WASHINGTON, Aug 1—Turkey narrowly avoided an unprecedented constitutional crisis on Wednesday when its Constitutional Court refrained from banning the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP). Henri Barkey analyzes the court’s decision, outlines the history of the AKP, and assesses the impact of the crisis on Turkey’s political future.
Barkey notes that the AKP’s success as a moderate Islamist party has worried Turkey’s secularist establishment—concerns that were exacerbated by the party’s controversial stance on the wearing of headscarves. Barkey warns that, having just avoided a political crisis, the AKP must develop a more broadly acceptable agenda, while Turkey must address its weakened institutions—military, judiciary, and parliament—all of which have been embroiled in the crisis.
- The court case against the AKP was political and devoid of serious legal foundation. A ban on the AKP would have been a serious blow to Turkey’s democratic integrity and constituted a judicial coup d’état—a dangerous precedent for dislodging governments whose policies run counter to those of powerful institutions.
- While the AKP previously avoided taking a stand on the headscarf issue, its 2007 decision to elevate Abdullah Gul—whose wife wears a headscarf—to the presidency angered many secularists, yet won public support for the AKP in the general elections. Had the AKP been banned by the court, voters would have likely punished those who pushed for the ban, deepening the crisis further.
- The crisis has forced the AKP to rethink its strategy and to begin to address much needed reforms, including women’s issues and accession to the European Union.
- Once the court decision is officially published, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan will likely order a major reshuffling of the cabinet—reversing appointments in the senior ranks where individuals with religious affiliations were favored at the expense of more meritocratic ones.
- The crisis demonstrated the institutional weakness of Turkey’s political system. There is growing recognition among both secularists and AKP leaders of the need for a new constitution—rescinding the previous version written under military tutelage. Though this will likely worsen civil-military relations, the failure of secularists to enact a judicial coup makes a full-fledged military coup increasingly unlikely.
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Henri J. Barkey is a nonresident senior associate in the Carnegie Middle East Program and the Bernard L. and Bertha F. Cohen Professor in International Relations and International Relations Department Chair at Lehigh University. He served as a member of the U.S. State Department Policy Planning Staff working primarily on issues related to the Middle East, the Eastern Mediterranean, and intelligence from 1998 to 2000.
The Carnegie Middle East Program combines in-depth local knowledge with incisive comparative analysis to examine economic, socio-political, and strategic interests in the Arab world. Through detailed country studies and the exploration of key cross-cutting themes, the Carnegie Middle East Program, in coordination with the Carnegie Middle East Center, provides analysis and recommendations in both English and Arabic that are deeply informed by knowledge and views from the region. The Carnegie Middle East Program has special expertise in political reform and Islamist participation in pluralistic politics throughout the region.
The Carnegie Middle East Center is a public policy think tank and research center based in Beirut, Lebanon. Bringing together senior researchers from the region, the Carnegie Middle East Center aims to better inform the process of political change in the Middle East and deepen understanding of the issues the region and its people face.
The Arab Reform Bulletin addresses political reform in the Middle East. Sent monthly, it offers analysis from U.S.-based and Middle Eastern political experts in English and Arabic, as well as news synopses and resource guides.
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