Friday, 27 March 2009

Government's Struggle for Hegemony Fuels Doubts About the AKP's Democratic Values

Published in Articles

By Orhan Bursali (vol. 2, no. 6 of the Turkey Analyst)

Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development party (AKP) has won two consecutive elections and is now in its eighth year in power. Since the AKP’s leaders came from an Islamist political background, doubts about the sincerity of its adherence to the principles of the democratic system have lingered on among the opposition. These suspicions have been fed by the controversial policies of the AKP, and in particular by its sustained effort to concentrate power in the hands of the executive branch.

BACKGROUND: The Turkish constitution, in accordance with international practice, envisages a parliamentary regime based on the separation of the legislative, executive and judiciary powers. However, during the seven and half years of AKP rule, these powers have been increasingly centralized to the executive branch and made to conform to a sole policy course.

Indeed, it has become near-impossible to separate state and government. The bureaucratic cadres of the Turkish state, down to the province level, have by now become heavily politicized by the AKP government. Compliance with the policies and practices of the AKP leadership, symbolized for instance by the preference for the Islamic headscarf, is implicitly being established as the main criterion for bureaucratic appointment and promotion. Evidence to this effect is accumulating, showing that religious beliefs, and graduation from the religious Imam-preacher schools, are requirements sought after for government service.

The convergence of state and government became all the more visible during the run-up to the local elections of March 29.  It was revealed that governors do not refrain from spending state resources under their control to serve the ruling party and its propaganda machine. In one such case, which concerned the governor of the province of Tunceli, a legal investigation was initiated, which prompted Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan to declare that he was not about to let anybody interfere with “my governor”.  Provincial governors use government funds discriminately: although for instance aid to the poor is supposed to be distributed equally, it has systematically been directed toward constituencies where the electoral standing of the AKP has been deemed to be in need of a boost.

The supposed independence of the judiciary can be called into the question as well. The government in fact exercises direct control on judicial matters, since the minister of Justice and his cabinet secretary are both members of the board of the supreme judicial instance of the country, the High Council of judges and prosecutors. Furthermore, the inspectors of the Justice department supervise judges and prosecutors. And the mechanisms of supervision are unfailingly activated in legal cases in which supporters and interests of the AKP are involved. In such cases, judges and prosecutors have been reassigned to other duties.

Ultimately, the AKP government is bent on asserting its influence on the Constitutional Court, the High Appeals Court and the Supreme Administrative Court. These courts have been a thorn in the side of the AKP’s rule. Yet, the political composition of these highest courts has already been altered. In the Constitutional Court, where previously seven out of eleven judges were known to be opposed to AKP, the difference has now been leveled out, to six to five, as was illustrated last summer, when the court passed out its judgment not to close down the AKP, although it did rule that the party had indeed acted in contravention of constitutional principles. The “political balance” is thus by now assured. In 2010 and 2011 the terms of five judges (two of whom ordinary and three deputy judges) expire, and the president (a former AKP member) will assign their replacements. It will not come as a surprise if the upcoming appointments reflect a pro-government bias.

The Turkish system of government is construed as a system of checks and balances, with the president, notably, providing a check on government policies. With the election of Abdullah Gül, who was one of the founders of the AKP and served as a former Prime Minister and Foreign minister, the presidency has for all intents and purposes ceased to exert such a function. President Gül rubber-stamps legislation; laws are seldom forwarded by the president to the Constitutional Court for an evaluation of their constitutionality.

IMPLICATIONS: The growing convergence of state and government, illustrated by the politicization of the bureaucratic cadres and the judiciary whose independence is in itself restricted by the pressure exerted on it by the Justice Department, have led opposition circles to conclude that the AKP is erecting the foundations on an authoritarian one-party rule. Indeed, the apprehension that the AKP is not in compliance with the requirements of a parliamentary democratic system is further fueled by the narrow definition of democracy to which the party has come to subscribe.

The result of the elections of 2007, in which the AKP received 47 percent of the votes, has encouraged the representatives of the AKP to regard “popular will” as to the sole instance to which the party would be accountable – reminiscent of the majoritarian conception of democracy of its forebears. Yet, erecting “popular will” to pre-eminence carries populist, undemocratic implications. If “popular will” is to reign supreme, the rule of law and separation of powers are obviously invalidated as principles. Indeed, the belief in the supremacy of “popular will” conforms well to the apparent aspiration of the AKP to concentrate all power in one single instance.

The efforts of the AKP government to restrict the role of the free media (see Turkey Analyst, 13 February 2009) and the use made of the Ergenekon investigation to intimidate and silence the opposition, which is indiscriminately accused of trying to subvert the government by creating an “atmosphere propitious for a military coup”, point in the same, disquieting direction. The way the AKP government handles the business community completes the picture of a ruling party engaged in a systematic effort to neutralize dissent. The relations between the AKP and Tüsiad, The Turkish Businessmen and Industrialists’ Association, are tense. Tüsiad is often targeted in the speeches of Prime Minister Erdogan. Meanwhile, the AKP seeks to ensure that the boards of the chambers of commerce are populated with its supporters. And the AKP has gone to great lengths to ensure that government contracts are accorded to business interests close to the ruling party. The legal possibilities to divert government contracts to businesses sympathetic to the AKP have been widely enlarged, and in many cases legal niceties are duly disregarded. At the municipal level, businesses close to the government are as a rule the beneficiaries of the largesse of the AKP.

The political and ideological implications of the concentration of power can be observed in particular in the education sector. Education is an area where the effects of the policies of the AKP are further reinforced by the spectacular growth of the influence of the religious brotherhoods, of which the Fethullah Gülen community is the most important. The AKP government pursues an education policy which seeks to infuse religious references in the state school education, and the same ideological preferences are employed in the appointment of school staff, as is the case in other parts of the public sector. The religious brotherhoods accord great importance to administering religious education to children of pre-school age, amplifying the effects of the education polices of the government.  The percentage of girls who do not attend school has increased during the years of AKP rule, while the female literacy rate has remained at 80 percent during the same period. It also bears noting that the rise of unemployment is sharpest among women. According to the statistics of EurActiv, 25 percent of women in Turkey participate in the work force, compared to 57 percent in the EU. Contrary to what is common in the EU, women in Turkey are almost discouraged to enter the workforce by government policies. In a March 18 statement, the state minister responsible for the treasury, Mehmet Simsek, explained the rise in unemployment figures with the fact that “in times of crisis more women tend to become job-seekers.” According to official statistics, the number of unemployed increased with 838,000 from last November to January. However, according to Simsek, “the real number ranges between 150,000 and 200,000”, when housewives are deducted. Thus, it is implied that women should rather stay at home.

The most recent example that illustrates the consequences the AKP’s politicization of the public sector, while laying bare the attitude of the Islamic conservative government to education and science, is the censorship of Darwin and the theory of evolution by TÜBITAK, the Turkish science and technology association. A member of the board of TÜBITAK, which consists of AKP appointees, reacted sharply at the scheduled commemoration of the 200th anniversary of the birth of Darwin by “Bilim ve Teknik” (Science and technology), TÜBITAK’s monthly publication. Declaring the initiative to commemorate Darwin “inadmissible”, he demanded that the picture of Darwin be removed from the front page, as well as the essay about him. The editor of the publication was fired. Reactions in Turkey as well as from international quarters did nevertheless force TÜBITAK’s board to back-track, announcing that an issue about Darwin will eventually be forthcoming.

CONCLUSIONS:  Turkey risks becoming an authoritarian, increasingly Islamist country if the power of the AKP remains unchecked. Such an evolution will give rise to a new set of political and societal tensions and will inevitably have consequences for Turkey’s foreign relations and alliances. The problems that are sure follow as a result of Turkey turning into an Islamic conservative one-party state will be a matter of concern for the wider international community as well.

AUTHOR’S BIO: Orhan Bursali is a columnist in the centre-left daily Cumhuriyet, and the editor of its weekly science supplement. He is the author of “Bilim Nereye Kosuyor?” (Where is science heading?) and most recently of “Türban, Bir Kadin Sorunu mu, Erkek Sorunu mu?” (The Headscarf, a male of female problem?).  The arguments made in this article are further developed in a forthcoming book.

© Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program Joint Center, 2009. This article may be reprinted provided that the following sentence be included: "This article was first published in the Turkey Analyst (, a biweekly publication of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program Joint Center".

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The Turkey Analyst is a publication of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Joint Center, designed to bring authoritative analysis and news on the rapidly developing domestic and foreign policy issues in Turkey. It includes topical analysis, as well as a summary of the Turkish media debate.


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