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Battle lines drawn over judiciary reform in Turkey

ANKARA (Reuters) - Turks have witnessed the ruling AK Party bring a powerful army to heel and humble political rivals. The spectacle now of one prosecutor arresting another, emblazoned across the internet, illustrates dramatically where the EU-candidate’s Muslim democracy is facing its ultimate test.

AK and many liberals see the judiciary and the courts as the redoubt of an ossified and autocratic secularist establishment.

AK’s critics, however, view a government-backed September 12 referendum on judicial reform as part of a creeping Islamist ‘coup’. Attempts by the army, which has toppled 4 governments, to cow the reforming AK have failed and the civil service, police and universities have come increasingly under its sway.

The “Deep State,” as it is widely known, looks to the hard-line secularists in the judiciary, which have already failed in one attempt to declare AK a threat to secularism.

“You will now come with us. You are under arrest,” one of the two prosecutors says in the video leaked to Turkish media.

“You can’t do this, friends. Do you know what you are doing?,” the other one is heard saying. “I will resist! You will have to take me by force! You’re acting like bandits!”

The language reflects the high emotion of politics, eight years after AK swept to power, profiting from disillusion with corruption and incompetence in traditional secularist parties.

While there is consensus in Turkey that changes are needed to a constitution written under military rule in the 1980s, the reforms to overhaul the courts have exacerbated deep divisions.

Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan says they bring the charter into line with Europe -- an argument he also used in paring back the influence of the generals over government.

A Muslim democracy with a growing economic clout, Turkey occupies a key geostrategic position between Europe, Central Asia and the Middle East so the outcome has broad implications.

“This is going to shape the type of democracy we will have in Turkey,” said Sinan Ulgen, from the Istanbul-based Centre for Economics and Foreign Policy Studies think tank.

“Much of Turkey’s soft power and influence in the region stems from the fact that it is a working Muslim democracy.”

The referendum is also being watched as a barometer of support for Erdogan ahead of elections set for 2011.

A “No” vote or a close outcome might encourage the government to increase spending in a bid to boost support in the election, endangering fiscal discipline and upsetting markets.

The reforms concern the make-up and workings of the Constitutional Court, Turkey’s highest court, and the High Board of Judges and Prosecutors (HYSK), a state body charged with appointing magistrates.


AK, the political force of a rising middle class from the heartland that has challenged the secular centres of power in Istanbul and Ankara, denies Islamist ambitions and points to a record of economic and political reforms.

Experts agree the judiciary needs changes to adapt the authoritarian state founded in 1923 to Europe’s values.

“In Europe the judiciary is the protector and guarantor of individual rights. In Turkey, it sees itself as the guardian of the state and always sides with the state against individual rights,” said Ergun Ozbudun, a constitutional law expert.

But experts also say the proposed changes could remove checks and balances on the powerful executive.


By giving parliament, controlled by the AK, and the president, a former AK official, more say in naming high judges and prosecutors, the party would impose its view on anything from the use of headscarves to military trials to tax evasion.

“The main problem in Turkey is that there is not an embedded culture of independence of the judiciary,” said Riza Turmen, a former Turkish judge at the European Court of Human Rights.

Erdogan, aggressively campaigning for a ‘yes’ vote, says that if passed the reforms would end the tutelage of “Deep State” forces in the high judiciary, army and bureaucracy resisting liberal reforms in the nation of 72 million.

It was the arrest earlier this year of Ilhan Cihaner, the prosecutor in eastern Erzincan province, that started the row that resulted in the government launching the reform package.

Cihaner, who had investigated Islamist brotherhoods in Erzincan, was charged with being a member of a deep state group, a charge he said was political. The HYSK suspended the prosecutors who ordered Cihaner’s arrest and the government hit back with the referendum.

“Turkey is no longer a country that upholds the rule of law. It is becoming a state run by a religious fascist order,” said Vural Savas, a former chief prosecutor known for his visceral anti-Islamist views.

Polls are split, some predicting a “yes” win others a “no.”

“I don’t see any big difference between those who vote ‘yes’ and those who vote ‘no’,” said Haci Saygin, 32, a biology teacher in Istanbul. “It looks more and more like a war between the elites of the country.” (Additional reporting by Ece Toksabay and Thomas Grove)

Writing by Ibon Villelabeitia; Editing by Ralph Boulton