An Unlikely Threat to Democracy

Why America's interests are tied to a court battle in Turkey.

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When Turkey's chief prosecutor brought a lawsuit this spring asking the country's Constitutional Court to close down its governing political party, he set in motion a dangerous chain of events that could undo years of political and economic progress in Turkey. The prosecutor, along with many of Turkey's top judicial and military officials, consider themselves guardians of Turkey's secular laws and traditions and believe that the mildly Islamist Justice and Development Party (AKP) is a threat to a Western-oriented Turkish society.

The truth is that the greatest danger to a stable, prosperous, and modern Turkey comes from those bent on undermining the democratic offices and processes they supposedly hold so dear. The United States must allow Turkey's political and legal process to play itself out, of course. But given Turkey's importance to America's interests, we can only hope that the lawsuit fails, and that Turkey is able to continue its march towards being a dynamic and modern state that is both secular and Muslim.

The prosecutor accuses the AKP of becoming "a centre for anti-secular activities," and asks the court to ban over 70 of the party's members from political activity for five years. This would include a ban on the president, Abdullah Gul, and the prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The country's secular elites have viewed the AKP with deep suspicion since it came to power in 2002. Their fears, however, discount the fact that the AKP has been one of the most modern and pro-Western Islamist parties anyone has seen, as well as one of the most progressive parties in Turkey.

This latest action was likely spurred, in large part, by the AKP's well-reasoned decision to end the ban on women wearing headscarves in universities earlier this year, which was cited in the prosecutor's indictment. The case against the AKP relies on mere statements by AKP officials that the prosecution has deemed to be anti-secular as well as supposed evidence that the AKP is plotting to install sharia in Turkey, despite the fact that both the president and prime minister have publicly affirmed their support for a secular state. Unfortunately, this type of action is nothing new in Turkey. Its courts have closed down four Islamic parties since 1970, including the Welfare Party, which claimed Prime Minister Erdogan as a member.

So why should the United States care? Don't we have enough political problems on this side of the Atlantic? Quite simply, we should care because Turkey is vital to our national and international security interests. And if the prosecution succeeds, it will damage those interests. In a post-Cold War era, Turkey is as important to the United States as Germany was during the Cold War, serving as a literal and figurative link between East and West. Turkey has been a critical military ally to the United States, especially during the first Gulf War and through NATO actions in Afghanistan, and is our only ally in the Middle East region that has successfully developed bridges to Iran, Syria, and Israel. If the AKP falls because of the prosecutor's actions, Turkey's credibility will be damaged, hindering its political capital. This, in turn, will make Turkey a less effective security partner for the United States.

In addition, investors who have shown high-levels of confidence in the country in the past several years have begun to have serious doubts. Since 2002, annual foreign direct investment in Turkey increased more than 30-fold, and investment in everything from real estate to banks rose sharply. Once the case against the AKP was announced, Turkey's stock index dropped 32 percent and Standard & Poor cut Turkey's credit rating from stable to negative. Certainly, the global credit crunch has impacted the country, but financial experts continue to cite the political environment as having a negative impact. Such a downward economic spiral would critically damage Turkey's chances at EU accession, and thus encourage this vital Western ally to align itself eastward.

Democracy sometimes produces unexpected results with which certain candidates and citizens must grudgingly learn to live until the next election cycle. Trying to ban a political party (especially one that was re-elected just last year) because its policies are unpopular with certain segments of society undermines everything Turkey has worked so hard to achieve – politically and economically – over the past several years. Only when there is confidence that democratic decisions won't be undone by undemocratic measures will Turkey be able to reach its full potential.

Spencer P. Boyer is Director of international law and diplomacy with the Center for American Progress.