Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose?

Over the past year or so 'something' has been happening in Turkey. After the spectacular showdown between the military and judiciary on the one hand and the AKP government on the other, after the survival of the latter in the face of a Supreme Court case that could have entailed the closure of the party, a series of conspiracies to destabilize the government, or to create a 'hot' incident with Greece have been seeing the light of publicity (Balyoz (Sledgehammer) plot).

The erstwhile untouchable army has had to endure intense and unrelenting adverse publicity and to witness a litany of middle and high-ranking officers being implicated in these cases or even investigated. Allegations of plots ranging from the childish to the sinister (both of which, incidentally, the military has been proven to excel in) are now part of the staple daily media diet of a Turkish public hooked on the suspense and excitement these provide. 

At the same time, the Erdoğan government is proposing a long awaited constitutional reform package that is set to loosen the grip of the Kemalist establishment over Turkey's political life. When the AKP first came to power back in 2002 it was precisely the anticipation of this moment, of this promise of constitutional and political renewal that earned it intense loathing among its Kemalist opponents and the good will of many liberals and left wingers who saw in it an ally by necessity in the process of Turkey's democratization and Europeanization. Today, however, these same allies are cynical about AKP's promise of constitutional reforms and less hopeful about the party's commitment to democratization.

True, previous attempts to initiate constitutional reform were stifled by the protests and opposition of the AKP's main adversary, the CHP (Republican People's Party). But it is also true that the AKP has shown in the past willingness to find an, admittedly precarious modus vivendi with the military, partly because of convenience, partly because of pragmatism.

As Erdoğan has been pursuing his plot-based crackdown on the military and missed no opportunity to direct his ire against media critical of his style of government, or flirted with the power of nationalism by threatening to deport Turkey's (illegal) Armenian migrant community in retaliation to an increasingly successful international campaign to recognize the Ottoman governments' treatment of its Armenian subjects in 1915 as genocide, he has managed to alienate potential allies in the cause of constitutional renewal. 

Given that the current balance of power in the National Assembly will almost certainly lead to a deadlock in the process of constitutional reform and will subsequently set in motion a plebiscite for the approval of a new constitution, it is obvious that Erdoğan has opted for a confrontation with the establishment at the level of plebiscitary politics where he is likely to gain considerable support.

And, given that his party's  reform proposals currently before parliament would alter, among other things, the way judges (another pillar of the Kemalist establishment) are appointed, many are concerned not only at the sincerity of the AKP's commitment to a democratic Turkey but also, at the extent of the process of change the party is contemplating.
In my opinion, the problem is not that the AKP has abandoned the camp of democratic reform, but that it has not always consistently demonstrated its commitment to it. Erdoğan and the broader AKP leadership are committed to a Turkey free of the shackles of a rigid Kemalism and aggressive secularism - but this commitment is not tantamount to a commitment to democracy. While the AKP attempts to breach the defences of a bankrupt Kemalism and, in the process, destroys the institutional apparatus that has served the latter well, it is time for Turkey's civil society, secular and 'islamic' to think seriously about what will replace the deeply flawed current political system. Democratization is badly needed but so is a  system of checks and balances that will protect the citizen (not the Kemalist state) against abuses by governments of all hues that might in future enjoy the popular endorsement that AKP has enjoyed to date. Will the fledgling Turkish civil society rise up to the challenge or will it concede this role and this duty to AKP alone?

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