A FACE-OFF OVER TURKISH DEMOCRACY
By Pelin Turgut/Istanbul

TIME
http://www.time.com/time/wor ld/article/0,8599,1726872,00.html
April 1 2008

Turkey is in a turmoil that has all the drama of a Hollywood epic.

There is a new venue for the ongoing power struggle that pits the
old-guard elite - led by a military used to calling the shots since
the country's founding in 1923 - against a powerful, newly moneyed
class rooted in political Islam. The political vehicle of this class,
the Justice and Development Party (AKP), was reelected last summer
with an overwhelming 47% of the vote. The old guard, having failed
to beat the newcomers at the ballot box, has now asked the country's
top court to ban the AKP and its leaders for undermining secularist
principles they say are enshrined in Turkey's constitution.

Heading the all-male cast in this drama is the solitary, hawkish
and staunchly secularist chief prosecutor, Abdurrahman Yalcinkaya,
who has become an Islamist hate target for his 162-page indictment
accusing the AKP of seeking to overthrow secularism. Arrayed against
him is Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, a tall, moody former
football player who grew up a hard-line Islamist and was once jailed
for reciting a poem deemed to incite religious hatred. His ally,
President Abdullah Gul, a moderate, must now balance his party
loyalties against the requirement that he be neutral. And lurking
in the wings is the army chief of staff, Yasar Buyukanit, who sees
himself as protector of the republic as conceived by Mustafa Kemal
Ataturk, Turkey's Westernizing founder. The lanky military man views
his task as upholding Turkey's hard line against Kurdish separatists
and in divided Cyprus (where Turkey retains a military presence) and
in keeping pro-Islam forces in check. Both sides are equally fervent;
one has the Book (the Qu'ran), the other, Kemalism, a homegrown
ideology named after Ataturk. Neither has any empathy for the other,
and there is no hero on the horizon to save the day.

The fate of Turkish democracy currently rests in the hands of the 11
becloaked members of the constitutional court. In past rulings, the
court has banned several other political parties on similar grounds
of violating the Turkish constitution. But this is different: the AKP
enjoys more popular support than any of its predecessors, and it has
formed the first single-party government in decades. The AKP under
Erdogan has also distanced itself from traditional Islamist rhetoric,
particularly in the impious fervor with which it has embraced liberal
capitalism: foreign capital inflows and economic growth have been at
a record high.

Parallel to the AKP case, Turkey has been gripped by the arrests
of an alleged cabal of nationalist ex-army officers, military and
civilian militants accused of killings and extortion to uphold what
they saw as Turkey's interests. Their views are deeply isolationist
and anti-Europe, and they oppose rights for minorities. Turks have
long harbored suspicions about the existence of a "deep state," as
this network is popularly called. But Feride Cetin, a lawyer for the
Turkish Armenian journalist Hrant Dink, who was shot dead last year,
considers this the first time specific linkages to elements in the
security forces have emerged. "This is a very important opportunity,"
she says.

On all levels then, Turkey's democracy is at a turning point; an
age-old political shell is cracking, and it is unclear what will
emerge from the debris.

The AKP now has a month to submit its initial defense, and court
proceedings could take up to six months. Meanwhile Erdogan has
taken to the war path, reciting Quranic verse in heavily emotional
public speeches, with repeated references to "us" and "them." That
polarization could ultimately be the most dangerous aspect of this
debacle. Responding to calls by international organizations to take
a step back, he bristled, and essentially said never. "The AKP say
they want democracy and the European Union, but they don't have much
to show for this," says Hakan Altinay, director of Istanbul's Open
Society Institute. "In the next six months, the right thing to do
would be to launch a hearts-and-minds campaign to win over society
as a whole, to truly prove to everyone that they are democrats. That
they are genuinely as much for the rights of Kurdish nationalists,
gays or Christian missionaries, as they are for their own." If they
do this convincingly, Altinay says, it could affect the trial outcome.

There are no signs of that so far. In an gesture of defiance, the AKP
is considering passing a constitutional amendment that could render
the case moot, making it harder to ban parties and reducing the penalty
for the charges applied. But the court could argue that such a change,
enacted while the case is pending, is not admissible. In that event,
Erdogan - who faces a five-year ban from politics should the AKP lose
- could call early elections, or even urge his supporters to take to
the streets. "The man is a fighter," said one leading businessman. "He
won't give up. If necessary, he'll take it to the bitter end."

Hollywood epics tend to paint their antagonists in comfortingly
black-and-white terms; Turkey's dispute has many more gray tones. The
conservative Muslims appear as new democrats, though only when it suits
them; some cast the social democrats in the role of new hard-line
nationalists; and Ataturk, whose biggest aspiration was for Turkey
to join the "civilized West," would no doubt be stunned to hear that
his military is skeptical of entry into the European Union.

Meanwhile, investors are spooked, leading Turkish unions are on
strike over a proposed social security reform law, unemployment is
over 10%, and the Kurdish conflict is brewing. "This is a struggle in
the palace," says political scientist Hakan Yilmaz. "It has nothing to
do with the people." But if Turkey's polarization increases further,
it could have profound consequences both inside and outside Turkey.