedom of expression (Turkish Daily News, April 8). As a result, it is doubtful that the proposed minor amendments to Article 301 submitted to parliament by the AKP will satisfy the EU. Indeed, it is not even clear whether they can ever be implemented.
The proposal submitted to parliament on April 7 foresees replacing the injunction on denigrating “Turkishness” with one on denigrating the “Turkish nation.” It is unclear what difference this would make in practice. Turkish official ideology has always maintained that the Turkish nation is the embodiment of “Turkishness,” which would suggest that denigrating the one would denigrate the other. More bizarrely, the proposal submitted to parliament foresees making any prosecution under Article 301 dependent on the approval of the president. In practice, this probably would reduce the number of people prosecuted under Article 301, not least because President Abdullah Gul has traditionally taken a much more relaxed approach to freedom of expression than many public prosecutors. Such an amendment would appear, however, to give the presidency a judicial function, although the Turkish Constitution explicitly separates executive and judicial powers. Article 8 states that “Executive power and function shall be exercised and carried out by the President of the Republic and the Council of Ministers in conformity with the Constitution and the law.” Article 9 says that “Judicial power shall be exercised by independent courts on behalf of the Turkish nation.” (Website of the Turkish Grand National Assembly, www.tbmm.gov.tr/Anayasa). Even if they pass parliament, the AKP’s proposed amendments to Article 301 appear, at the very least, certain to be challenged in the constitutional court.
The poor preparation of the proposed amendments to Article 301 and the vagueness of Firat’s public statement after the meeting of the party’s National Executive have reinforced the impression of continuing confusion within the AKP and the lack of a cogent strategy to ward off closure. There is also a danger that, in trying to enlist the support of the EU by advocating democratizing reforms, the AKP may alienate the opposition parties whose support it will need if it eventually attempts to amend the constitution to prevent party closures.
On April 8, Devlet Bahceli, the leader of the ultranationalist Nationalist Action Party (MHP), which opposes closer ties with the EU, warned the AKP: “The government should understand immediately that the solution lies not in Brussels or the corridors of the EU,” he continued. “It is clear that changes to Article 301 can come to the floor of parliament at any time. This shows that the AKP has lost its compass. In a situation in which the EU is threatening Turkey, bringing such a proposal to parliament is political bankruptcy” (Hurriyet, April 8).
The AKP currently has 340 seats in Turkey’s 550-member unicameral parliament, which is more than enough to push through most legislative changes. Under Turkish law, changes to the constitution, however, require the support of two-thirds of the parliamentary deputies. If constitutional amendments are approved by a majority that falls short of the two thirds of MPs, the government can put them to a referendum; a referendum though would probably trigger mass public protests by secularists, both increasing tension and instability and potentially inflicting irreparable damage on the fabric of Turkish society.