Painful normalization of Turkish political scene

Painful normalization of Turkish political scene

President Abdullah Gül’s reception at Çankaya Palace in Ankara to celebrate the 90th anniversary of the republic was like a theater foyer with regard to the normalization of Turkish politics, where the matters discussed and the body language used were more interesting than the play.

The talk, rather the talk of the day, involved two main subjects that have been considered obstacles on the road to normalization: The headscarf issue and the military’s role in politics.

Back in 2007, the military - reminding the public of their overthrowing of democratically elected governments three times before but failing to see that domestic and international circumstances had changed - issued a warning to Prime Minister Tayyip Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AK Parti) government not to elect a president who had a veiled wife. The military was clearly targeting Gül, then foreign minister, without naming him.

The government response the next day on April 28, in which they told soldiers to mind their own business, was a turning point in many ways. Erdoğan declared an early election, claimed victory after winning, got Gül elected as president, changed the presidential election system to a popular vote, opened investigations that ended up in major coup plot cases, and claimed a bigger election victory in 2011. Now, Turkey is heading for presidential elections in July 2014.

A few weeks ago, Erdoğan declared that public servants would be able to wear the headscarf as well. Seeing a trap there to draw him into a fight on faith, Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, the leader of the Republican People’s Party (CHP), as the bastion of secularism, did not defy Erdoğan on that, also knowing that such antagonism could only benefit his rival. It was also consistent with Kılıçdaroğlu’s rather libertarian style regarding the headscarf, which he has displayed since being elected as the CHP chairman in 2010.

Three female deputies of the AK Parti have said that they would like to wear the headscarf in Parliament too, prompting a row within the CHP. The radical secularists in the party started to put pressure on Kılıçdaroğlu to take the example of Bülent Ecevit in 1999, who reacted to an MP who wore the headscarf in the Parliament together with his parliamentary party colleagues. They ask for a similar CHP group action this time.

However, seeing another trap there, Kılıçdaroğlu took two steps: Firstly, he showed up to the presidential reception for the first time in seven years; secondly, he told reporters that it was not likely that he would make this a big issue. In return, Gül told reporters that it was the “CHP’s positive contributions” that had made the headscarf liberalization possible.

And there was General Necdet Özel, the Chief of General Staff, who was also present at the presidential reception with all his key personnel. Under pressure because retired and on-duty officers have been condemned to long prison terms in coup plot cases, Özel told reporters that he was not going to resign just because some individuals had asked him to do so. “I’m trying to keep the army away from politics,” he said. “If I leave, it’s possible that you’ll miss my days in charge.”

Parliament is getting ready to see its first members wearing the headscarf under these circumstances. To some, it is the beginning of the end of the achievements of a secular republic and women’s rights in Turkey. To others, it is the normalization of Turkish democracy in that it is getting rid of such artificial obstacles. Either way, it has been a long and painful process, and we’ll see for ourselves whether it is coming to an end.