On June 8, 2005, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan visited President Bush in the White House. Among the topics the two discussed were freedom, democracy, and the rule of law. Speaking from the Oval Office, Bush declared Turkey’s democracy to be “an important example for the people of the broader Middle East.”
Turkey remains an important ally of the United States despite recent bilateral tensions over the Iraq war and its aftermath. Both Republican and Democratic administrations have valued Turkey not only as a strategic military partner in the Cold War but also, in recent decades, as a democratic outpost in a region of dictatorships. The central tenet of Turkey’s democratic evolution has been an emphasis upon the rule of law.
Since his Justice and Development party (better known by its Turkish acronym, the AKP), swept to power in November 2002, Erdo?an has traveled the globe, burnishing his image as a statesman. In frequent media appearances, he has sought to ensure both the United States and European Union that the AKP respects Turkish democracy and has no desire to erode the secular agenda upon which the Turkish republic was built. He has said he has abandoned the excesses of the now-banned Islamist Welfare party to which he belonged while mayor of Istanbul (1994-1998).
The fact that Erdo?an feels he needs to reassure Turks and foreigners alike stems from the ideological dichotomy between AKP parliamentarians and the Turkish public. While many AKP members are Islamist, most Turks are not. As in any country, citizens of Turkey range from secular to traditional in their religious practice. Many religious Turks enjoy the freedom to practice their faith, even as they embrace separation of mosque and state.
Erdo?an’s outreach also reflects the reality that his electoral mandate is less solid than statistics reflect. The AKP’s consolidation of parliamentary control reflected not the Turkish public’s endorsement for the AKP’s religious philosophy, but rather a general disdain for the inability of feuding establishment parties to root out corruption. The AKP catapulted its reputation for honesty into electoral power. The failure of many establishment parties to surpass the ten-percent threshold needed to take seats in parliament amplified the AKP’s 34-percent vote into two thirds of the parliamentary seats.
During his first three and a half years in power, Erdo?an has pursued an ambitious agenda of economic stabilization, social change, and an overhaul of foreign policy. While welcoming investment from the United States and Europe, he has emphasized economic and political outreach to the Arab world.
In the wake of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, Saudi businessmen have shifted billions out of more tightly regulated U.S. bank accounts into Turkey. Prior to entering Turkish politics, AKP Foreign Minister Abdullah Gül worked eight years at the Islamic Development Bank in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. The AKP has apparently used the influx of green money to underwrite some economic reforms. On July 14, 2005, the Turkish daily Milliyet reported that Arab states established approximately 200 companies in Turkey since 2003. The Dubai Islamic Bank opened a one-billion-dollar line of credit for investments in Turkey. In the first six months of 2004 alone, the share of Middle East-based companies in the Turkish economy increased 50 percent.
Erdo?an’s political success has waned, though. Despite assurances that he respects Turkey’s separation of mosque and state, the AKP has introduced a number of bills which would have blurred the distinction between religion and state, or boosted the power of religious segments of society. Erdo?an’s social agenda has floundered. The Turkish judiciary has warned against or stuck down attempts to equate religious qualifications with those of secular curriculums in university admissions. Mustafa Bumin, chief judge of the constitutional court, warned on April 25, 2005, that the AKP’s proposal to lift the headscarf ban at universities and state institutions would violate the constitution.
In recent months, with its popularity starting to wane amid foreign-policy setbacks on the European front and signs that inflation may soon resume, the AKP has signaled increasing frustration with the democratic process. In May, for example, AKP member and Parliamentary Speaker Bülent Arinç warned that the AKP might abolish the constitutional court if its judges continued to hamper AKP legislation with questions of constitutionality. While Arinç was criticized for his bluster, Erdo?an has taken a quieter tact: He has pushed a bill to lower the mandatory retirement age of judges, in effecting purging the judiciary of 4,000 of its older, independent technocrats in order to replace them with younger followers of his own party.
Judges have reacted with alarm. On June 6, 2005, Milliyet reported a statement by elected members of the supreme court of judges that “the new changes and arrangements made in the Judges and Public Prosecutor’s Law…is aiming to influence the judicial power.”
Rule of law is at the heart of democracy. Turkish civil society is beginning to voice concern about Erdo?an’s political arrogance and his disdain for both free press and judicial independence. Over the past several months, Erdo?an has launched a series of lawsuits against Turkish political cartoonists who criticized him and his party. Last month, the head of the Lawyer’s Association criticized Erdo?an’s government for intervening in the judicial system to satisfy Islamists. On July 3, 2005, Hürriyet and Milliyet, both establishment papers, criticized government interference in the judiciary.
At times, Erdo?an’s abuse of the judiciary appears to be the result of a dangerous combination of vendetta and impatience with the compromises inherent in democracy. His conflict with the Süzer Group provides one important example. While mayor of Istanbul, Erdo?an clashed with Mustafa Süzer, a Turkish businessman whose holdings include the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in Istanbul, Turkish franchise rights to both Pizza Hut and Kentucky Fried Chicken, and the Kent Bank.
As mayor, Erdo?an chafed at Süzer’s unabashed pro-Americanism. While president of the Foreign Trade Association, Süzer increased U.S.-Turkish trade 350 percent. When Erdo?an demanded Süzer tear down the Süzer Tower which Erdo?an said was four stories too high, Süzer refused. The grudge has continued. In November 2004, Erdo?an rescinded participation in a financial conference when he learned that the meeting would take place in the Süzer Tower.
Erdo?an has used his powers to advance the vendetta at the expense of the rule of law. During the 2001 financial crisis in Turkey, the left-leaning government of Democratic Left-party Prime Minister Bülent Ecevit seized several banks, including the Kent Bank, in effect freezing the assets of the Süzer Group and several other conglomerates. When Erdo?an assumed power, he sought to exploit the situation. After appointing a member of his party to head the Saving Deposit Insurance Fund (Tasarruf Mevduati Sigorta Fonu, TMSF) which regulates banking matters in Turkey, he had the TMSF sell Kent Bank to a political ally. The Turkish supreme court, though, ruled in December 2003, both that the government’s seizure of Kent Bank and its subsequent sale was illegal. The judiciary subsequently ordered Erdo?an’s government to unfreeze Süzer’s assets and return the bank. More than a year and a half later, Erdo?an’s government refuses to comply with the court order.
Süzer is one example of many. In recent months, the Turkish press has reported that former President Süleyman Demirel, upset with both the direction which the AKP seeks to take Turkey and the relative impotence of the opposition, has begun to build a political coalition to rival the AKP. In response, the AKP’s government has moved to seize the assets of Demirel’s brother. Asked to comment on the government’s legal proceedings, Süleyman Demirel was blunt: “This is illegal, a kind of occupation of our companies,” he told the Tercüman Gazete on June 28, 2005.
In a democracy, politics subordinates itself to the rule of law. While sitting with Bush at the White House, Erdo?an told the assembled press, “Turkey is open to any new investment as a county now of stability and security.” Increasingly, though, his actions do not justify his rhetoric. The best path to stability and security is through the rule of law and the independence of the judiciary.
–Michael Rubin, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute is editor of the Middle East Quarterly.