One of the big, underrepresented stories going on right now is the crisis in Turkey. As of now, Turkey is the most successful Muslim democracy in the world and the current government, the AKP, has been by far the most successful government Turkey has had in a long time. Yet, somehow, the ruling party may be thrown out of government and banned by the Supreme Court, with the Prime Minister and President, among other, banned from participating in politics for five years.
Very briefly, let’s look at the facts: a pro-West/ pro-EU political party wins 47% of the vote in last year’s elections – an unprecedented number in a country where parties rarely win enough of the vote to rule alone. Since first being elected in 2002, the Justice and Development Party (AKP) has passed a series of far-reaching legal and political reforms in order to meet EU accession requirements. The list of what the party has done is long: it has eased restrictions on freedom of expression, civilianized the National Security Council, granted the Kurdish minority greater rights, and abolished the death penalty. Not only that, it has helped usher in an impressive period of economic growth. Good for democracy and your pocketbook.
Yet, as soon as tomorrow, Turkey’s Constitutional Court may very well decide to close down the AKP and ban its leading figures, including the current President and Prime Minister, from political participation for five years. The Court’s case is premised largely on the fact that the AKP lifted the country’s longstanding headscarf ban, an action which the majority of Turks supported (Turkish women are not allowed to cover their hair in universities and other government/ public institutions). I’ve always found it interesting – and somewhat bizarre – that women in the U.S. can wear the hijab anywhere they want, while in Turkey it can be grounds for a judicial coup. Former Ambassador to Turkey, Morton Abramowitz, sums it up: “the banning of a ruling party—one that has been in power for over five years, and quite successfully at that—is unprecedented in the modern West.”
The folks at Democracy Arsenal said this would be like the Supreme Court banning the Democratic party and banning Barack Obama, Nancy Pelosi and the rest of the party leadership from politics. But in many ways it would be even worse. It would be as if in 2003, less than a year after winning a resounding electoral mandate, the Supreme Court had banned the Republican party and banned George Bush, Dick Cheney, Dennis Hastert, Bill Frist and the entire Cabinet from politics until 2008. It’s never happened before in any sort of modern, stable democracy.
Kicking the AKP out would have terrible consequences, not just for Turkey but for much of the world.
A ban on a party that nearly half of the country supports could spark violence – which Turkey’s secularist generals might then use as a pretext for a direct military intervention. Regardless, senior EU figures have criticized the closure case and warned that banning the AKP could gravely damage Turkey’s candidacy.
Even more troubling is the message it would send to the rest of the Muslim world – no matter how much Islamists moderate, they won’t be accepted as legitimate participants in the democratic process.
In recent years, mainstream Islamist groups throughout the region – including in Egypt, Jordan, and Morocco – have embraced many of the foundational components of democratic life. Yet their moderation has been met with harsh government repression, or more subtle designs to restrict their political participation.
More is at stake than may initially appear. If the AKP – the most moderate, pro-democratic “Islamist” party in the region today – is disbanded, it will strengthen those Islamists who see violence and confrontation as a surer means to influence political power.
During the past year, a number of Islamist leaders we’ve spoken to in Egypt and Jordan have warned that rank-and-file activists are losing faith in the democratic process, and may soon become attracted to more radical approaches. A ban on the AKP would only make it that much harder for moderates to continue making the case that participating in elections is worthwhile.
Condoleeza Rice and the Bush administration has been pretty mute on this, which seems like a bad idea.
Though US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice praises the AKP’s democratization agenda, last month she said, “Obviously, we are not going to get involved in … the current controversy in Turkey about the court case.” Yet moments later she opined, “Sometimes when I’m asked what might democracy look like in the Middle East, I think it might look like Turkey.” It’s difficult to tell if she’s referring to the new, democratizing Turkey of the past five years – or the reactionary Turkey where judges and generals flagrantly overrule the people’s will.
President Bush has one last opportunity to reinvigorate the cause of Middle East democracy. By publicly denouncing the closure case, the administration would signal that the US not only supports Turkish democracy against a dangerous internal assault, but that it is also committed to defending all actors willing to abide by democratic principles in a region that desperately needs more of them.