Turkey's Second Chance


Aug 24, 2008

This commentary originally appeared in Washington Times on August 24, 2008.

The recent decision by the Turkish Constitutional Court not to close the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) helped Turkey — and especially Prime Minister Tayyip Recep Erdogan — narrowly dodge a dangerous political bullet.

It also represents an important victory for Turkish democracy. Had the decision gone the other way, Turkey might have plunged into a political crisis that would have harmed its ties to the West and badly damaged its bid for membership in the European Union. Instead, the court decided to cut the subsidies to the party from the Treasury by half.

The case against the AKP was largely political. The evidence was flimsy and largely derived from anecdotes and hearsay. The decision means it will be much harder to close down a party unless it resorts to violence or other anti-democratic methods, which the AKP clearly did not.

To avoid further political turmoil, Mr. Erdogan must move quickly to restore confidence in his leadership and show he has learned from the court's action. Five steps in particular need to be taken in the coming weeks:

(1) Mr. Erdogan must build bridges to the secular establishment, particularly the military — something he neglected to do in the aftermath of the AKP's overwhelming victory in the July 2007 parliamentary elections. This was a serious tactical error that must not be repeated. Mr. Erdogan must show he takes the court's warning seriously and avoid taking actions that could be seen by the military as challenging the constitutional order, particularly secularism.

(2) Mr. Erdogan needs to reinvigorate the domestic reform process and get Turkey's EU membership bid back on track. While the current difficulties with Brussels are not all Turkey's fault, the Erdogan government bears considerable responsibility. After a strong start, the domestic reform process in Turkey has recently stagnated, exacerbating strains with Brussels. One of the first orders of business following the constitutional court's decision is to kick-start the reform process and give the accession negotiations with the EU new momentum.

(3) Mr. Erdogan should open a dialogue with the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in northern Iraq aimed at resolving outstanding bilateral differences, especially the role of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), a Kurdish separatist group that has launched terrorist attacks against Turkish territory from sanctuaries in northern Iraq. The PKK problem can't be resolved without the assistance and support of the KRG.

As long as it appeared as if the AKP would be closed, the Kurdish authorities in northern Iraq had little incentive to negotiate seriously with the Erdogan government. But the constitutional court's decision changes the context and improves the chances that talking could bring positive results.

Better communication is in the KRG's self interest anyway. The Kurdish authorities in northern Iraq — where there are large untapped oil deposits — have a strong economic incentive to improve ties with Turkey. The KRG needs to get this oil to Western markets, and the cheapest and most direct means of doing so is through Turkey.

(4) Mr. Erdogan needs to improve the living conditions of Turkey's Kurdish community. The PKK problem cannot be solved by military means alone; the military campaign against the PKK must be combined with serious social and economic reform that addresses the concerns of Turkey's own citizens — a fact that the Turkish military is beginning to realize.

(5) Finally, Mr. Erdogan must strengthen Turkey's relationship with the United States. The increased U.S. political and military support since Mr. Erdogan's Washington visit last November has been crucial in helping Turkey deal more effectively with the PKK threat and has led to a marked improvement in bilateral relations. Mr. Erdogan needs to ensure that this support and general upswing in relations continues after President Bush leaves office.

These measures are no panacea. But taken together, they would go a long way toward healing the fissures engendered by the recent crisis and provide a firm basis for stabilizing Turkish democracy.

F. Stephen Larrabee, co-author of "The Rise of Political Islam in Turkey," holds the Corporate Chair in European Security at the Rand Corp., a nonprofit institution that helps improve policy and decision-making through research and analysis.

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