On Point: Turkey's Constitutional Referendum: The Beginning of the End?

by Austin Bay
September 14, 2010

The struggle for Turkey's political soul continues -- andTurkey's self-proclaimed moderate Islamists are winning. The struggle has majorimplications for the global war on militant Islamist terror groups likeal-Qaida.

This past Sunday, a constitutional referendum provided thelatest battleground for the ongoing political war between Turkish Islamists andsecularists. The governing Justice and Development Party (AKP), a politicalmovement openly favoring Islamist policies, advocated the constitutionalchanges, and it won in a landslide. Fifty-eight percent of the countrysupported the AKP. The most critical changes affect the Turkish judiciary.

The AKP promotes itself as a "moderate" Islamistpolitical party that believes moral values provide a bulwark against politicalcorruption. It regards its opponents as hard-line secularists who run Turkey's"Deep State," a code word for a nefarious Turkish underworld ofcorruption, cronyism and manipulation tied to the Turkish military.

The AKP's opposition, centered in the secularist RepublicanPeoples Party (CHP), cast the referendum as another step in the destruction ofthe secular republic established by Turkey's 20th century political andmilitary genius, Kemal Ataturk. Ataturk strongly believed radical Muslimsinsisting on imposing Shariah (Islamic) law were the greatest long-term threatto Turkish modernization. The Kemalists, as his political heirs proudly callthemselves, label the AKP as a collection of stealth radical Islamists whosemoralist balderdash cloaks a plot to create a theological tyranny and feudalpolice state.

The AKP responds by accusing the secularists of havingcorrupted Ataturk's progressive legacy.

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

Turkey's actual circumstances, however, are much morecomplex and murky. Start with the referendum's irony. The constitution had manyundemocratic articles and was in fact imposed by the military after a coup in1980. The European Union ruled that many of these elements did not meet EUmembership standards. Thus the ironic situation of an Islamist political partypromoting constitutional changes in order to meet Western European democraticstandards. Aligning Turkey with Europe was one of Kemal Ataturk's long-termgoals.

Yet the judicial reforms approved this week may be ananti-democratic trap door, for they give the AKP the ability to limit systemicchecks and balances on executive power. The AKP can pack the courts. Thejudiciary has protected the Turkish military. The AKP distrusts the militarybecause it fears a coup, and with good reason. The military sees itself as theprotector of the secular state and a bulwark against Muslim fundamentalistusurpation.

Will the Kemalist democratic structures survive an empoweredIslamist AKP?

This is an important question for everyone with an interestin seeing reformed Islamists maintain a secular democratic state and continuethe process of economic and political integration with Europe. Everyone in thiscase is the vast majority of the civilized world because the prosperousexistence of such a polity would deal militant Islamist terror groups likeal-Qaida a complete ideological and political defeat.

These are high stakes, indeed.

I have tended to be an optimist about the AKP, in partbecause the CHP governments of the 1990s were so terribly corrupt. In my view,the Kemalist corruption damaged Ataturk's legacy. However, history alsojustifies Ataturk's concern for the threat to Turkey posed by anti-democraticIslamists. Today, accusations of corruption tag the AKP, and the AKP's foreignpolicy gyrations over the last three years do not bode well of stableU.S.-Turkey relations.

After Sunday's election, I had the opportunity to chat withGerald Robbins, senior fellow at Foreign Policy Research Institute. Robbins'take is dire. "Although the military is now subject to civilian courts andtheir oversight, the very composition of those courts is fraught withcontroversy." The court packing to favor the AKP may well occur.

Turkey Prime Minister and leader of the AKP Recep TayyipErdogan has, in Robbin's view "effectively scuttled thesecularist-dominated military and judicial power bases under the auspices ofgreater '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."

I told him I hope he is wrong. My gut says he isn't. Thelast thing Turkey and the world need is a Sultan Erdogan. 

Read Austin Bay's Latest Book

To find out more about Austin Bay and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at www.creators.com.


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