Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) has finally begun to prepare for what now appears to be its almost inevitable closure by the country’s Constitutional Court, according to reports in the Turkish media.
On March 14 Public Prosecutor Abdurrahman Yalcinkaya applied to the Constitutional Court for the closure of the AKP on the grounds that it had become a focus for activities designed to undermine the principle of secularism, which is enshrined in the country’s constitution as one of the unchangeable defining characteristics of the Turkish Republic (see EDM, March 17). The alleged anti-secular activities listed in Yalcinkaya’s indictment included two constitutional amendments passed by the AKP on February 9 to try to create the legal framework for lifting the headscarf ban in Turkish universities. On June 5 the Constitutional Court annulled the amendments on the grounds that they were a violation of secularism (see EDM, June 6). As a result, it is now difficult to see how the court can do anything but rule in Yalcinkaya’s favor when it issues a decision on his application for the AKP’s closure later this year.
When Yalcinkaya first issued his indictment, AKP officials, led by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, refused to contemplate preparations for the formation of a new party, arguing that it would be a public admission of defeat. To Erdogan, who prides himself on his political machismo, such an attitude probably appeared to make sense. The AKP failed, however, to develop a coherent strategy to counter the closure case or simply to ignore it and concentrate on the country’s many problems, not least the growing signs of an economic slowdown. The AKP thus became reactive rather than pro-active, focusing primarily on protesting its innocence, thereby effectively handing the initiative to the Constitutional Court.
Frustration among AKP members over the party’s inertia in the face of its apparently impending closure has been exacerbated by Erdogan’s management style. Like most Turkish political parties, the AKP is poorly institutionalized and almost all power inside the party is concentrated in the hands of the leader, who not only approves all the party’s candidates for parliamentary elections but effectively also chooses the delegates to the party congresses, which elect the party leader. Decisions in the AKP are made by Erdogan himself in consultation with a coterie of trusted advisors in a process that is usually as opaque to the majority of AKP members of parliament as it is to the rest of the country.
The lack of communication between Erdogan and the rest of the party was clearly demonstrated in the wake of the Constitutional Court’s ruling of June 5. On June 7 Koksal Toptan, the AKP speaker of parliament, announced that one solution to the current standoff between the AKP and the judiciary would be a completely new constitution and a second chamber, or Senate, in addition to the current unicameral parliament (Radikal, Hurriyet, Yeni Safak, Milliyet, Cumhuriyet, June 8). The announcement took the members of the AKP by surprise, forcing senior officials to note that Toptan was just expressing a personal opinion.
On June 9 Ahmet Iyimaya, an AKP member of parliament for Ankara and chair of the Parliamentary Justice Committee, held a press conference to propose giving parliament the authority to veto any decision by the Constitutional Court (Hurriyet, Radikal, Zaman, Vatan, June 10). Once again, the announcement took the rest of the AKP by surprise. Government Spokesperson Cemil Cicek subsequently issued a statement distancing the AKP from what he described as Iyimaya’s personal opinion and reassuring the public that the government had no such plans (Hurriyet, Radikal, Zaman, Vatan, June 10).
On June 10, writing in the liberal daily Radikal, Murat Yetkin, who is one of the most reliable journalists in Turkey, quoted unnamed AKP officials as admitting that they had now begun making plans for the creation of a new political party to replace the AKP if, as expected, it is eventually closed. They said that they had yet to decide on a name for the new party but had already begun to draw up a list of possible candidates to oversee its regional organization (Radikal, June 10).
There was no indication, however, as to whether there had been any discussions about the possible composition of the new party’s leadership. Yalcinkaya’s indictment calls for 71 current and former members of the AKP, including Erdogan, to be banned from membership in any political party for five years. As the result of a loophole in Turkish law, Erdogan would still be able to run for parliament as an independent and, if asked to form a government by President Abdullah Gul, could even once again become prime minister. But if he is banned from being a member of any political party, Erdogan would not able to lead the successor party to the AKP.
There are several precedents in Turkey for prominent politicians attempting to control parties of which they were not members through a proxy, normally a close associate whom they ensured would be elected to head the party. But such parties have never been as successful as when the politicians in question have been the de jure as well as the de facto leaders. The confusion in the AKP since the case for its closure was filed has already demonstrated one of the drawbacks of Erdogan’s authoritarian management style. If the successor party to the AKP ever comes under pressure, maintaining internal cohesion is likely to be even more of a challenge if Erdogan is attempting to run the party apparatus from outside through a proxy.