Turkey stepped short of an abyss late last month when, by a very narrow decision, the Constitutional Court declined to outlaw the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP). Earlier this March, the state prosecutor brought a case against AKP, which won a resounding victory in the July 2007 elections, on grounds that it had become a node for anti-secularist activities undermining the foundation of the modern Turkish state. The charges were flimsy at best, but had the potential for disastrous consequences. A conviction would have upended the electoral process, undermining Ankara's quest for membership in the European Union and compromising its relations with Washington.
American and European officials showed palpable signs of relief after the decision, as the State Department's spokesperson expressed U.S. confidence in Turkey's democracy. International currency markets were also buoyed by the decision, but the crisis is not over. The case is only the second skirmish in a long-standing battle in civil-military relations. As the drama plays out in the coming months, it will necessarily involve the EU and the U.S., as Turkish factions look to them for support.
In my conversations with AKP members last month in Turkey, many expressed anger at the American government for not defending the principle that an elected government can be removed through electoral means only. Unlike the EU, which had taken an uncompromising stand in defending democratic procedures, the U.S. was perceived as hedging its bets between the government and the military. Leading AKP cadres in no uncertain terms made it clear that they would be delighted with a verdict that only penalized them.
AKP officials recognized that they had squandered their electoral gains, having abandoned many of the reforms -- like those relating to freedom of speech, Kurdish rights and a new constitution,-- that had earned them the right to begin accession negotiations with the EU. They further realized that they had unnecessarily antagonized their secular opponents, especially women.
Nonetheless, the court case was a pathetic attempt to label the AKP as a node of anti-secularist activity, and it consisted largely of newspaper clippings and comments by critics of the party. It was, in essence, an attempted judiciary coup by a secular civilian-military elite that is deeply suspicious of AKP's pro-Islamist trajectory, its relationships with the outside world, and ultimately its intentions regarding EU-related reforms. The EU reforms are perceived as an agent of a major transformation for Turkey insofar as they would ultimately make the country far more democratic, concede rights to minorities, and threaten the prerogatives of the entrenched civilian-military bureaucratic elite.
Even anti-AKP politicians and journalists were embarrassed by the mediocrity of the court's brief. But the court is not a real judicial instrument; its judges are not required to have law degrees, so it is constituted largely by people with no legal qualifications. In the end, the court did not have the audacity to overturn the electorate's will.
To be sure, the AKP has committed colossal errors of judgment, and become distracted by issues of lesser importance, like changing the law to allow women with headscarves to attend university. After its reelection in 2007, the AKP governed as if it had embarked on a second term and, given the size of its mandate, not as the vessel of the aspirations of a people hungry for change.
The AKP will use this case -- as it must -- to reenergize its leadership. It has to start with a radical overhaul the cabinet, where some ministers have served since 2002. By the time the 2007 elections were over, serious discontent was already brewing among parliamentarians who thought many capable candidates were being denied seats in the cabinet.
In a bald-faced act of tokenism, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan had appointed only one woman to a cabinet post: head of "women's affairs." This was particularly galling to voters after the party had gone out of its way to recruit so many academic and professional women to its ranks.
By making the changes more moderate and secular voters demand, the AKP has to send a message that it is still the party of reform, and that it will make good on its promises to revise the constitution, reenergize the EU accession process, and deal with Turkey's thorniest problem: relations with the minority Kurdish population.
Ironically, were the AKP to deliver on these reforms, it would emerge far stronger, but civil-military tensions would likely escalate even further. The court case was the last hurrah for the hard-line secularists who wish to overthrow the ruling party by any means necessary.
The only antidote to rising civil-military tensions is a robust political opposition within Turkey's democratic framework. Unfortunately, given the pitiful present state of the opposition, the Republican People's Party, CHP, this is too much to hope for.
Both the EU and the U.S. will increasingly find themselves implicated in Turkey's domestic politics as its factions attempt to outmaneuver each other. The next stage of this crisis will be played out against the backdrop of EU reforms and U.S. policies in Iraq, specifically in the Kurdish regions of northern Iraq. Both have been controversial and likely to arouse nationalist tensions.
Thankfully, the Constitutional Court stopped short of denying Turkish voters' mandate, but the country is not yet out of the woods.
Henri J. Barkey is Chair of the International Relations Department at Lehigh University, and a non-resident senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.