x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

Party of one

The big idea Two turbulent, violent years that looked liable to topple Turkey's ruling party have instead left it stronger than ever, Cihan Tugal writes.

It's our party: AKP supporters celebrate the party's victory in a court case challenging its legitimacy.
It's our party: AKP supporters celebrate the party's victory in a court case challenging its legitimacy.

Two turbulent, violent years that looked liable to topple Turkey's ruling party have instead left it stronger than ever, Cihan Tugal writes.

The past two years have been turbulent ones in the Republic of Turkey, with assassinations, destabilising mass demonstrations, controversial parliamentary and presidential elections and the revelation of a series of conspiracies. Two recent court cases - one challenging the legitimacy of the governing Justice and Development Party (AKP), the other prosecuting an underground network of violent secular ultranationalists - may look like extensions of this era of turbulence. But it is more likely that they signal its end.

At the centre of this drama lies the AKP, the "moderate Islamic" party that controls the parliament, the government and the presidency. Its ascendancy can be seen as the unintended consequence of official manoeuvring: after 1980, a military government took steps to fund and support some Islamic organisations in an attempt to pre-empt the reemergence of a leftist movement that had threatened the state in the 1970s. But by the 1990s, this policy had clearly backfired. A social justice-orientated Islamic mobilisation from below, organised by the Welfare Party (RP), started to threaten the western orientation of the Turkish state and the peaceful functioning of the free market. Another military intervention in 1997 closed down Islamic parties and associations. But in 2001, pro-western conservatives broke off from the Islamist movement to establish the AKP.

Unlike the RP, the AKP is pro-US and pro-EU, favours a free-market economy and gives measured support to democracy. It identifies itself as conservative rather than Islamist. Encouraged by this reformation, many non-Islamist politicians (liberals, reformed right-wing nationalists and social democrats) joined the AKP. Liberal intellectuals of all stripes (from Islamists to socialists), seeing no alternative democratic force in the country, became public voices for the party's policies.

While the liberal wing of the secular establishment was happy with the split in the Islamist movement, hard-line secular nationalists could not accept the AKP's rise to power. The consolidation of AKP rule after a sweeping electoral victory in 2007, along with the election of a president - Abdullah Gül - whose wife wears a headscarf, further enraged the nationalists. Hundreds of thousands of nationalists took to the streets in a series of mass demonstrations, shouting authoritarian slogans and denigrating Kurds and Arabs. Paramilitary gangs distributed ethnic hate literature directed at Christian missionaries and Kurds. The demonstrations attacked the US and EU alongside the AKP, and the nationalist forces pressed for an alliance between Turkey, Russia, China and Iran against the West. In January of that year, the Armenian journalist Hrant Dink was murdered in broad daylight by a teenaged ultranationalist, and three Christian missionaries were tortured and brutally murdered. While the military remained silent in the face of these killings, elements in its high command indicated their approval of the anti-AKP demonstrations and increasingly anti-American public sentiment.

In March 2008, secularist prosecutors filed a case in the constitutional court aimed at disbanding the AKP and barring its 71 top figures from politics for five years. The prosecution accused the party of organising "anti-secular" activities. But AKP supporters contend that the suit against the party, the anti-government street-demonstrations and the assassinations have all been the work of a so-called "deep state" organisation of hard-line secular nationalists, known as Ergenekon.

In July, pro-AKP prosecutors struck back with a 2500-page case against 86 people said to belong to the Ergenekon network - including retired generals, journalists and activists - alleging a plot to overthrow the government as well as involvement with the killings of Christian missionaries and a priest. At the end of July, the court case against the AKP failed by one vote. Instead of shutting down the AKP, the court cut public funding for the party and issued a warning against it. Some liberal AKP supporters, strangely enough, looked kindly on the punishment - they had been alarmed by the party's recent attempts to criminalise adultery and ban alcohol in municipalities under its control.

The Ergenekon case will not be concluded so quickly, as it involves deeper and more complicated issues. The network has been compared to the "Gladio" in Italy, one of several counter-guerrilla organisations established in Nato countries in the 1950s to fight back in the event of a communist takeover. Such an organisation did indeed exist in Turkey, but whereas in other European nations these groups were dismantled by the early 1990s, in Turkey the "deep state" was reorganised to fight Kurdish nationalism and remnants of the socialist left. Some have seen its fingerprints on thousands of extrajudicial killings of pro-Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) figures in the East and a handful of leftist activists in the West. The Ergenekon prosecution, however, targets only those hardline ultranationalists who threaten the AKP; those involved in the war against the Kurds remain mostly untouched.

The Ergenekon case, with its emphasis on military elements, steers clear of the police, though they have been integral to these extralegal operations since the 1970s, as seen most recently by their links to figures involved in the Hrant Dink assassination. In the pre-AKP era, it was top military officers who were above the law, but today top police officials seem to have taken their place. The trial - which has captivated Turks with its unending string of apparently sensational revelations - has had a chilling effect on political debate. Anyone who questions the Ergenekon prosecution is quickly lumped in with pro-coup extremists; AKP supporters insist that journalists and intellectuals who raise doubts about the case have secret ties with the military, come from military families, or are covert racists. Unions and newspapers resisting the westernizing free-market policies of the AKP are now attacked as "secret Ergenekon".

There is cause for concern that this signals the emergence of a "soft totalitarian" order. In the old days, opponents would be physically liquidated. Now they can be marginalised by baseless association with Ergenekon. Now that the court case against the AKP has failed, there is no longer any force preventing the party from taking near total control of the political field. All the legitimate voices are joining the AKP bloc ? those who remain outside are either marginal or powerless. Politics from now on will probably be shaped within this bloc, not as a conflict between two or more major parties. Future generations might witness a democracy resembling Cold War-era Japan, where a conservative party is in essence the only game in town, though other parties participate without taking power.

In short, while these two court cases have been seen internationally as a deepening of Turkey's recent instability, they actually indicate the growing strength of the Turkish centre. The result is neither a liberal sea change in Turkish politics (e.g. the final triumph of democracy and the end of the Turkish Gladio) nor a step towards an Islamic state. Instead, recent developments have solidified the direction the Turkish state has taken since the 1980 military coup: toward a religiously conservative (rather than Islamic) state with a strong free-market tendency and ever stronger ties to the West. Not all secularly-minded people are being purged from the bureaucracy and civic arenas - but those who challenge and oppose this dominant tendency have been marginalised decisively.

The significance of this moment is not limited to Turkey. This is still a test of moderate Islam within a democracy - and, for that matter, of the ability for an Islamist-led state to be integrated into a US-led world market. American diplomats and experts, as well as academics in Europe, have pointed to Turkey as an example of compatibility between Islam and democracy. The failure of the court case against the AKP has ratified their arguments: a democratically elected Islamic party has weathered an authoritarian storm. At the same time, the Ergenekon case is in the process of weeding out potential sources of instability and anti-western sentiment within the state.

But both trials have created an atmosphere where the Washington consensus cannot be questioned publicly: it has become an unacceptable sin to criticise the free market or Turkey's alliance with the US. Pro-American forces in the country were divided over the last two years, but now many of the wounds have healed. Some prominent secular pro-American journalists have shifted positions to become supporters of the AKP. The nationalist wing of the military has also changed its stance, after (allegedly) flirting with Ergenekon-style pro-Russian and pro-Chinese ideas for a couple of years. The high command handed over retired generals suspected of being linked to the Ergenekon to the police. After the apparent fluctuations of the last two years, the high command remains committed to the US and the EU, and thus supportive of the AKP.

To the relief of those who have looked to Turkey as a safe ally of the West and a front-line state against Islamic radicalism and anti-western nationalism, pro-western actors look more likely to emerge more unified from these years of turbulence. Despite harbingers of doom in 2007, Turkey's AKP, the global test case for moderate Islam, is poised to remain in control for the foreseeable future.

Cihan Tugal teaches sociology at the University of California, Berkeley. His book Passive Revolution: Absorbing the Islamic Challenge to Capitalism will be published by the Stanford University Press in 2009.