Tuesday, July 08, 2008

Double challenge for Turkey’s embattled Premier Erdogan

Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan has been forced to defend his country’s democracy in the face of two major challenges to his power. Turkey is still coming to grips with the news of a planned military coup by an ultra-nationalist organisation probably backed by the military. Meanwhile his own Justice and Development Party (AKP) faces court charges accused of introducing Islamic rule. Erdogan went on the attack overnight against this double challenge. "I want to stress once again that the democratic system is working with its institutions and rules in Turkey within the framework of the law," he told party members. "Turkey has the experience to overcome this painful period and solve its problems with its domestic dynamics. Nobody should be worried.”

But many in his audience are very worried. The court case will decide the very future of the AKP. This landmark case in the country’s highest court, the constitutional court, will have to decide this week not only whether to shut the party down but to also ban its leaders including Prime Minister Erdogan, from politics for five years. The chief prosecutor accuses the AKP of anti-secularism and of seeking to dismantle the secular political system introduced by Ataturk in the 1920s. The AKP dismisses the charges as a politically motivated elitist judicial coup. It says they court is threatened by the party's electoral strength, drawn from a broad cross-section of the emerging middle classes.

While the AKP has its day in court, Ankara police are shedding more light on Ergenekon Operation. The operation is named for an ultra-nationalist political gang which has been carrying out secret preparation for an overthrow of the government. Dozens of high profile arrests have been made including a former chief of police, the head of Ankara’s chamber of commerce and several retired army generals. The plot shows the increasing desperation of the military elite at the continued popularity of Erdogan’s party.

The AKP has governed since 2002 and won a landslide second successive election victory last summer. Their reign of power in Turkey has been matched by the growing Islamism at a local level. Turkish academic Professor Sarif Mardin calls it "neighbourhood pressure" aimed at forcing secularists to conform to a more religious environment. Mardin says the secularist middle class is succumbing to mounting social pressure at the hands of rising conservative class, which, although increasingly westernised and globalised, has questioned several social values upon which the state was founded. Importantly, this included the role of religion in shaping public space and social ethics.

Kemal Ataturk founded the Republic of Turkey in 1923 out of the ruins of the old Ottoman Empire. His grand aim was to modernise the nation. He set upon a course of rapid secularisation and quickly disestablished the Islamic institutions that held a stranglehold over the legal and education systems. Active opposition to Kemal’s reforms was ruthlessly stamped out. When a pro-Islamic party won power after World War II (thanks to elections encouraged by the US), the pro-Kemal army removed it in a coup after a decade of rule.

Under military rule, the Islamists retreated to the domains of education and the press to get their message across. In the seventies a revitalised Islamist National Salvation party formed the balance of power between left and right wing groups in Turkey until another military coup ended democracy in 1980. Recep Tayyip Erdogan was active in National Salvation and joined its successor party Welfare in 1983. He successfully ran for mayor of Istanbul in 1994 on the strength of his excellent skill in oratory. With Welfare growing to become the largest party in Turkey, the army clamped down and banned it in 1997. Erdogan was arrested and convicted of “religious hatred” and spent four months in prison.

Erdogan and others formed the AKP out of the ashes of Welfare in 2001 claiming it to be a “moderate conservative party” to avoid further armed interference. Just a year later, AKP won a crushing victory in a general election despite winning just 34 percent of the vote. Their victory was widely interpreted as a protest against Turkey corruption-ridden body politic rather than a sweeping endorsement of Erdogan’s religious nationalism. But Erdogan has proved to be a competent and attractive leader and was comfortably re-elected last year. As Angus Reid points out, since taking office Erdogan has reconciled the secularist principles of the Turkish Republic with the democratic code that demands that the State respect individual freedoms. But his party’s Islamist roots leave the military deeply suspicious. They may be ready to step in again, either under the cloak of the courts or a coup.

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