Turkey's Broadening Crisis


Jul 25, 2008

This commentary originally appeared in International Herald Tribune on July 25, 2008.

Turkey is facing a domestic political crisis that not only threatens the country's internal stability but could weaken its ties to the West and exacerbate instability in the Middle East.

In February, the Turkish public prosecutor forwarded a 161-page indictment to the Constitutional Court that calls for the governing Justice and Development Party, or AKP, to be closed down and for 71 of its leading politicians, including Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and President Abdullah Gul, to be banned from politics for five years. The indictment charges that the party violated secularism, a fundamental principle enshrined in the Turkish Constitution. The Constitutional Court starts final hearings in the case on Monday.

While the evidence is flimsy, most Turks, including leading members of the AKP, expect that the Constitutional Court, a bastion of secularism, will vote to close the party. Indeed, the AKP has already begun to make preparations for its dissolution.

Closing the AKP will not eliminate the party as an important force in Turkish political life. The party will simply re-emerge under a new name, as its predecessors Refah and the Virtue Party did when they were banned. However, closure would likely have a number of damaging side effects.

One would be in Turkey's relations with the Middle East. Under the AKP, Turkey has emerged as an important diplomatic actor in the region - as its successful effort to act as a broker in peace talks between Israel and Syria recently underscored. Without the AKP, Turkey's active diplomatic engagement in the Middle East is likely to diminish and the United States would lose an important partner in trying to stabilize this volatile region.

Another unwanted side effect would be in Turkey's relations with its Kurdish minority. The AKP enjoys strong support among the Turkish Kurds. In elections last summer the party doubled its support in the Kurdish areas of the Southeast. If the AKP is closed, the main beneficiary is likely to be the Kurdistan Workers' Party, or PKK, which has been conducting terrorist attacks against Turkey from sanctuaries in Northern Iraq. Moreover, the main Kurdish party, the Democratic Society Party, is also likely to be closed. Thus the Kurds would have no political vehicle to express their interests except through the PKK.

In addition, Turkey's rapprochement with Iraq could lose valuable momentum, while the hand of those forces in Turkey pushing for stronger military action against the PKK in Northern Iraq is likely to be strengthened. This could lead to an escalation of tensions between Turkey and the Kurdistan Regional Government in Northern Iraq, undercutting American efforts to promote better ties between the two entities.

Finally, closure of the AKP is likely to increase strains in Turkey's relations with the European Union. Opponents of Ankara's EU membership will use the closure as a pretext to intensify their opposition, while supporters will find it harder to make the case for Turkish membership.

At the same time, banning the party could undercut efforts to promote reform and democracy in the Middle East. Many moderate Islamists in the Middle East are likely to see the party's closure as proof that it is impossible to achieve their political goals by democratic means and could turn to more radical solutions.

So far the United States has avoided taking sides, expressing support for both secularism and democratic processes. However, given the negative strategic consequences likely to flow from the closure of the AKP, the Bush administration should encourage the Turks to find a compromise before the crisis does untold damage to Turkey's democratic credibility and international reputation and further complicates Ankara's prospects for EU membership.

If, after all that, the AKP is still closed, the United States should avoid taking punitive measures. That would only strengthen the hand of the hard-line nationalists and further weaken Turkey's ties to the West. Instead, American officials should continue to nudge Turkey toward bolder reforms that will strengthen internal democracy and bolster the qualifications for EU membership. In the long run, this is the best way to ensure the emergence of a stable, democratic Turkey closely anchored to the West.

F. Stephen Larrabee, co-author of "The Rise of Political Islam in Turkey," holds the corporate chair in European Security at the RAND Corporation.

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