04/03/2008, 00.00
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Erdoğan’s tightrope between Europe and Turkey’s bureaucratic elite

by NAT da Polis
The decision by Turkey’s Constitutional Court to hear a legal petition to disband the governing party of Prime Minister Erdoğan and President Gül is causing waves across the country. Today Europe’s last wall has fallen.

Ankara (AsiaNews) – The European Union is worried by the political uncertainty that is growing in Turkey. On Saturday the European Union Enlargement Commissioner Olli Rehn expressed his own concern, saying that in a normal democracy issues are discussed first in parliament and then decided at the ballot box.

The decision by Turkey’s Constitutional Court to hear an application by Chief Prosecutor of the High Court of Appeals Abdurrahman Yalçınkaya to have the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) dissolved and its 71 top officials, including President Abdullah Gül and Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, barred from politics, is raising tensions between the defenders of the secular state, who are accusing the current government of trying to introduce Islamic law with its constitutional reforms, and Erdoğan supporters, who call for the protection of religious freedom whilst claiming they are no longer tied to political Islam.

The tensions had begun rising even before the July 2007 elections when Gül’s candidacy for the presidency was attacked. But as many experts of modern Turkey have pointed out, the real reason for the tensions lies in the anomaly of a country run by a military-bureaucratic elite that sees itself as the guarantor of the Republican state but that has never seen the nation as an entity capable of deciding for itself. The result has been an unresponsive and compliant society.

The Republican People's Party (CHP), a Kemalist party, has always been allied to this elite in opposing the AKP. For opportunistic reasons the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), the party of the ultranationalist Grey Wolves, has joined the bandwagon despite voting with the AKP to lift the scarf ban.

Many now believe that during the court proceedings, which should take about a year, the AKP might be helped to splinter as its enemies apply the same salami tactics used in the wake of the 1980 coup and which produced the fragmentation of the then existing parties. Indeed some would like to see economic and social tensions might provoke divisions within the ranks of the AKP, taking advantage of the fact that in Turkey political parties are less political movements than the political expression of leaders with a tendency towards heterogeneity and a short life span, lasting as long as their leaders, largely expressing clientelistic relations and interests.

Erdoğan’s own AKP is indeed very heterogenous, having risen from the ashes of another Islamist party, that of former Prime Minister Necmettin Erbakan, who was forced out of power.

This explains Erdoğan’s balancing act, which is to satisfy the party’s religious base by lifting the scarf ban from public universities (already lifted in private universities) whilst pursuing a fast track policy to join the European Union in order to meet the needs of Turkey’s business community and economic groups and guarantee his own political survival.

Turkish business is in fact pro-Erdoğan because it sees in him the only pro-Europe politician, convinced that the country’s stability and development can only be achieved through membership in the European Union.

Indeed, just being a candidate for EU membership has lifted Turkey’s credit rating among investors, said a representative of the Banca San Paolo Imi in Istanbul.

What is more, no one challenges the fact that Turkey is a young country with a great economic potential and many possibilities, but for many its civil society is culturally underdeveloped, a flaw historian Bozarlsan blames on the country’s elites.

Erdoğan, who is in Stockholm today, has repeatedly said that Turkey cannot accept any other solution other than that of full membership in the European Union, adding that a European Turkey will not undermine the Union’s foundations.

The last card up his sleeve would be a referendum, a poll Erdoğan is bound to win but which might push the military to intervene.

In fact no one in Ankara’s diplomatic circles has failed to notice a visit by General Mehmet Büyükanıt, chief of the Turkish General Staff, to northern Cyprus, and it was no accident that he was in civilian clothes.

In this part of the island along with 30,000 Turkish soldiers there are 80,000 Turkish settlers (out of 150,000 residents), all practicing Muslims and, unlike the forgotten Turkish Cypriot natives, the army’s darlings.

In coming to the contested island Büyükanıt was signalling that any solution to the Cyprus question, now closer because of a rapprochement between the two communities following the election of Dimitris Christofias as Cypriot president, cannot be achieved without the armed forces’ green light, whatever the government may say.

At the same time though, today also marked the fall of the last wall dividing Europe as a major crossing in the divided Cypriot capital of Nicosia was reopened, a gesture that embodies the desire of both communities to live together in peace within Europe, but also a way to indirectly respond to Turkey’s generals in Ankara.

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