Turkey's govt clears one obstacle to face yet more

By bne IntelliNews July 14, 2010

Justin Vela in Istanbul -

After Turkey's constitutional court decided not to annul a controversial set of constitutional amendments in early July, the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) appears headed for a smooth victory in a September 12 public referendum to confirm the amendments. But the general elections next year could be trickier.

"The constitutional amendments will go through with just about 50% or more of support," says Turkey expert Henri J. Barkey of the Carnegie Endowment for Peace. "It will look like the constitutional court annulled some of the most controversial amendments. The opposition is now caught in a very difficult, no-win situation. That is why the opposition is enraged. Without the controversial part of the proposal, it is sure the proposed changes will go through. It will take a lot of steam out of the opposition's sails."

Seeing them as a power grab that would damage the separation of powers in Turkey, the secular opposition had petitioned the court to review the amendments after they were passed by the Islamic-rooted AKP last May. The amendments increase AKP's ability to appoint judges to the constitutional court and gives civilian courts more oversight over the military. Though many experts had predicted that the amendments would be annulled, the court in the end only made slight changes to two of the amendments. "The decision is far less than what the opposition expected," Yusuf Kanli, an opposition columnist for Hurryiet Daily News, says. "The constitutional court has placed itself in the position of parliament by changing the text of the articles. The court used an authority that it did not posses by making changes in the text."

Had the amendments been annulled, a move by the judiciary to ban the AKP as a political party, something that nearly happened in 2008, was expected to return to the agenda. Now that the court has sent the measures onto the referendum, which can be viewed as a litmus test for how the AKP will fair in upcoming 2011 elections, the party's survival is virtually assured.

Uncertain path

Once it appoints new judges, the AKP can be expected to remain at the head of the Turkish government for years to come. The extent of power and the path the party might be forced down is not so secure, though. The loss of parliamentary seats in next year's elections is an almost certainty. The seats might not go to the AKP's traditional secular opposition however, which is scattered and completely lacking leadership and a clear doctrine. "Most Turks aren't even sure what the opposition's policies are," one Turkish analyst said recently.

Especially since the Gaza flotilla incident at the end of May, when eight Turks and one Turkish-American died in the Israeli raid in international waters, Turkey's more religious political groups, such as the Islamist Saadet Party, appear to be gaining ground. The AKP grew out of the Saadet Party, yet is more moderate and oriented towards business, and their pro-market approach has been welcomed by investors. Yet a poll conducted just after the flotilla incident found that a large number of Turks believed the AKP's handling of the situation wasn't strong enough.

From his home in Pennsylvania, the US, moderate Turkish cleric Fethiye Gullen appealed for calm following the incident, most likely with the intention of trying to steer people away from voting for Islamist parties. Yet in the upcoming election, votes from the AKP's traditional constituency are clearly not as secure as they once were. With more religious AKP voters leaning toward voting for Islamist parties such as Saadet, an increasingly strident rhetoric can be expected from the AKP as the election gets closer.

The threat of being banned by the judiciary may have gone, but the party could still weaken from within.

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