Hopeful changes on the Turkish political landscape

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Five minutes before the midday prayers on October 27, 2004, a squadron of F4 Phantom jets flew at very low altitude over the official residence of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Ankara. The planes flew so low that one of them jabbed the crescent banner at the tip of the minaret of al-Aqsa Mosque. It is a small mosque located about 200 meters from the residence. Prime Minister Erdogan performs his Friday prayers as well as some of his other prayers in this mosque. Two passers-by were slightly injured when fragments from the minaret fell on them.

There was a crucial National Secu-rity Council meeting due to take place in Ankara that day. When he was informed about the incident, Mr. Erdogan went to the mosque to assess the situation before heading to the meeting. He collected some of the fragments while listening to testimonies from people in the mosque. He then made one of his famous remarks: “I am about to attend the meeting [with the generals]; therein I will give these [fragments] to them.”

The Secretariat General of the Turkish Air Force issued an official statement after this bizarre incident, calling it an “accident”. There was speculation about what was really afoot as some media outlets scrutinized the official statement. Soon thereafter, however, media interest shifted to other matters and no further investigation was carried out. In recent days, the incident has been revisited. Last month, Vakit newspaper leaked a video taken in the cockpit of the F4 Phantom jet that had hit the minaret. The video caused uproar in the media as the images proved the official statement by the Secretariat was false. It showed the leader of the squadron praising the pilots right after the impact.

Turkish media immediately related it to the military coup, code named “sledgehammer” that was uncovered in February 2010 and resulted in the arrest of 40 army officers including some generals. One stage of the plot was named “thunderstorm” which entailed low altitude flights over the Turkish National assembly in order to intimidate the government and politicians who might be an obstacle in the way of the military.

After the release of the video, it became clear that the 2004 incident was not an accident but a premeditated move organized by a secret group in the Turkish army to send a “message” to the prime minister. They wanted to remind him of their power and to warn the government to desist from challenging the military’s role in political affairs. Similar intimidation tactics had worked with previous governments and with “intrac-table” Turkish politicians who dared to challenge the influence of the army.

However, Mr. Erdogan was perhaps too difficult to handle for the power-hungry generals and it was obvious that he did not care about their attempts at intimidation. Since he took office in early 2003, the prime minister has slowly and steadily worked towards diminishing the power of the army in the Turkish political system.

The final stage of this process was the September 12, 2010 referendum. Turkish voters approved all 26 items, including key constitutional changes that Mr. Erdogan had proposed in the referendum. It was a decisive victory in his long struggle with the secular elites. The referendum was a “turning point” in Turkish history, as Mr. Erdogan himself described in his victory speech the same day: “supporters of military intervention and coups are the losers tonight.”

He had to fight hard against the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) that had been aggressively fighting to block the two key amendments. The third largest group in parliament, the Nationalist Movement Party, strongly opposed the changes and Kurdish Nationalists also implicitly opposed the referendum. The three groups were backed by a vicious media campaign in their fear-mongering ferocious psychological warfare, claiming that Mr. Erdogan has a hidden agenda to become a “tyrant”. In their propaganda campaign, they provided the public with “surveys” that indicated it was very unlikely for the AKP to get approval for the amendments. These results ended up in the hands of the foreign media that joined the “NO” chorus to declare that voters were not in favour of reforms. Even Al-Jazeerah joined this speculative campaign and reported that it is more probable that the amendments would be rejected. Only a few minor political parties supported the changes.

On the day of the referendum, the manipulations and expectations of the fear-mongers fell short. There was great interest from the public in the historic referendum; nearly 78% of eligible voters cast their ballot and 58% voted for the constitutional changes, a far cry from rejection of the amendments or a very narrow margin of victory.

This ended an era in Turkish history that had started with the rise of the Young Turks movement to power at the turn of the last century. The Young Turks had eventually caused the fall of the Ottomans and then, established the Turkish Republic. It was kept under the tight grip of secular elites from within the army, judiciary and capitalists. There were some ups and downs during this autocratic rule but they had always managed to triumph and eliminate their rivals. This was the reason why Turkey has experienced four coup d’états in its history.

The last constitution that was introduced after the military coup of September 22, 1980 had granted extensive powers to the army and the judiciary. These included immunity from prosecution for coup-makers. After the referendum victory, these powers have been curbed and authority of the elected representatives has been reinstated. The most important change introduced by the referendum is that members of the armed forces can now be tried in civilian courts. Prior to this, regardless of their crime it was impossible to try military personnel in civilian courts; instead civilians were hauled before military courts on alleged charges of treason if they criticized the military or any aspects of their policies. And since military judges were part of the elite hierarchy it was entirely the decision of senior officers to file a case against fellow soldiers even if the case dealt with civilian matters. This gave a privileged status to the military and made them immune from the normal legal system in Turkey. It severely undermined the principle of the rule of law.

The reforms approved in the referendum have also lifted the self-declared immunity for plotters of the 1980 military coup. Article 15 of the previous constitution prevented the coup-plotting generals from being brought before a court to face charges of extra-judicial killings, torture, arbitrary use of power and many other related crimes.

There was a great sense of injustice felt by the public and this is the reason why just one day after the referendum a broad coalition of human rights groups, NGOs and individuals lodged complaints about leaders of the 1980 coup d’état including General Kenan Evren who had occupied the presidential office for nine years. This change was very meaningful as it sent a clear signal to the new generation of army officers; if they dared to plot a coup, they would not escape justice and would eventually be humiliated like Evren who is now in his nineties but has stressed that he would rather commit suicide than be brought before a court.

The new amendments have also curbed the powers of the judiciary. The judges had a wide range of powers that superseded the powers of the parliament. The Constitutional Court could decide on the political future of leaders, MPs and parties. They could also amend or turn down certain bills that they deemed to be a “danger” for the secular system as they recently turned down a constitutional amendment that would have removed the headscarf ban. With these reforms, the parliament will have more powers over the judges including appointing three more judges to the Constitutional Court with a term of 12 years as opposed to the life term as previously practised. And it made it difficult to ban a political party without the approval of parliament, toughening the rules so that any future plot could be prevented.

The authority of the Constitutional Court to ban political parties had been used by the system to eliminate several Islamically rooted, leftist and Kurdish parties. It was used as the Sword of Damocles that constantly kept governments under control.

Mr. Erdogan’s latest victory will also empower him in the forthcoming general elections due by the summer of 2011 (they may occur sooner than exepected, following the resounding referendum victory). During his campaign, Erdogan was careful to frame the referendum as a vote of confidence in himself as well as his government although it is now clear that the victory has boosted his confidence and he will use this to good effect in the forthcoming elections. The opposition, on the other hand, is licking its wounds and will need to repair the damage it has suffered as a result of such a decisive defeat.

Aside from its implications for internal politics, the consequences of the referendum victory have far-reaching implications in the international arena. Erdogan’s staunch support of the Palestinian cause has already made him a formidable adversary for the Zionists. The fact that Erdogan has eliminated the influence of the Turkish army and judiciary over the parliament has been an extremely worrying development for the Zionists. Traditionally, some influential sections of the army and judiciary have had close ties to the Zionists.

Diminishing their power has meant that Turkey will be able to pursue more independent and anti-Zionist/anti-imperialist foreign policies. Hence, Zionist propaganda machinery began to disseminate lies and allegations against the AKP and the referendum. A day after the referendum, Con Couglin in his article in the Daily Telegraph (September 13, 2010) alleged that Iran had given the AKP $12 million to support the referendum campaign and promised a further $13 million for the forthcoming election campaign. The allegations have been categorically denied by the AKP and the party is now considering legal action against the Telegraph for libel. The article also imputes that the AKP has little or no grassroots support, a clear lie since in the last elections, it had won 47% of the popular vote, more than any other political party in the past. The 58% victory in the referendum is further proof of the AKP’s broad popular base.

With the approval of the amendments, although Erdogan has scored a historic victory and strengthened his position, further reforms would be needed to eradicate remnants of the secular autocratic rule from Turkish politics. In order to achieve this, a new constitution that includes the legitimate expectations of all segments of society should be introduced. This is the only way to secure the future of Muslims and the Islamic movement in Turkey.

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