Adrian Hamilton: A bitter power struggle for the soul of democracy

Ignore the debate about Islam and the West. If the elected Turkish government loses, we are all victims

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It is almost impossible to exaggerate just how important is the current crisis engulfing Turkey or to say just how grim could be the consequences of the case now being considered by its constitutional court. Within the week, or certainly by the end of next month, Turkey could be without its prime minister, its president and its ruling party. It could indeed be without a functioning government at all. Yesterday's bomb blasts by unknown terrorists are just the latest manifestation of the violence that could ensue.

So far the coverage of Turkey's woes has concentrated on the debates about the wearing of the veil, as proposed by the popularly elected, Islamic-based AKP government of the past six years and bitterly attacked by the opposition parties, the army and judiciary, who regard it as a direct assault on the secular constitution of the modern Turkish state, as founded by General Kemal Ataturk.

The veil is important no doubt. Just as there are those who see the AK Party as welcome proof that moderate Islam can work in a Western-orientated government committed to free markets, freedom of expression, a fairer deal for the Kurds and membership of the EU, there are equally those who see the wearing of the veil as the thin end of the wedge being driven by a party fundamentally intent on turning the country into an Islamic state.

Would that it were as simple or as rational. In reality the clash of secularism and religion is just the manifestation of a much more profound, and much darker, power struggle between the traditional forces of the military, bureaucracy and judiciary, and the forces of the new urban rich, the traditional peasantry of the Anatolian plateau and the Western-leaning technical classes.

It is in the courts and the legal system that the battle has been waged ever since the ruling party moved to expand its base by appointing one of its own as president last year – a position normally in the hands of the army and judiciary – and called a quick election to confirm its stance. It gained a decisive victory but in doing so moved the battle from politics to the law.

On the one side is the dramatic case which started yesterday in the constitutional court – an entity founded by the military after a coup in 1960. In it, the chief prosecutor has demanded that the leading figures in the AKP, including the Prime Minister Recep Erdogan the President Abdullah Gul, and the party as a whole be banned from politics for contravening the secular rules of the country.

On the other side is a case taken out by the public prosecutor of Istanbul to name and charge the chief figures in "Ergenokon", a shadowy group of ex-generals, journalists and academics charged with a campaign of assassination against enemies of the state (mainly writers, Kurds and politicians) and plotting a coup against the present government.

The stakes could not be higher. They concern the future of the state itself. Which is why most ordinary Turks still hope a compromise can be reached under which the constitutional court stays its hand in return for the prosecutor of the Ergenokon staying his case (only the most naive believe that the judiciary is not swayed by politics) or, at the very least, that the constitutional court confines its judgment to depriving the AKP of state funds.

The trouble is that there are some very strong forces for violence in this play. A period of chaos could well suit the armed forces (which is why some suspect their hand in the latest bombings). They have intervened three times already since 1960 to overthrow elected governments and would happily do the same again. Given power, they would almost certainly launch a clampdown on opposition and free speech. It would also launch a full-out war against the Kurds.

But then Turkish society has probably moved too far to quietly accept a return to military rule. The fear here is that there are some extremely nasty Muslim fundamentalists in the background who will seize on the army's action to launch their own campaigns (which is why some observers are suspicious that they are behind the Istanbul bombings).

Even a couple of years ago, the outside world might have intervened to constrain the parties. But Europe has diminished its influence by procrastinating over Turkey's application to join the EU. America, which did so much to support the Turkish armed services in the post-war period, lost influence over the Iraq invasion.

Yet take a stand the outside world must. Forget all the discussion of veils and religion, ignore all the debate about Islam and the West. This battle is about democracy, and if the elected Turkish government loses, we'll all be the victims of the consequences.

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