On May 25, Turkish president Ahmet Necdet Sezer vetoed a proposed constitutional amendment that had been passed by the Turkish parliament, by which the president of the country would in future be elected by a direct vote of the people, rather than by the present arrangement in which he is elected by parliament. The amendment had also proposed to reduce the president’s term from seven to five years but allow him to stand for a second five-year term. It was a response by the governing Justice and Development Party (AKP) to the refusal by the country’s secular elite, particularly its military establishment, to permit the election of Abdullah Gul as president because he is regarded as an “Islamist” and his wife wears hijab.
In vetoing the amendment, Sezer argued that the proposed arrangement would be “incompatible with democracy” and would lead to “political instability”. In fact, for most observers Sezer’s veto is clearly a direct assault on democracy, while the amendment proposed by the AKP – which many Turkish Muslims regard as only an extremely watered-down version of the Islamic parties that the secular elite had previously banned – represented a move towards greater democracy. This move has been aborted because of the Turkish elite’s fear of the Islamic commitment that Turkey’s masses retain, despite years of secular fundamentalist rule.
Sezer’s own term, ironically, expired on May 16. He is in office only because of the political crisis engineered to subvert the election of Abdullah Gul. The secularists challenged the legality of the session in which Gul received 357 votes, merely 10 short of the two-thirds majority required for a candidate to be elected on the first ballot, and the Constitutional Court ruled it out because of a boycott by opposition parties, a decision that most legal experts disagreed with. Had the parliamentary process been permitted to proceed, Gul would have secured a comfortable majority on the third ballot, where a simply majority is sufficient to elect the president. But the secularists, fearful of losing even the post of president after Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the leader of the AKP, became prime minister, resorted to the unusual ploy of challenging the legality of the parliamentary session they had boycotted in the constitutional court.
Despite its name, the constitutional court is anything but constitutional. It is another tool, like the presidency, in the hands of the secularists to maintain their monopoly on power. The fact that the constitutional court entertained an illegal motion by the secularists to declare the first session of parliament “unconstitutional” because these parties had boycotted its proceedings demonstrates its real purpose. After the court verdict, prime minister Erdogan said: “It was a bullet fired at democracy.” He announced that parliamentary elections will be held on July 22; these are likely to give the AKP an even larger majority if the military does not subvert the process before then.
Turkey’s current political crisis erupted because of the disruptive tactics of the secularists, who have little support among the masses, and who are therefore reluctant to face the ballot-box but are keen to subvert every legal process. Operating in the shadow of the overbearing military (commonly referred to as the “deep state”), they are trying to safeguard their privileges under the pretext of “protecting Kemalism”. Most Turks reject this ideology (which is more like a cult) that is being thrust down their throats by a shadowy nexus of military and police officers and rightwing thugs because they see it as a convenient cover to frustrate public opinion. Like the banana republics of Central America, the Turkish military has become accustomed to dismissing elected governments and shutting down parliaments. They have also banned two political parties, both with mild Islamic leanings, that the secularists loathed.
Although he is elected indirectly, the president wields enormous powers, thanks to the constitution of 1982, which was promulgated after the military coup of 1980. Besides the power to veto legislation passed by an elected parliament, he has the sole authority to appoint the army chief as well as university presidents and higher court judges. His decisions cannot be challenged in any court of law. If parliament passes a bill he has vetoed without amendments, the president must either sign it into law or call a referendum. This tortuous process is intended to frustrate the popular will, but in reality it reflects the limits of tolerance in secular politics, especially when it comes to respecting Islamic aspirations.
The AKP (Adalet ve Kalk nma Partisi in Turkish) is not a religious party. It emerged from the ashes of two former parties—the Welfare Party and Virtue parties—that were banned because they were deemed to be too “Islamic” by the secular establishment. The AKP has acted with great caution since it secured 354 out of 550 seats in the parliamentary elections in November 2002. It can best be described as moderately conservative, having abandoned Islamic values and resigned itself to working within the secular system. But even this is not acceptable to the secular fanatics, who regard its moderation as a cover for its ultimately Islamic agenda.
The mainstream media constantly harp on the Islamic threat (referred to as irtica, or “regression”), no doubt with active encouragement from the military. Secular columnists openly discuss ways to thwart the alleged Islamic threat, including the possibility of yet another military coup, ostensibly to safeguard state secularism. It is described as state control over religion and religious expression, but boils down to a secular monopoly of power and what ideas and thoughts people can have. Last April, Sezer openly disparaged too much intrusion of Islamic sentiment in people’s “private affairs”. These fanatics not only want to bar committed Muslims from public institutions—the presidency, government offices and educational institutions, for instance—but also want to control their private lives and thoughts. One of the main criticisms levelled against the AKP is that the wives of its MPs wear the hijab. Those adhering to Islamic dress, including Erdogan’s wife, have been barred from entering the presidential palace grounds. Such fanaticism would be hard to find elsewhere. Why the secularists are so scared of a woman’s headscarf is not easy to comprehend.
The political crisis has cast its dark shadow over the economy, which the AKP had stabilised considerably. The Turkish lira has plunged in value since the political crisis erupted. Thanks to economic progress under the AKP, millions of people moved from the countryside into cities to seek employment. This has increased pressure on rental accommodation, driving rents sky high; it has also alarmed the secularists, because people from the rural areas are generally more conservative in outlook than townspeople. This is perceived as a threat to their secular lifestyle, which they insist everyone must adopt.
Of the three power centres in Turkey—the chief of the military, the president and the prime minister—the first wields the most power if only by dint of the guns backing him. It is, however, the presidency that the secularists have used to frustrate the aspirations of the people without having to use the military’s brute force. So the battle for the presidency is crucial. The secularists do not wish to lose control of another pillar of state, although the people may have different ideas.
The next few weeks will be crucial for Turkey’s future and will determine whether the people’s wishes will be respected or the interests of the secular elite will again prevail. Sezer’s move demonstrates that, despite its claims to be a model democracy for the Muslim world, Turkey is in truth little difference from the dictatorships and monarchies the rule most of the Muslim world. All have electoral political mechanisms that are claimed as democratic; even Saddam Hussein’s Iraq had an elected parliament. But in all cases, those who wield real power allow the elected functionaries only as much freedom as is compatible with their own interests and their own exercise of ultimate power. That is precisely what is now happening in Turkey.