Thursday, September 30, 2010

Constitutional Referendum: The Beginning of the End for Turkey?

We, Americans, are not paying enough attention to Turkey –and it’s a mistake. The reasons are understandable enough. We have a few other minor problems to deal with these days, like Iraq, Afghanistan, Iran, Pakistan, Palestine, our own economy, China, Venezuela, Mexico, shall I go on? Turkey has just not been on the radar. Unfortunately, that does not mean things have been quiet in that country. There is a struggle going on for Turkey’s political soul and their self-proclaimed Islamists are winning it.

They just held a constitutional referendum in the ongoing political war between Turkish Islamists and secularists. The governing Justice and Development Party (AKP), a political movement openly favoring Islamist policies, advocated the constitutional changes, and it won in a landslide. Fifty-eight percent of the country supported the AKP. The main focus of the changes enacted will effect the judiciary and that will in turn mean major changes in the political structure of the country.

The AKP promotes itself as a "moderate" Islamist political party that believes moral values provide a bulwark against political corruption. It regards its opponents as hard-line secularists who deeply involved in the nefarious Turkish underworld of corruption, cronyism and manipulation tied to the Turkish military.

The opposition, centered in the secularist Republican Peoples Party (CHP), cast the referendum as another step in the destruction of the secular republic established by Turkey's 20th century political and military genius, Kemal Ataturk. Ataturk believed radical Muslims insisting on imposing Shariah (Islamic) law were the greatest long-term threat to Turkish modernization. The Kemalists, as his political heirs proudly call themselves, label the AKP as a collection of stealth radical Islamists whose moralist nonsense is nothing more than a plot to create a theological tyranny and feudal police state.

Turkey's leading political organizations both portray the choice between them as "either us or darkness." This rhetorical demonization is typical of successful democracies. Ataturk deserves credit for establishing a democratic structure that survived his death in 1938 by 72 years.

Turkey's actual circumstances, however, are much more complex. Start with the referendum's irony. The constitution had many undemocratic articles and was imposed by the military after a coup in 1980. The European Union ruled that many of these elements did not meet EU membership standards. Thus the ironic situation of an Islamist political party promoting constitutional changes in order to meet Western European democratic standards. Aligning Turkey with Europe was one of Kemal Ataturk's long-term goals.

Yet the judicial reforms approved this week may be an anti-democratic trap, because they give the AKP the ability to limit checks and balances on executive power. The AKP can pack the courts. The judiciary has protected the Turkish military. The AKP distrusts the military because it fears a coup (with good reason). The military sees itself as the protector of the secular state and a bulwark against Muslim fundamentalist usurpation.

The important question now is: Will the Kemalist democratic structures survive an empowered Islamist AKP?

If this is the case the vast majority of the civilized world should be paying close attention because the prosperous existence of a democratic structure in Turkey would deal militant Islamist terror groups like al-Qaida a complete ideological and political defeat. These are high stakes.

There is good reason to be concerned about the threat to Turkey posed by anti-democratic Islamists. Today, accusations of corruption tag the AKP, and the AKP's foreign policy gyrations over the last three years do not bode well of stable U.S.-Turkey relations.

Gerald Robbins, senior fellow at Foreign Policy Research Institute and an expert on Turkey is very concerned. He said, "Although the military is now subject to civilian courts and their oversight, the very composition of those courts is fraught with controversy." The court packing to favor the AKP may well occur.

Turkey Prime Minister and leader of the AKP Recep Tayyip Erdogan has, according to Robbin's "effectively scuttled the secularist-dominated military and judicial power bases under the auspices of greater 'democratization.'" Then Robbins added, "Sept. 12, 2010, might be marked as the day Kemal Ataturk's secularist vision effectively ended, and a new Islamist-influenced era began."

One big loser in this would be the United States. A big winner would be Islamic states like Iran. Let’s hope President Obama and Secretary Clinton are paying attention.

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