Why Turkey Made the Right Decision

Turkey’s Constitutional Court made the right choice for its country’s increasing leadership role in Europe and the Middle East this week by deciding not to close down the ruling Justice and Development Party, or AKP. The close vote by an 11-judge panel, which was made in the wake of devastating bomb blasts in Istanbul that killed 17 and injured 150, will keep Turkey’s political and economic progression from being derailed—a welcome development for U.S.-Turkish relations.

The case mirrored the internal struggle that Turkey has grappled with since it was created 85 years ago: how to stay true to its pro-Western, secular founding principles while respecting the Islamic faith practiced by the vast majority of its population. The country’s secular elites, which comprise the courts and military in particular, have been wary of the moderately Islamist AKP since it came to power in 2002. The party, to the military’s dismay, won re-election in a landslide in July 2007.

The prosecutor accused the AKP of violating Turkish law by becoming a “center for anti-secular activities,” and sought to ban 70 of the party’s members from political party activity for five years. This would have included a ban on the prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and the president, Abdullah Gul. The case against the government was in part motivated by the AKP’s recent decision to end the ban on women wearing headscarves in universities, which the prosecutor viewed as proof the AKP is trying to destroy secular principles enshrined in the constitution. The court promptly overturned the headscarf decision.

The party firmly denied that it wanted to create an Islamic state and considered the case to be an attempted judicial coup. The AKP didn’t help its cause, however, when it supposedly uncovered a plot by militant Turkish nationalists to overthrow the government and arrested over 20 people, including two high-ranking generals. Many viewed the AKP move as retribution against its critics.

Banning parties and toppling governments is nothing new in Turkey. Four Islamist parties have been closed down and four governments have been toppled since 1960, and two dozen parties have been shut down overall in the country since 1963. Most experts believed therefore that the court would follow suit by closing the AKP.

Yet only 6 of the court’s 11 judges voted to close the party—one fewer than the number required. Instead, the court decided to penalize the party by cutting state funding in half for a year, with the court’s chairman calling the action “a warning.” The outcome of the case is certainly a blow to the prosecution and other members of the secular establishment who view the AKP as a threat. But closing the AKP would have presented a much bigger threat to Turkey’s well being than allowing it to survive. Experts were predicting a lessening of investor confidence, compromised political legitimacy, and a slowed or suspended European Union accession process if the AKP were closed.

A more draconian court decision would also have been damaging for U.S. interests. Turkey is as important to the United States as Germany was during the Cold War, serving as a literal and figurative bridge between East and West. Turkey has been a critical NATO ally and plays an important intermediary role between the United States, Syria, Iran, and Israel. Muslim-majority countries all over the world have been watching the complicated interplay between Islam and secular democracy in Turkey, and many have viewed the AKP as an encouraging model for the future. A Turkey whose democratic credentials are questioned would have been a less effective partner for the United States.

What’s more, some European countries have actively discouraged Turkey’s EU bid. The party’s closing would have been a convenient excuse to suspend or otherwise derail the accession process, which has been instrumental in fostering political and economic reform in Turkey. If the path to EU membership is blocked for any reason, Turkey’s strategic calculations may change, and its key role as a vital link between East and West could be undermined. EU officials have already come out in praise of the court’s decision.

Was the court’s vote too close for comfort? Absolutely. But the United States and the rest of the world community can let out a collective sigh of relief knowing that Turkey dodged a bullet this time. In the coming months, the United States must work to encourage Turkey to continue on the path of democratic reform so that standoffs between the court and the ruling party are less likely in the future. Perhaps the court’s decision is an indication that some of the country’s secular guardians are starting to understand what’s at stake.

Spencer P. Boyer is Director of International Law and Diplomacy at the Center for American Progress and co-author of a forthcoming Center report on the future of U.S.-Turkish relations. Brian Katulis is a Senior Fellow at the Center, co-author of the Center’s forthcoming report on U.S.-Turkish relations, and co-author of The Prosperity Agenda, a book on U.S. national security.