The Turkish army’s drive to crush the country’s Islamic movement continues unabated. The latest episode is the postponement of a debate on a constitutional amendment that would make it difficult to close political parties. The shelved amendment concerns Article 69 of the Turkish constitution, which empowers the government to dissolve political parties; it was proposed by the Islamist Virtue Party (Fazilet Partisi) and later approved by the parliament’s Constitutional Commission. Under it, a two-thirds majority of the justices of the Constitutional Commission would be required to make it possible to close a political party. It would also pave the way for the abrogation of Article 312 of the penal code, which is used to ban from politics people who fall from the army’s good books.
The amendment was scheduled to have a first reading in parliament on January 24, followed by a second reading on January 30. However, when the three parties that make up the ruling coalition (the Democratic Left Party, the Nationalist Movement Party and the Motherland Party) submitted the legislature’s agenda for the week beginning January 22, discussions on the amendment were nowhere to be seen.
Pressure from the army seems to be behind the coalition’s sudden change of heart. Bulent Ecevit, deputy chairman of the Virtue Party’s parliamentary bloc, said: “The government is changing its opinions on the constitutional amendment frequently after their midnight meetings.” Arinc was referring to the fact that the decision to shelve the amendment came after two meetings, the first of the three coalition partners and the second of the National Security Council.
The proposed amendment was the result of analliance between the ruling coalition and the opposition Virtue Party. The coalition has its own agenda of constitutional amendments, but in order to secure the two-thirds majority necessary for its amendments to be passed the coalition needs the votes of Virtue MPs. After some bargaining, the coalition agreed to include the amendment proposed by Fazilet in return for the latter’s support for its own proposed amendments.
It is natural that the Virtue Party should be keen to amend Article 69 of the constitution: its own fate is at stake. The group has for almost two years been facing a relentless legal effort to close it down. The anti-Virtue offensive was launched by Vural Savas, chief public prosecutor at the time, who accused the group of being a reincarnation of the Welfare Party (Refah Partisi), which had been banned, and of trying to undermine the secular character of the Turkish state. Savas was the army’s man in the judiciary, and had led the infamous “February 28 process” which culminated in the ban on the Welfare Party. On February 28, 1997, the National Security Council went after Islamic activism root and branch, deposing the government of Necmettin Erbekan and turning on the rising Islamic tide in the country, in what came to be seen as a “silent coup”: the fourth military coup in the Turkish republic.
The Virtue Party’s hopes, that the end of Savas’s term in January would be a serious hitch in the government’s efforts to dissolve it, were soon dashed. Upon taking his new post as chief public prosecutor, Sahih Kanadoglu stressed in statements to the press that the legal case against the party is still underway. The Constitutional Court also warned that amending Article 69 would leave Turkey vulnerable to forces intent on dividing the country.
The court on the case against the Virtue Party was adjourned in December, ostensibly to give the prosecution more time to gather and present evidence. But a closer look at the inner workings of the Turkish political system indicates that the delay was prompted by the generals’ desire to appease European leaders before their decision on the terms for Turkey’s accession to the European Union. At the time, Virtue leaders Recai Kutan and Abdullah Gul, desperate for protection from anywhere, shed some of the original ideals of the Islamic movement in Turkey, which had rejected EU membership in favour of closer ties with the Muslim world. They sought to exert pressure on the Kemalists by leading a delegation to Brussels to lobby European officials to come to their party’s rescue. After meeting NATO secretary-general George Robertson, Kutan said that Virtue was more eager for Turkey to join the EU than any other party in the country.
Virtue Party officials argue that their party was formed before Welfare was banned. Virtue Party leader Recai Kutan has repeatedly pointed out that 70 percent of the group’s MPs were never members of the Welfare Party. Nevertheless, the decision to ban the Virtue Party, like the decision to ban its predecessor, will be political rather than judicial. In a country where an anti-Islamic, ultra-secular establishment sets the parameters not only of politics but also of justice and due process of law, banning an Islamic group is simply part of the normal business of governance.
The effort to ban the Virtue Party is part of a renewed campaign aimed not only at eradicating Islamic activism but also at purging Islam from Turkish society. The game, which is as old as the Turkish republic, went into high gear once more in October when the National Security Council drew up a plan entitled “A Strategy for Action Against Reaction.” They then tried to persude Ahmet Necdet Sezer, the country’s newly elected president, to enact the purge by presidential decree. However, Sezer, a former Constitutional Court chief who has been seeking to re-draw the boundaries of the relationship between the presidency and the military, refused to sign the generals’ draft decree into law. So, the military pushed a draft bill, that would enable them to purge the civil service of thousands of employees suspected of Islamic leanings, on to the legislature’s agenda.
The draft law has been approved by a parliamentary subcommittee and is due to be referred to the full chamber for debate. Its provisions reveal a crass attempt to infringe on some of the most basic notions of privacy, sanctity and confidentiality of family life, and individual liberties. It permits the dismissal of any government employee linked with “reactionary” or secessionist groups from his or her job. The activities subsumed under the title of “reactionary activities” leave no doubt that the category is reserved for Islamic religious activities. Under this category the bill lists such actions as listening to religious broadcasts, not wearing a necktie, and having a beard. It also sets punishments for anyone who dares to separate male and female living quarters in his house. It authorizes the interrogation of government employees who visit mosques regularly, or whose womenfolk – namely wife, daughters or sisters – wear the hijab.
When the military introduced the draft law, they made it clear that it will target not only the Virtue party but also the popular, yet largely apolitical, group led by Fethullah Gulen, a traditional rival of the politically-oriented Islamist trend led by Welfare and its successor Virtue. Gulen’s main interest has been building educational, media, commercial and financial institutions. If he ever aspired to any role in politics it was only to halt the politically-oriented Islamist trend. He always instructed his followers to vote for non-Islamic parties, such as the Motherland Party. That all this could not avert the wrath of the generals indicates that the army is determined to destroy any organized Islamic group, regardless of its political ideology or lack thereof.
If the Virtue Party is banned, its members wil be expelled from parliament and by-elections will have to be held. The Nationalist Movement Party, the main beneficiary of the military crackdown on the Welfare Party, stands to gain the most from by-elections. In April 1999, it scooped the votes of hesitant religiously-leaning voters who did not vote for the Virtue Party because they feared that such a vote would be wasted if a court ruled to dissolve the Islamic party. This is likely to happen again. This could pave the way for a two-party coalition government formed by the Nationalist Movement and Democratic Left Party.
However, regardless of the outcome of the court case, divisions within the Virtue Party will continue to challenge it to preserve its cohesion and unity. The party is in danger of splitting because of a widening rift between two factions, the “reformists” led by Abdullah Gul and the “traditionalists” led by Kutan. Gul has indicated that his faction might leave the party. Another prominent “reformist”, Ankara mayor Melih Gokcek, said that if the court rules against closing the party the reformists will seek better representation in the party executive.
The Virtue Party may well realize that the challenge of keeping factionalism in check is as great as that of surviving the animosity of the enemy without.