A step back from the brink

Turkey’s governing party won’t be closed down, but the decision was agonisingly close
Haşim Kılıç
Haşim Kılıç

Turkey’s governing party won’t be closed down, but the decision was agonisingly close

They must be exhausted, and it is easy to understand why: the eleven judges who sit on the Constitutional Court only met on Monday to begin deliberating over the chief prosecutor’s case to close the ruling AK party. Their decision was announced at six o’clock this evening, meaning that the judges squeezed a week-and-a-half’s work into just three days. They met at 9.30am each morning, and did not adjourn for the night until 10.30pm. Even the most optimistic press reports were not predicting a result until Friday.

But it is a reflection of how pivotal this case had become for Turkey that the ruling came so quickly. Court chairman Haşim Kılıç looked visibly tired, bags swinging under his eyes, when he appeared in front of a horde of journalists at six o’clock his evening. He was then promptly bathed in white light as every camera flash in the room went off at once. He had to ask the reporters to stop taking his picture before reading out the decision: six judges – a majority – voted to close Turkey’s ruling AK party, four voted to impose financial sanctions, and one voted to dismiss all charges.

Seven votes were needed for closure, a threshold which was not met. The results mean the Constitutional Court has accepted, albeit not unanimously, to cut AK’s funding. The ruling party will receive only half of its funding this year; the precise figure will be determined when the Budget for 2009 is accepted.

It was so agonisingly close. The deciding vote, if there was such a thing, was probably cast by Mr Kılıç himself, who revealed he was the only one who voted to dismiss the charges. It would have taken just a single judge voting the other way to have brought a decision to close, and put the country into the unprecedented position of bringing down an overwhelmingly popular governing party in an instant. But that is not what happened. The AK Party remains open, its politicians remain unbanned, and the Turkish lira even managed to climb a kuruş or two against the dollar this evening.

AK supporters were naturally delighted. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was greeted with football chants when he emerged to make a statement at party HQ. He said the decision had lifted away a great uncertainty in Turkey, and reiterated his commitment to European values: “Our path is that towards the EU. There is no return.”

He avoided commenting explicitly on the outcome because, as is standard procedure in such cases, the judges’ reasons for their decision has not yet been published. But while it is true that their response to Chief Prosecutor Abdurrahman Yalçınkaya’s charges will make interesting reading, it is pretty clear what their decision says already: the AK party has been deemed to have behaved in an unsecular manner, but not to so violent a degree that it merits closure.

This is the best result any of us could have hoped for. The Court has demonstrated that Turkey’s political system is not necessarily inflexible and compatible only with parties that are militantly secular. There is room for diversity here. At the same time, it has warned that such diversity can only go so far, and that the AK Party has seriously pushed the limits of the secular system. This is more than a slap on the wrists; it is a demand for the government to change its ways.

So what next for Mr Erdoğan’s party? The ruling should hopefully subside some of the arrogance and complacence with which it has approached the business of government, particularly since its phenomenal electoral victory last summer. It is true that AK has a very powerful mandate, but it certainly does not have a universal one, and it would do well to remember that more often. Its approach to the recent headscarf debacle was a telling example: having secured the support of the opposition Nationalist Action Party, AK proceded to draft its own law without consulting secularist parties, non-governmental organisations or – heaven forbid – women, and passed it easily in parliament. The law was promptly annulled by the same Constitutional Court that today voted to keep the party open. In matters as controversial as the headscarf, AK must recognise that to govern does not necessarily mean to impose; it can also mean to consult.

That, however, is for the future. Tonight, Turkey takes a step back from the brink. Things could have been a lot worse.

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