What is going on in Turkey?
On September 12th 2010 78% of the Turkish electorate voted for constitutional reforms in a referendum. The referendum resulted in 58% of the public voting for the reforms and 48% against.
Erdogan's AKP party - Turkey's ruling party submitted a package of constitutional amendments to the parliament on 30th March 2010. The changes were passed in parliament in late April and early May 2010 with over 330 votes, below the two-thirds majority of 367 votes needed to pass them directly, but enough to send them to a referendum. This referendum was held on the 12th September 2010.
The current constitution was installed via a military coup in 1980. However the military and other secular institutions have been in control since the Khilafah's destruction in 1924. The 26 article amendment package, introduces a number of reforms which will alter the balance of power in Turkey. Whilst the package introduces a number of new laws from economic and social rights to individual freedoms the most controversial are the removal of article 15 which gave immunity to the army. It also includes major changes to the structure of the Constitutional Court, the High Council of Judges and Public Prosecutors, the two key institutions of the Turkish judicial system and secular republic.
Under the proposed changes, the Constitutional Court will have 17 members instead of its current 11 members, and the Turkish Grand Assembly (of which the AKP has a majority) will be able to choose three members to the Court from among the candidates proposed by the independent bar associations.
Ever since Erdogan became Prime Minister in 2003 he has worked to alter the balance of power in Turkey. One of his earliest actions was to curtail the jurisdiction of the National Security Council in interfering in government. Erdogan altered the composition of this council to include civilian members. The National Security Council comprises the Chief of Staff, select members of the Council of Ministers and the President of the Republic - who is also the Commander-in-chief. Like other National Security Councils it develops national security policy.
In 2007 massive demonstrations took place as many Turkish nationals believed secularism was under threat with Erdogan possibly standing for the post of president - a post regarded as the guardian of the country's secular system. The AKP party in the end put forward its foreign minister Abdullah Gul as a candidate. The fact that Gül's wife wears the Hijab, as well as his own history with Islam, turned the elections into a political crisis. The election result was declared void by the constitutional court on the grounds that a quorum of two-thirds was necessary and was not reached due to a boycott by opposition parties.
The AKP party then called a snap election which was held in July 2007. The general election saw it returned to government with a larger proportion of the vote.
Who are the players in the struggle?
The crisis is between Kemalist secularists led by the armed forces, who have been losing ground especially since they lost the ability to appoint their recommendation for the president in the 2007 elections (Another AKP amendment). Such secularists believe the republic is under threat by Islamists who have a hidden agenda to change Turkey into an Islamic State. On the other side there are the pro-American Pragmatists who are working to remove the influence of the secularists in the judiciary and the armies influence in national politics led by Erdogan.
Why are the army and secularists against such moves?
Since the AKP came to power it has worked to weaken the army's hold on Turkey and worked to expand the government's penetration of the National Security Council. In the name of democratisation the ruling justice and development party (AKP) has been pushing through reforms. Atilla Kart, a member of the Constitutional Commission and a Konya representative of the main opposition Republican People's Party told the Hürriyet Daily News & Economic Review: "The presidential system, according to [the ruling party's] understanding, will bring an uncontrollable single-man administration. Judicial freedoms will become even less protected. That system will bring suspicious developments in the name of democracy; such a system would not be suitable for Turkey.
The AKP party is currently well on its way in reversing the military's disproportionate power and restricting its role and making it accountable through the courts. The Judiciary is also having its independence limited since the government can now make changes to the composition of the members of the Judiciary. The outcome would present a transformation of the judiciary, long seen as a staunch secular bastion. It would give the government more control over appointments to Turkey's highest court, the constitutional court, and the powerful Supreme Board of Judges and Prosecutors, which currently appoints most senior judiciary officials.
This battle reached boiling point in 2007 when the military and secular elements tried to ban the AKP through the courts, claiming that the AKP contradicted the secular constitution. This extreme reaction was in response to the AKP easing restrictions on veiled women inside universities. Secular elements fear not only losing control of Turkey but are also staunchly against any Islamic sentiments entering public life.
The secularists accuse the AKP of having an Islamic agenda, is there any truth in this?
The Secularists continue to claim the AKP are in favour of Islamic law. Erdogan and Abdullah Gul have wives that wear Hijab and both have attempted to relax Turkey's current ban on the hijab in public institutions.
However aside from allowing Islamic lessons and an ‘easing' not abolishment of the oppressive hijab law, there is little other evidence of the AKP's inclination to Islam.
Relations between Israel and Turkey have deepened under the AKP. A number of Turkish officials viewed the Marmara flotilla incident as an experience between "two friends."
Additionally since the AKP has come to power, there has been a clear plan to bring Turkish legislation in line with European Union legislation, culminating in the legalisation of adultery.
The AKP has also grown closer to the US. Turkey has become indispensible to America, coming to America's aid in its time of need in Iraq. Turkey has also protected American interests in Iran and the Middle East. Turkey has played a central role in the indirect negotiations between Palestine and Israel, aiding the progress towards the two state solution. Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu said in a speech on Iran: "Turkey and the United States were of the same opinion regarding the Islamic republic. We do not want any countries to possess nuclear weapons in our region, and we want a solution for Iran's nuclear problem through diplomacy."
Ever since Abdullah Gul and Recep Tayyip Erdogan left the Virtue party and formed the Justice and Development Party under the leadership of Erdogan, they both began cementing ties with America. Whilst many reforms have been introduced to break the armies hold on power the centrepiece of the AKP's strategy was the ‘Shared Vision Document' signed between the Turkish and American government by Abdulla Gul and Condoleezza Rice on 5th July 2006. The meeting confirmed: "The strategic vision document confirms Turkish-US consensus to translate our shared vision into common efforts through effective cooperation and structured dialogue."
Is there any international dimension to the conflict?
Turkey's assertiveness in international issues has not been without outside help. Traditionally Turkey was a British ally. Mustafa Kemal aligned the secular republic after destroying the Khilafah, with the West and primarily with Britain. The decline in British prowess after WW2 and the rise of the US has seen Turkey join NATO and act as a bulwark against Soviet Expansion. Currently Turkish foreign policy positions around the world are all in tune with US interests. In the Middle East Turkey has played a central role in giving life to the peace process. Stephen Larrabee, Corporate Chair in European Security at the RAND Corporation said regarding Turkey's role in the Middle East: "Turkey's new activism is a response to structural changes in its security environment since the end of the Cold War. And, if managed properly, it could be an opportunity for Washington and its Western allies to use Turkey as a bridge to the Middle East."
In the Caucuses Turkey has been a bulwark against Russian expansion to secure its periphery. Turkey is also the alternative route to circumvent Russian energy dependency for the West. A US House of Representatives Committee on Foreign Affairs hearing entitled The United States and Turkey: A Model Partnership under the chairmanship of the Head of the Subcommittee on Europe, Robert Wexler, was convened following the historic visit Obama paid to Turkey in April 2009, concluded that, "This cooperation is vital for both of the two states in an environment in which we face serious security issues in Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, the Balkans, Black Sea, Caucuses and the Middle East, besides a global financial crisis."
This is why the US has a keen interest in the outcome of this struggle as Turkey will play an important role in extricating the US from Iraq and containing Russia in the Caucuses and Eastern Europe.