Sighs of relief in Washington and European Union capitals were almost audible Wednesday after Turkey’s top court ruled against closing the governing AK Party.
It was the latest round in a struggle between Turkey’s old establishment, with its bastions in the army, the bureaucracy and the judiciary, and the Islamist coalition supporting the AKP. Neither side is strong enough to win an outright victory and their escalating battles will continue to destabilise the country.
The conflict has intensified since April 2007, when a battle began over who would succeed Ahmed Necdet Sezer as president of Turkey. The army and judiciary made clear their objections to the foreign minister and deputy leader of the AKP, Abdullah Gul, but were outmaneuvered. The AKP won re- election with 47 per cent of the vote. It was inevitable that the army and the judiciary would counter-attack.
It is that counter-attack which has stalled, though the Turkish General Staff is not about to abdicate its role as co-rulers of Turkey. The AKP may win elections, but the army is still widely trusted.
The immense rallies last year after attacks by the Kurdish PKK showed the continuing strength of Turkish nationalism. Superficially, the division may be between the secular traditions of Ataturk and the more Islamic AKP, but the divisions are complex and affect every segment of Turkish society.
For instance, if the AKP had been banned, it would immediately have intensified the conflict between the Turkish state and its Kurdish minority, many of who voted for the AKP in the last election. But the AKP itself has shown scant regard for the rights of the Alevi minority who, in turn, make up as many as 20 per cent of Turks.
The AKP represents pious businessmen from Anatolia, religious conservatives and newly-enriched members of the middle and upper middle class. It was extremely careful after it first came to power in 2002 not to openly undermine Turkey’s traditional centres of power in the army and bureaucracy. It also did not directly challenge the constitution rigged in favor of the military since the coup of 1980.
The narrow decision by the court not to close the AKP means that, for now, Turkey has stepped back from the brink but the battle will go on.
The secular opposition parties are too decrepit and self-serving to be able to replace the AKP but the ruling party remains a long way from controlling the Turkish state.
PATRICK COCKBURN is the Ihe author of “Muqtada: Muqtada Al-Sadr, the Shia Revival, and the Struggle for Iraq.”