Rhetoric and Reform: Turkey’s Justice and Development Party and Domestic Instrumentalization of European Accession
By Michael keen
In November 2016, Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced that Turkey would not seek to join the European Union “at all costs.” This claim marked a significant departure from the longstanding position of Erdogan and his party, the Justice and Development Party, or AKP. In fact, the AKP, which was Turkey’s first Islamist party to win an outright parliamentary majority and has governed Turkey for more than a decade, initially came to power in 2002 on a platform of fast tracking Turkey’s European accession bid. In 2002, Erdogan himself, on hearing that his party had won the election, declared, “Our most urgent issue is the EU, and I will send my colleagues to Europe…We have no time to lose.”
For the first several years of the AKP’s time in power, Turkey’s European accession was indeed treated as the government’s most urgent issue. Ironically, though, the formal opening of accession negotiations between Turkey and the European Union in 2005 marked in many ways the high point of Turkey’s European hopes. Today, Turkey’s accession to the EU looks more distant than ever, thanks in large part to the increasingly indifferent and even Euroskeptic stance of Erdogan and the AKP. To understand this seismic shift in the AKP’s EU policy, it is crucial to understand how and why Turkey’s Islamist politicians embraced pro-EU rhetoric even before the founding of the AKP and how, once in power, the AKP consistently used the issue of EU accession to further its domestic political goals.
While Turkey’s Islamist political leaders initially deployed the rhetoric of Western values espoused by the European Union in an unsuccessful attempt to avert the court-mandated dissolution of the Welfare Party, the AKP’s predecessor, Islamist leaders came to use the prospect and process of EU accession as tools to reduce the power of their domestic foes, the long-dominant Kemalist establishment. By the end of 2008, events inside Turkey demonstrated that the balance of power had swung away from the Kemalist establishment and towards the AKP. This shift in Turkish politics obviated the need for the AKP to use European accession as a domestic political tool, and thereafter, the EU accession process, already on hold because of largely external factors, slowed to a crawl—a stagnation that has lasted to the present.
Ever since the founding of the Republic of Turkey in 1922, many Turks have looked westwards. Modern Turkey’s founding father, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, believed that joining the community of European nations was Turkey’s future and destiny. Ataturk’s European dream has been echoed by his political heirs, known as Kemalists, throughout Turkey’s century-long history. For nearly as long as projects of European integration have existed, Turkey has sought to join them. In 1963, Turkey signed an Association Agreement with the nascent European Economic Community (EEC), a step that bolstered economic ties between the two and was in Turkey’s view the first step to eventual Turkish membership in the EEC. In 1987, Turkey formally requested to join the EEC, but in 1989, the European Commission refused Turkey’s request on the grounds that Turkey was insufficiently democratic. The 1989 rejection did not kill Turkey’s European hopes, though. In 1996, after intense lobbying from both Turkey and the United States, Turkey was admitted into the European Customs Union, paving the way for closer economic integration, and, again, in Ankara’s eyes, future full membership.
Despite the decision to admit Turkey into the Customs Union, however, many European leaders still harbored misgivings about Turkey as part of Europe. Specifically, Turkey’s lack of democracy and poor human rights record were cited as the principle barriers to Turkey’s integration with Europe. For these reasons, Turkey’s accession process hit a snag in 1997 when the European Council in Luxembourg declared that Turkey still did not meet the criteria for membership. Again, though, the momentum did not dissipate completely, and in 1998, the European Commission began issuing reports on the outstanding issues standing in the way of Turkey’s accession and Turkey’s progress in addressing those issues, laying out a clear roadmap for Turkey to follow. In 1999, at its meeting in Helsinki, the European Council reversed its previous decision: Turkey was officially declared a candidate country to what was by then the European Union (EU).
In the late 1990s, Turkey’s quest for accession to the EU intersected with political Islam. As part of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk’s effort to completely break with Turkey’s Ottoman past, the Turkish Republic was established on an aggressively secular basis, and the government suppressed Islam in public life and politics despite the fact that the great majority of the population remained devout, conservative Sunni Muslims. After Ataturk’s death, his political party, the Republican People’s Party (CHP), carried on his anti-Islam outlook. Furthermore, the Turkish military quickly appointed itself as the guardian of Ataturk’s legacy, including defending state secularism against threats real and imagined. Conservative religious Turkish leaders, cognizant of the fact that their views were supported by the majority of Turks, made many attempts to organize political parties and push back against what they saw as the overly Western-oriented and secular state. However, these efforts were invariably blocked by the power of the Kemalist establishment, headed by the triumvirate of the CHP, the military, and the judiciary.
One figure towers above the others in the annals of political Islam in Turkey: Necmettin Erbakan. In 1969, Erbakan wrote a manifesto known as Millî Görüş (National Outlook) in which he called for Turkey to develop and achieve economic independence within a Muslim context and eschew integration with Europe in favor of embracing its own Muslim history and culture. The Millî Görüş tract became the ideology for a series of Islamist political parties founded and led by Erbakan from the 1970s to the 1990s. Erbakan’s activism, however, was Sisyphean: the Kemalist establishment, led by the army and the courts, repeatedly banned the parties he founded on the grounds that they plotted to undermine the secular nature of the state. His National Order Party, the first overtly Islamist political party in Turkey’s history, was shuttered and banned in 1971, a year after its founding, and its successor, the National Salvation Party, established in 1972, was proscribed following a military coup in 1980. Erbakan continued his political efforts, though, and in 1983, after the military relinquished power to a civilian government, he founded what would become his most successful party: the Welfare Party (Refah Partisi, or RP). Although the RP initially garnered only modest electoral success, its share of the vote increased gradually and, in the 1996 election, capitalizing on popular disenchantment with mainstream political parties, the RP won the largest share of votes. Erbakan managed to form a governing coalition with other parties, and he became the first Islamist prime minister in Turkey’s history.
Erbakan’s original Millî Görüş manifesto was anti-European in outlook, and all of his parties opposed Turkey’s closer integration into Europe. The main line of Islamist criticism was simple: the EU was a group of Christian countries and would never accept a Muslim Turkey into its ranks. Far better, instead, to pursue closer relations with Turkey’s natural allies—other developing Muslim countries. From the 1970s to the mid-1990s, Islamist rhetoric on Europe did not significantly change. Erbakan himself, speaking in 1991, put it most forcefully: “I regard the application of Turkey for the full membership in the [European Community] as a treason to our history, civilization, culture, and history.”
After the Welfare Party formed a government and Necmettin Erbakan became prime minister in 1996, anti-EU rhetoric softened, but the sentiment remained. The RP’s effective foreign policy ombudsman, Abdullah Gul, noted with pride that the RP had been alone among Turkish parties in opposing Turkey’s entry into the European Customs Union in 1995, just before coming to power, and, as party spokesman, Gul continued to characterize the European Union as a “Christian Club.” The RP government implemented policy to match its rhetoric: Turkey’s progress towards EU accession ground to a halt, and Erbakan founded the Developing Eight Organization for Economic Cooperation, a group of populous Muslim countries, as an alternative to economic ties with the EU. Domestically, the Welfare Party-led coalition attempted to introduce measures to boost the symbolic standing of Islam in Turkey, such as permitting female government employees to wear Islamic headscarves in government offices.
However, when Erbakan’s government, weak to begin with, attempted to loosen restrictions on Islam in society, this, once again, prompted a backlash from the still-dominant Kemalist establishment. In February 1997, after making its opposition to Erbakan increasingly clear, the military-dominated National Security Council forced Erbakan to sign a document detailing actions to be taken to reduce the Islamization of the country, effectively ending Erbakan’s tenure as prime minister. Erbakan resigned shortly thereafter, and in 1998, Turkey’s Constitutional Court, which was stacked with Kemalists, banned the Welfare Party entirely for its Islamist activities.
The Turkish military’s intervention of February 28, 1997, or the February 28 Process, as the intervention came to be known, triggered an intense period of soul-searching and reflection within the Welfare Party and Turkey’s leading Islamists. The party’s leadership came to a remarkable conclusion: directly challenging the Kemalist establishment and secular order of the country through the ballot box and the doctrine of Millî Görüş was a dead end. Instead, the Welfare Party leadership, including Erbakan, decided that a radical shift in tactics was needed: Turkey’s Islamist movement would embrace Europe. In October 1997, just four months after he was forced to resign, Erbakan declared in a speech, “Now we have become westernists.”
After decades of opposition, why did Erbakan and the RP leadership suddenly decide to completely reverse their position on Europe, and why was the leadership’s decision to move toward Europe embraced by the party’s rank and file? Erbakan and the RP leadership saw that moving towards Europe would lead to benefits in the short, medium, and long term. The movement was confronted with an immediate challenge: after Erbakan was politically crippled in February and forced from power in June 1997, Kemalist state prosecutors lodged a case to ban the Welfare Party entirely from politics. Lawyers defending the party quickly came to the conclusion that the best legal defense lay in the rhetoric of democracy—or, in other words, the rhetoric of the values of the European Union. In more concrete terms, after the Constitutional Court duly banned the Welfare Party, its leaders appealed the ruling to the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR). Although Turkey ratified the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms, the treaty from which the ECHR derives its authority, in 1954, Ankara had only accepted the jurisdiction of the ECHR in 1989. Since then, the ECHR had overturned Turkish court rulings on a variety of cases involving human rights and civil liberties, and the RP leadership hoped that the ECHR would prevent the closure of their party. The ECHR, though, had other plans: in a rare departure from its standard line on court-mandated party closures, the ECHR upheld the dissolution of the Welfare Party, ruling that “it was reasonable on the part of the state to act as they did in order to protect the electoral system of the state.”
Again, the end of the Welfare Party was not the end of Islamist politics. Shortly before the court dissolved the Welfare Party, one of Erbakan’s friends, anticipating the ruling, founded the Virtue Party (Fazilet Partisi, FP), and all but a handful of the Welfare Party’s members of parliament and leaders quickly joined the new party. Even though their immediate hopes had been dashed, Turkey’s Islamist leaders found it advantageous to continue their ideological and rhetorical shift towards Europe. Being pro-Europe meant being pro-reform in Turkey, and, across the political spectrum, the Turkish public was strongly supportive of systematic reform. The 1990s were a period of economic stagnation and political deadlock, characterized by chronic inflation and a series of weak coalition governments. By embracing reform, the Islamists sought to reap electoral dividends in the medium term.
Finally, the Islamist leadership had long-term reasons to turn towards the European Union. By this point, the European Union had begun explicitly outlining issues standing between Turkey and accession and rating Turkey’s progress towards resolving these issues. The overbearing position of the military and courts ranked highly on the EU’s list of objections. A push towards Europe would weaken the Kemalist establishment that had thwarted the political ambitions of Erbakan’s parties so many times. More broadly still, the European Union took a much more permissive stance on religious freedom in general than did the Kemalist establishment in Turkey. Specific reforms aside, a Europeanized Turkey would surely offer more leeway for individual Turks to practice their religion both in the private and public spheres. This final reason for Islamist leaders’ shift towards the EU was, in fact, quite well known at the time and was reported on in mainstream European media.
Erbakan and Welfare Party elites, then, identified a triad of benefits of becoming pro-EU: the short-term hope of avoiding court-mandated party closure, the medium-term promise of electoral dividends due to the general popularity of reforms, and the long-term advantages that would accrue to Islamists from a more open Turkish society. However, this shift in rhetoric was almost exclusively top-down in nature. Crucially, in the period between 1997 and 2001, there was a concurrent bottom-up swell within the Islamist ranks that also sought to realign the movement towards the European Union, albeit for different reasons. In the waning days of the Welfare Party, a minority reformist faction within the party sought to boost intraparty democracy and Europe-oriented human rights reform independent of the ideological change of the group’s leadership. This wing of the party drew its support not from Millî Görüş ideologues but from a new class of Anatolian businessmen who had benefited from economic liberalization measures enacted since the 1980s. These businessmen, called collectively the Anatolian Tigers, supported liberal economic policies, human rights and democracy in the public sphere, as well as respect for conservative values in the private sphere. The reform wing of the party attempted to challenge an old guard candidate in internal Virtue Party elections and, although the challenge was unsuccessful, it showed significant support within the Islamist movement for a pro-Europe party that was less overtly Islamist and focused instead on economic liberalization and political reform.
In 2001, a Turkish court banned the Virtue Party for being too similar to its predecessor, the Welfare Party. In the aftermath, the split between the old guard of the Islamist movement, still led by Necmettin Erbakan, and the reformist faction, led by former foreign policy spokesman Abdullah Gul and the ex-mayor of Istanbul, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, became explicit. Two new Islamist parties were founded out of the Virtue Party. The Felicity Party became the home of the old guard, while the reformists founded a new party, the Justice and Development Party.
On the surface, the early 2000s did not appear to be the ideal time to launch a new political movement. The political climate following the February 28 Process was still deeply hostile to Islamists, and the ruling coalition government had come together expressly to keep the Virtue Party out of power before it was banned. However, in other ways, the time was ripe for a new party to burst onto the scene. The three elections to take place during the 1990s, in 1991, 1995, and 1999, produced no fewer than nine separate governments, all weak coalitions with little ability to implement policy. Furthermore, identity was politicized to an unprecedented degree, and the vote share of traditional center-left and center-right parties declined precipitously throughout the decade. By the end of the 1990s, polls showed that only 15% of Turks trusted politicians, whereas more than 40% believed politicians were “liars.” Turkish voters were ready for a new party to reset Turkish politics.
In the 2002 parliamentary election, AK’s performance exceeded its founders’ wildest expectations. During the electoral campaign, the AKP managed to combine the support of the Anatolian Tigers with that of the urban lower-middle class, often recent migrants from the Anatolian countryside. On the back of this “cross-cultural coalition,” the AK Party won 34% of the national vote, which, thanks to Turkey’s system of parliamentary representation, translated into a whopping 363 of 550 parliamentary seats. The Felicity Party’s old guard Islamists managed only 2.5% of the vote and no seats in parliament.
While the 2002 election was not about Europe specifically, the question of Turkey’s accession played a role in the campaign. All three of the major parties in the campaign (the AKP, the Kemalist CHP, and the far-right Nationalist Movement Party, or MHP) professed support for European accession in their 2002 election manifestos, but the reasoning behind their support varied significantly. While the CHP couched support for EU accession in terms of Ataturk’s vision of Europe as Turkey’s natural destiny and the MHP was much warier of the costs of accession, the AKP’s rhetoric emphasized that joining the European Union would flow from major domestic reforms boosting human rights, which were themselves so important that they were necessary and inevitable regardless of EU accession itself. The AKP’s promises of rights-based reform resonated deeply with Turkish voters.
True to its word, the AKP made Europeanizing reforms its top priority. In reality, major reforms had begun before the AKP came to power, with the previous coalition government managing in 2001 to enact major amendments to the constitution in line with European recommendations. The 2001 amendments strengthened civil liberties and human rights, including notably in the areas of personal liberty, privacy, press freedom, freedom of expression, and the right to a fair trial. The prior government also passed the first three of nine so-called Harmonization Packages designed to modify Turkey’s laws in accordance with the new constitution and EU law. The most important aspect of these first Harmonization Packages was the legalization of criticism against the state, though anti-state activities remained illegal. Additionally, the European Court of Human Rights was given more power to force retrials in Turkey.
However, while important for setting the stage, these reforms paled in comparison to those enacted by AKP government. Shortly after the elections that brought the AKP to power, the European Council set the deadline of December 2004 to determine whether Turkey could begin formal accession negotiations, giving the AKP a target for reform. And reform it did. Between 2002 and 2004, the AKP pushed through another six Harmonization Packages, as well as further constitutional amendments, in support of Turkey’s EU accession bid. These reforms brought sweeping changes to the fundamental outlook for human rights and democracy in Turkey. The rights to freedom of expression, assembly, press, and petition were all strengthened by new laws. Laws criminalizing criticism of the state were loosened further, terrorism laws, which had often been abused by the government, were weakened, and laws were enacted cracking down on torture and abuses committed by the police and military against suspects in custody. The death penalty was banned, directly in accordance with EU rules, and greater use of languages other than Turkish in the public sphere was permitted, an issue of great importance to the country’s large Kurdish minority. Finally, a constitutional amendment passed in 2004 attempted to cement the position of civil liberties and human rights in Turkey by mandating that, in the event of a conflict between Turkish law and international agreements on human rights, the international agreements would take precedence.
Notably absent from the AKP’s reform priorities was the place of religion in the public sphere. Aside from some minor adjustments to laws governing Islamic religious trusts, the AKP chose not to pursue actions designed to challenge the public suppression of religion, dubbed the headscarf issue, despite campaign promises to the contrary. Instead, the AKP largely left the headscarf issue on the sidelines as private citizens launched court challenges. However, in 2004, the ECHR ruled against a Turkish woman who challenged her expulsion from the Istanbul University medical school for wearing a headscarf, temporarily settling the debate. In not directly confronting the Kemalist establishment over the public place of religion, the AKP avoided a backlash from the same forces that doomed every previous Islamist foray into politics.
Despite the lack of religious reforms, though, the AKP used EU reforms to strengthen its domestic position by specifically targeting the institutional power of the Kemalist establishment. The very first Harmonization Package passed by the AK government made it more difficult for the Constitutional Court to ban political parties, requiring a three-fifths majority rather than a simple majority. Given the fact that all of the AKP’s Islamist predecessors met their end at the hands of the Constitutional Court, the significance of this reform was obvious. The Seventh Harmonization Package, passed in August 2003, struck a blow against the institutional power of the military in the judiciary and over the civilian government. On the judicial front, the Seventh Harmonization Package mandated that civilians could not be tried in military courts in times of peace. More importantly, the Seventh Harmonization Package slashed the powers of the National Security Council. Under the new rules, the National Security Council met less frequently, more civilians were appointed to it, growing to outnumber military figures, the powers of the Secretary General of the Council were sharply reduced, and the proceedings of the Council were made public. These reforms would have been particularly poignant to many AK members: it was at the meeting of the National Security Council on February 28, 1997 that the military hamstrung Prime Minister Erbakan’s power. Finally, the constitutional amendment of 2004 abolished State Security Courts, bodies used by the military to try suspects under lax conditions of due process, and removed the military’s representation in the Ministry of Education.
Why did the military and Kemalist establishment not push back against the AKP’s reforms chipping away at their power? First, the military would have had to go directly against overwhelming Turkish public opinion. The AKP’s Europeanizing reforms were wildly popular domestically, and support for Turkish entry into the EU reached all-time highs. Polls showed that Turkish public support for entering the EU, already a majority since 1996, surged after the AKP was elected, reaching above 70% between 2002 and 2004. The AKP was particularly adept at rallying support for the EU among its own voting base. By 2003, just a year after AK came to power and a few short years after Islamist leaders were denouncing the EU as a Christian club, polls showed that religion was not correlated with EU support among Turks. The AKP government both created and benefited from public support for EU accession. Second, the military was itself split over the reforms. A faction within the military, led by the country’s highest-ranking general, supported EU accession and understood that the military accepting a reduced role in politics was a necessary concession. On the other side, hardline Kemalist generals in some service branches opposed the reforms, seeing them as excessively burdensome to the military and not justifiable, even with the reward of EU membership. Within the military, the reformist faction won out, eventually forcing many of the staunchest Kemalists into retirement. While relations between the military and the AKP government were hardly rosy, as long as the AKP stuck to general democratizing EU-oriented reforms, not the headscarf issue, the military did not intervene.
The December 2004 deadline set by the European Council to review Turkey’s accession bid arrived, and the result was favorable to Turkey: Turkey would be allowed to begin formal accession negotiations in October 2005. Accession negotiations duly began, and Turkey began the process of opening negotiations on the 35 chapters of the body of EU law. It seemed that Turkey was on the verge of finally entering the European Union.
Shortly after the start of accession negotiations, though, Turkey’s EU bid ran into serious obstacles. Unlike previous obstacles, however, which were largely a product of domestic Turkish issues, the primary roadblocks after the start of formal accession negotiations originated outside Turkey. The first arose from the dispute over Cyprus. The island, home to both ethnic Greek and Turkish populations, had been effectively split between Greek-majority and Turkish-majority areas since 1974, when the Turkish military intervened following a coup by Greek Cypriots hoping to annex the entire island to Greece. For the previous 30 years, Turkish and Greek Cypriot leaders had been unable to come to an agreement about reunifying the island and, in 2004, a major diplomatic initiative sponsored by the United Nations, the Annan Plan, failed. The prospect of EU membership played a major role in moderating the Turkish government’s Cyprus policy: before 2004, the Turkish government was seen as the primary obstacle to a resolution of the Cyprus stalemate, but the AKP government induced Turkish Cypriots to support the Annan Plan in a referendum. Ironically, though, the EU was also largely responsible for poisoning the Annan Plan: by admitting the ethnic Greek-dominated Republic of Cyprus in 2004, the EU created disincentives for Greek Cypriots to accept the compromises of the Annan Plan, and Greek Cypriot voters killed the plan in the 2004 referendum. The failure of the Annan Plan and the fact that Cyprus, as an EU member, had veto power over Turkey’s entry soon dealt a severe blow to accession negotiations. In 2006, Cyprus formally blocked six of the 35 chapters Turkey hoped to complete.
In addition to the Cyprus stalemate, other European politics contributed to the slowing of Turkey’s momentum. Several European leaders, including Angela Merkel of Germany, suggested that, for cultural reasons, Turkey did not belong in the EU and suggested that Turkey be given a special form of partnership short of full membership instead. In France, conservative leader Nicolas Sarkozy was even more vociferous in his opposition to Turkey joining the EU. In December 2006, as a candidate for the French presidency, Sarkozy declared his opposition to Turkey’s entry, and after Sarkozy won the French presidential election in July 2007, his opposition to Turkey became France’s official policy. France blocked a further five chapters.
Events in Turkey did not stand still as the EU debated Turkish membership. In 2007, Turkey descended into the first of several political crises. The crisis was precipitated by the fact that the term of Turkey’s president, Ahmet Necdet Sezer, was set to expire in May 2007. Sezer, a Kemalist, had been in office since 2000, and the AKP sought to elect one of their own to replace him. The CHP and the military objected: the wife of the AKP’s choice, foreign minister Abdullah Gul, wore a headscarf, and the presidency was seen as the last bastion of the government not under Islamist control. The CHP employed a trick of dubious legality, boycotting the presidential vote to deny parliament a quorum, to block Gul’s election. On April 27, the military responded to the confusion by posting a statement on its website in which it threatened to use its “legal powers” to safeguard the secular nature of the Turkish Republic. Given the military’s history, the statement, which came to be known as the e-memorandum, was interpreted as a thinly veiled coup threat. On May 1, the Constitutional Court, packed with Kemalist judges, ruled that Abdullah Gul had not received sufficient parliamentary support and could not become president. Constitutional and political wrangling continued for several months without breaking the stalemate, and the expiration date of Sezer’s term passed. Eventually, the AKP government decided there was only one path forward: call for snap elections to seek a popular mandate for Gul’s election to the presidency. The date was set for July 22, 2007.
In the 2007 elections, the AKP won a smashing victory, increasing its share to 46.5% of the total vote. Because of Turkey’s system of parliamentary allocation, the AKP actually lost seats in parliament, but it retained a solid majority. The voters having clearly spoken, a month later Abdullah Gul was elected president through a simple majority parliamentary vote with minimal fuss. The military did not intervene: by 2007, even it could not go directly against such a clear expression of public opinion, though it did support mass protests against the AKP.
Although the presidential crisis was the main issue of the 2007 election, it was not the only issue. The question of Europe again played a role. Although domestic support for joining the EU had fallen since 2005 in response to perceptions that Turkey was being forced to adhere to double standards in its accession process, a majority of Turks still supported EU entry. Moreover, the fact that the AKP had been the party in government implementing EU reforms meant that it was identified in the eyes of voters as the party of the EU. In fact, the AKP’s pro-EU stance effectively forced the opposition parties, the CHP and MHP, to adopt more strongly anti-EU positions, even to their electoral disadvantage. In the immediate aftermath of the elections, some Turkish political commentators directly addressed the role of the AKP’s pro-EU stance in delivering electoral victory.
Having won the 2007 elections, elected its candidate as president, and survived a coup threat, the AKP was stronger than ever. Its newfound strength gave it the confidence to further push its agenda, including on the question of religion in public space. In February 2008, having planned its move for months, the AKP-dominated parliament voted to amend the constitution to lift a ban on students in state universities wearing headscarves. The next month, in response, a public prosecutor filed a case against the AKP, accusing it of becoming a focus of unconstitutional anti-secular activities. The prosecutor sought to have the party shuttered and 71 of its leading members banned from politics for five years. Suddenly, the AKP was on trial for its survival.
For the next three months, Turkish politics were at a standstill. The Constitutional Court had never banned a ruling party before, let alone a party with such a strong electoral mandate. Nevertheless, eight of the 11 judges of the Constitutional Court had been appointed by President Sezer, were considered staunch Kemalists, and had recently voted to block Abdullah Gul’s election as president.
The court’s ruling finally came in July. The verdict was handed down: the AKP was found guilty of becoming a center for anti-secular activities, but the judges stopped short of banning the party entirely. Instead, a monetary fine was levied against the party. In some ways, the ruling was a compromise: the judges issued a warning to the AKP to restrain its supposedly anti-secular activities without plunging Turkish politics into total crisis. However, the ruling was largely a victory for the AKP: the Kemalists in the judiciary had taken their best shot at the party and failed to bring it down.
While the court’s ruling may have appeared to be entirely a domestic Turkish issue, it was deeply influenced by the AKP’s stance on Europe. European officials made it clear that they preferred to see the AKP remain open and avoid the political turmoil that its banning would have caused. After the ruling, one member of the European Parliament stated, “There is a great sense of relief among the Europeans.” In addition to European pressure behind the scenes, the reforms enacted by the AKP in the name of European accession saved the party. In the ruling, a majority of the justices of the court, six of 11, voted to ban the AKP entirely. However, the Harmonization Packages passed by the AKP in 2004 amended the constitution to require a three-fifths majority of the court, or seven votes, in order to ban a political party. Under the old rules, the AKP would have been shuttered, but thanks to its own actions to weaken the Kemalist judiciary, carried out in the name of Europe, the AKP survived.
The AKP emerged from the interlocked crises of 2007 and 2008 stronger than ever. In fact, it effectively reigned supreme over Turkish politics. With the so-called e-memorandum in April 2007, the Turkish military tried and failed to restrain the AKP. It failed largely because the military was, thanks to the efforts of pro-EU reformists, no longer quite so ardent in its Kemalist views. The parliamentary opposition and Constitutional Court attempted to block Gul’s election to the presidency, but this challenge was brushed aside thanks to the AKP’s crushing victory at the polls in the 2007 snap elections—aided by the AKP’s monopolization of pro-EU positions in Turkish politics. Finally, in 2008, the AKP directly challenged the Kemalists on the headscarf issue, and the Constitutional Court again counterattacked. The AKP survived, partially thanks to direct European influence and the AKP’s own Europeanizing reforms.
Meanwhile, one final event in Turkey solidified the AKP’s position. In January 2008, as the AKP planned to confront the secular establishment over the headscarf issue, the first of what eventually grew to hundreds of people were arrested, including retired high-ranking military officers. They were charged with membership in an ultra-nationalist terror organization known as Ergenekon, dedicated to fomenting a coup against the AKP after destabilizing the country through bombings, assassinations, and terror. Although many of the convictions that resulted from the Ergenekon trials have since been voided, they, along with a subsequent wave of arrests in 2010 that charged many leading officers with having plotted a coup in 2003 (code-named Sledgehammer), further weakened the Turkish military as a political force.
More than a decade before, in 1997, Turkey’s leading Islamist politicians decided to realign themselves towards Europe for three reasons: to prevent court closure of their party, to garner votes, and to weaken the Kemalist establishment through Europeanizing reform. Although the Welfare Party was shuttered regardless in 1998, the events of 2007 and 2008 demonstrated that the Islamists’ turn towards Europe paid off in spades. Nearly ten years after the crises, the Justice and Development Party remains head and shoulders above all other political forces in Turkey. Elements within the Turkish military, weakened by the Ergenekon and Sledgehammer trials, attempted a coup in July 2016. The coup’s failure allowed the AKP to further purge its opponents from the military, the courts, and civil society. The three-headed Kemalist dragon, topped by the CHP, the military, and the judiciary, seems to have been well and truly slain by the AKP.
What of Turkey’s accession to the EU? After 2008, the momentum lost in the period before the Turkish domestic crises was never regained. Many complicating factors emerged, including the continuing stalemate in Cyprus, the Eurozone economic crisis spawned by the 2007 housing crash in the United States, and the civil war in Syria, with its accompanying refugee crisis, that erupted in 2011. Europe has since decried the increasingly authoritarian leadership of the AKP’s chief, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who moved from the prime minister’s office to the Turkish presidency in 2014 after being elected by a resounding margin. But perhaps a simpler explanation for Turkey’s stalled accession exists: Turkey’s push to join the EU was never reinvigorated because there were no longer any domestic incentives for the AKP to pursue EU membership. The AKP used the EU to achieve unparalleled domination of Turkish politics and society. Once it had done so, the domestic benefits of the EU evaporated, while the electoral drawbacks and nationalist counter-arguments to EU accession and further reform remained. Simply put, the AKP no longer needs the European Union. Looking ahead from 2017, it is difficult to see any breakthrough in Turkey-EU relations. The political will to move forward exists in neither Brussels nor Ankara.
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