By Jacinda Chan, Contributor
The Constitutional Court of Turkey-an independent judiciary-ruled against banning the ruling, Justice and Development Party, AKP, but decided to cut their funds by millions for going against secularism by lifting the headscarf ban at universities. Does this mean Turkey has become a truly democratic state?
Turkey’s efforts for refraining from banning an elected political party with a majority of seats in Parliament-even though it is legal to do so-is noteworthy. The fact that the Constitutional Court cut funds is not what makes a government undemocratic. In fact, cutting funds is actually more democratic and should be practiced with all parties.
What makes the Turkish government undemocratic is that the Constitutional Court still has the power to ban political parties. Democracy is tolerance of ideas, which means a safe and free space to express ideas. For example, at Watergate, we could not punish the entire Republican Party, but we could punish individual members involved in the crime, and Turkey should be able to do the same. If the government truly feels the AKP is a threat, they should wait until a member commits a crime, and instead of banning the party, they should punish only the members involved unless the entire party is involved. The Turkish government needs to find a way to protect secularism without harming democracy.
For example, the collapse of the girls’ dormitory that held illegal Koran classes, which killed 17, was a result of Prime Minister Erdogan decreasing the penalty for opening illegal Koran classes. Prime Minister Erdogan has sympathies for a group, which causes destruction, and the government needs to address this where citizens are still allowed freedom of expression. Also, instead of telling Deputy, Edibe Sozen of the AKP that her proposal to introduce a policy that creates a place in public schools for every religion among other controversial proposals is against party doctrine, Prime Minister Erdogan told her to be careful because of the recent court ruling of the AKP. This statement shows that secularism is not a doctrine of the AKP but rather a show.
The problem Turkey seems to have is that it does not know what, when, and how to distinguish between threats and freedom of expression. At the largest bombing since 2005 on July 27, 2008, suspected terrorist, the PKK-Kurdistan Workers’ Party blames the ultra-nationalist, Ergenekon, claiming they are retaliating for arrests made by the government, which police are still investigating. Even though the PKK denies any involvement, authorities have concrete evidence that eight PKK members are responsible.
Many Kurds say the horrendous economic situation and lack of rights such as learning Kurdish in public schools and being denied more programming time are to blame for the problems with the Kurds. Even though Turkey now allows private schools to teach Kurdish and is trying to start a national Kurdish television program, the new programming is state-run, and it will begin and end with the Turkish national anthem every day. TRT, the Turkish station producing the channel, is launching a Kurdish children’s program aimed at helping kids acquire a national identity. This is a great step towards ending discrimination, but the purpose is to practice a culture, not assimilate a population. The PKK is definitely a threat, but the Kurds themselves just want to express their culture, and if their situation is improved, the problems will decrease. The only groups Turkey should worry about are those that destroy life or suppress freedom of expression.
If Turkey wants to show the world and the EU they are democratic to join, they need to establish a concrete definition of threats, not just one that bans any opposition. Even though the EU applauds Turkey’s advances, with the recent rejection by Ireland of the Lisbon Treaty, which covers enlargement, Turkey cannot join the EU until the EU solves its institutional problems. Turkey’s true test of democratization would then become a question of whether Turkey truly believes in democratic principles for its own benefit rather than implementing changes for the EU.
I would love to see the day Turkey is accepted to the EU and is somewhat more democratic because that would be an inseparable bridge to the Middle East. Turkey has mediated four talks between Israel and Syria in hopes of getting the two countries to begin direct talks for a peace agreement. Even though the U.S. does not approve of Turkey’s meeting with Iranian President to discuss oil trade and “consolidate and facilitate” negotiation between Iran and the P5+1 regarding Iran’s nuclear facilities, the U.S. still says, “We understand Turkey is a neighbor with Iran and we hope that it gives the right messages to Iran.”
On an up note, the debate whether Rector Elections at universities were democratic has been proven fair. Every four years universities submit the top six nominees for Rector to the Higher Education Board, YÖK, who then chooses three candidates for the President to pick one. This year President Gul chose Israfil Kurtcephe over Mustafa Akaydin, an outspoken pro-secularist and anti-government critic, who some speculated President Gul did not choose for political reasons because Akaydin received more votes than Kurtcephe. However, Kurtcephe has taught Kemalism, democracy, secularism, and modernity for years. Obviously Turkey is in the learning process of democratization and has great potential of becoming a truly democratic state once it clearly defines the definition of a threat.