Spotlight on Geopolitics

“Erdogan Buries Ataturk”

This is the title used by Istanbul-based “Zaman” to announce Mr. Erdogan’s victory in the constitutional referendum which took place on September 12. At first glance, the headline appears an exaggeration. In truth, the Turkish premier’s success does herald the demise of Kemalism and its legacy.

The governing AKP party won the referendum by a comfortable 58% of the vote, despite months of social turmoil and tensions. The measures for reforming Turkey’s 1980 military-inspired Constitution have, if adopted, the potential to modernise the country’s political system and judiciary.

In future, the parliament will have a much larger say in the appointment of judges, which has prompted the extreme right opposition to accuse the government of the “Islamisation” of Turkish justice – a baseless accusation. In fact, the objective of the government is to make sure that the military could be tried in civilian courts in case they decide to engineer new coups d’etat, thus acting as a deterrent.

If the judicial reform package is at the core of the referendum, other reforms such as enhancing civil liberties, gender equality and protecting privacy will bring Turkey in line with Western democracies, an objective which was never high on the Kemalist agenda (source: The Economist). Most historians remember, for example, that the 1980 military coup ended with half a million arrests and 51 people being hanged for their political activity.

The significance of Erdogan’s victory is, however, more profound than that. It brings to an end the legacy of Ataturk and his model of modernisation, far removed from Turkish history and religious tradition. The authoritarianism, repression and military coups that characterised the Ataturk “secular modernity” were actually symptoms of a modernisation process gone haywire.

The current modernisation drive of the Turkish political system, judiciary and society is in accordance with the country’s religious and cultural traditions. If successful, an Islamic brand of modernisation could prove beneficial to Muslim countries far and wide, from the Middle East to Indonesia. Erdogan’s merit is that he understood it and was willing to invest his political capital into such a momentous undertaking. The prize, for him and his party, could come in the form of winning the next parliamentary elections and the presidency in 2012.

Turkey’s supporters within the EU have interpreted Erdogan’s victory as beneficial to its accession bid. Latest developments indicate, however, that Turkey seems much more interested these days in becoming the Muslim world’s beacon of freedom and democracy than in adopting an acquis communautaire which could prove not only cumbersome but in many ways detrimental to an up-and-coming Islamic democracy.

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