Analysis

Summary: As the dust begins to settle in the aftermath of the constitutional court’s surprise decision not to ban the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), the most pressing question in the Turkish capital, Ankara, is what impact it will have on the country’s prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Will the pragmatic Erdoğan, who restored economic and political stability during his first term in office, reemerge? Or will the confrontational Erdoğan, who stubbornly refused to reach out to his secular opponents after his big win in the July 2007 election prevail? The answer will largely determine whether Turkey can put the past year’s turbulence behind it and move on.

After The Constitutional Court Ruling: Whither Tayyip Erdoğan and the AKP?
by Amberin Zaman*
ANKARA — As the dust begins to settle in the aftermath of the constitutional court’s surprise decision not to ban the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), the most pressing question in the Turkish capital, Ankara, is what impact it will have on the country’s prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Will the pragmatic Erdoğan, who restored economic and political stability during his first term in office, reemerge? Or will the confrontational Erdoğan, who stubbornly refused to reach out to his secular opponents after his big win in the July 2007 election (and thereby prompted the latest crisis, some argue) prevail? The answer will largely determine whether Turkey can put the past year’s turbulence behind it and move on. Opinion is sharply divided. Here are two potential scenarios. The Chastened Erdoğan Scenario Proponents of this scenario argue that Erdoğan is a political chameleon who, learning from past mistakes, has an infinite capacity for improvisation and reinvention. They point to his earlier clash with the pro-secular
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establishment when he was elected mayor of Istanbul in 1994 from the overtly Islamist—and now defunct—Welfare Party. An Islamic cleric by training, Erdoğan was stripped of his mayoral seat in 1997 and spent a brief stint in jail for reciting a nationalist poem at a public rally that was deemed to incite religious hatred. It was a turning point. A chastened Erdoğan ditched the Islamists and founded the AKP in 2001, saying he no longer believed in mixing religion with politics. When the AKP romped to single rule in 2002, Prime Minister Erdoğan vowed to lead Turkey into the European Union, and embarked on a blizzard of reforms that shamed EU leaders into opening membership talks with Turkey in 2005. His transformation from Islamist ideologue to pro-Western democrat seemed nearly complete. But then the increasingly confident Erdoğan made a string of embarrassing gaffes: he called Israel a “terrorist state,” referred to Sunni militants in Iraq as “martyrs,” and sought to criminalize adultery. Faced with a public outcry at home and criticism abroad, he then backed down. Prime Minister Erdoğan

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Amberin Zaman has been the Turkey correspondent for The Economist since 1999. She has also been a regular contributor to the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, and the Daily Telegraph of London. The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the German Marshall Fund of the United States (GMF).

Analysis

became the first Islam-rooted prime minister to visit Israel. With his blessing, Turkey became the principal hub for non-combat materiel flown to American troops in Afghanistan and Iraq. The adultery bill was hastily scrapped. Optimists, therefore, have ample justification to claim that Erdoğan does learn from his mistakes. In fact, some sources close to the AKP leader predict that Erdoğan will make a fresh round of gestures to appease his pro-secular opponents. He may begin by reshuffling his cabinet. A likely casualty would be Huseyin Celik, the controversial education minister who is accused of inserting Islam into school textbooks. More importantly, Erdoğan may reach out to the opposition when drafting a new constitution to replace the authoritarian document drawn up by the generals following the 1980 coup. His failure to do so last year, when he floated a draft document, unleashed the tensions that culminated in the prosecutor’s case to outlaw the AKP. Prime Minister Erdoğan’s statements in the wake of the Constitutional Court’s decision suggest that he is ready to espouse a more conciliatory stance. He promised to remain faithful to secularism and to pursue EU membership. Nothing new there. What is new, is Erdoğan said he would take into account the court’s written opinion about the AKP’s alleged anti-secular activities when charting a fresh course. It is the closest he has come to admitting a degree of responsibility for his party’s travails. As one Western diplomat put it: “He’s gotten the message that calming tensions is what is needed at this time.” The Triumphal Erdoğan Scenario Others aren’t so sure. They argue that Erdoğan is unlikely to be tamed by his latest run-in with the pro-secular establishment. In this view, the court’s decision will have only reinforced the prime minister’s sense of invincibility. Sources close to Erdoğan have long complained of an increasingly authoritarian streak. The prime minister brooks no dissent, they say, and scolds associates who dare to express it. He rules the AKP with an iron fist.

“Prime Minister Erdoğan’s statements in the wake of the Constitutional Court’s decision suggest that he is ready to espouse a more conciliatory stance.”
The skeptics note Erdoğan had promised to reach out to all Turks, “including those who didn’t vote for me,” during his victory speech following the 2007 elections. Yet, he failed to reassure his critics when he rammed through a constitutional amendment earlier this year that would have allowed girls to wear the Islamic headscarf at universities. (The amendment was subsequently struck down by the Constitutional Court.) Many on the secular side insist the law should have included explicit provisions guaranteeing the right of women to remain uncovered, if they so choose. Should he opt to once again thumb his nose at the secular establishment, Erdoğan may be emboldened by the fact that not a single AKP lawmaker defected in the face of the closure case against the party. A triumphal Erdoğan may give in to the temptation to indulge his more ideological impulses and reward his Islamist base for sticking with him. Such a scenario, would pose great risk for Turkey as it grapples with an economic slowdown, a resurgent PKK, difficult negotiations with the European Union, and a series of complex foreign policy problems including Iraq, Cyprus, and Armenia. Conclusion Chastened or not, Erdoğan remains the only credible political leader in Turkey today. Opinion polls consistently suggest that he is vastly more popular than any of his pro-secular rivals. Despite occasional statements that call into question his commitment to secularism, there is no real evidence that Erdoğan seeks to introduce Shariah rule. Prime Minister Erdoğan’s excesses are best explained

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Analysis

“Chastened or not, Erdoğan remains on the only credible political leader in Turkey today.”
by the lack of a credible opposition—secular or otherwise—to the AKP. It is this absence of political alternatives that encourages non-political actors, such as the country’s hawkish generals, to fill the vacuum. Unless the opposition comes up with fresh faces and, more importantly, new ideas, they are bound to be trounced yet again in mayoral elections scheduled to be held next year. The AKP will thus emerge even stronger. Just how this will effect Erdoğan’s behavior is anyone’s guess.

Amberin Zaman, Correspondent, The Economist
Amberin Zaman has been the Turkey correspondent for The Economist since 1999. She has also been a regular contributor to the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, and the Daily Telegraph of London.

About GMF
The German Marshall Fund of the United States (GMF) is a nonpartisan American public policy and grantmaking institution dedicated to promoting greater cooperation and understanding between North America and Europe. GMF does this by supporting individuals and institutions working on transatlantic issues, by convening leaders to discuss the most pressing transatlantic themes, and by examining ways in which transatlantic cooperation can address a variety of global policy challenges. In addition, GMF supports a number of initiatives to strengthen democracies. Founded in 1972 through a gift from Germany, on the 25th anniversary of the Marshall Plan, as a permanent memorial to Marshall Plan assistance, GMF maintains a strong presence on both sides of the Atlantic. In addition to its headquarters in Washington, DC, GMF has seven offices in Europe: Berlin, Bratislava, Paris, Brussels, Belgrade, Ankara, and Bucharest.

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