There's an old joke that goes "there's two things I don't like about you: your face". Turkish Prime Minister Recap Tayyip Erdogan proves a suitable butt for this one-liner after his ruling AK party won a major constitutional victory yesterday, with 58 per cent of the Turkish electorate agreeing with reforms to the Turkish constitution. Erdogan is expected to press on with a wholesale change to the current constitution.
Road to Brussels
The government's success has been lauded by the US and the EU. Their congratulations dovetail with David Cameron's earlier praise for Erdogan and endorsement of Turkey's ascension to EU membership, one based in no small part on the potential for access to natural resources and trade and labour markets. If Cameron had his way, the Europa would fly in Ankara tomorrow.
Much of the press coverage describes the constitutional reforms as drawing Turkey closer to EU accession. The chief obstacle (notwithstanding France and Germany's obduracy) is apparently Turkey's economy . This barrier may fall within ten years or so thanks to Erdogan's sweeping market reforms.
Even if European intergration is a bridge too far for Nicolas Sarkozy and Angela Merkel, both see a tight 'partnership' bond with the country as desirable and inevitable. If or when full accession happens, Europe's eastern borders will be with Iran, Syria, Armenia and Azerbaijan, and Turkey would have -- by virtue of its population -- the second largest group of MEPs, surpassing Germany's by 2020.
But the prospect of Turkey harmonising with the values, aims and practices of the EU are remote while Erdogan remains in the ascendancy, and is likely to stay that way. With Erdogan at the wheel, the eastward progress of the EU is best halted at the Bosporus.
Many of the recent constitutional reforms are largely uncontroversial, such as gender equality measures and improved rights of privacy. Notably, however, freedoms of religion and expression are still lacking. It will also be harder to the army to destabilise the country through future coups d'etat, as they will now face the civil judiciary for breaches of the law.
However, the executive's newly won ability of to decide almost all judicial appointments is a measure designed to limit the oversight of the judiciary. The president - widely expected to be Erdogan from 2012 - will be able to appoint 16 of the 19 judges on the Constitutional Court, with the remainder appointed by parliament (currently controlled by Erdogan's AKP).
The judiciary will also be weakened, with judicial power of the Constitutional Court and the Council of State will be limited to administrative practices and functions.
Many of the adjustments that would be sensible in a pluralist country sit less easily in an overwhelmingly Sunni Muslim country where a robust judiciary is required to buttress a broadly Kemalist constitution against populist battering by the legislature and executive.
Erdogan's political opponents have accused him of violating the separation of powers, and facilitating an increased influence of political Islam via the back door. Despite Erdogan's pedigree as a staunch political Islamist, the latter claim may be exaggerated.
There is, however, little doubt Erdogan is consolidating his party's power and electoral prospects, by bundling undemocratic reforms in with a broadly sensible reform bill (sound familiar?).
A minor but telling social change may be Erdogan's plan to lift the ban on headscarves in universities, which the Constitutional Court upheld in 2008. The Turkish PM has long hoped to overturn the ban -- despite it being ruled legal by the European Court of Human Rights -- and with a hobbled judiciary is expected to do so. It is perhaps difficult to sensibly maintain such a ban in a predominantly and proudly Muslim country, where many of the protests against the ban have been staged by university students and professionals, though it does bespeak a direction of travel.
Erdogan fully supports of his country's repulsive official denial that the 1915 massacre of thousands of Armenians constituted an attempted genocide, or expressed regret or shame at the forcible wholesale extinction of Armenian culture - and many of it's proponents - within its borders. Indeed, he has threatened to finish the job if he is pushed on the issue. This vile threat at mass deportation that was greeted in the US and the UK with conspicuous silence. Reconciliation on this point is unlikely anytime soon.
Not content with the commission of further crimes to mask the greater one, Erdogan currently presides over the murder -- including by aerial and chemical means -- of Kurds within Turkey and in Iraq (NB a war crime), and a kulturkampf against Kurdish language and culture. The Kurds in the main abstained from the referendum, as it did not offer anything in their interest.
Fearing a break in his country's bridge to the Middle-East, he prefers to see an active Kurdish PKK continue their violence against his people as an excuse to continue to refuse Kurds within Turkey an Iraq-style autonomous zone (or even equal legal treatment to Turks).
The strengthening of matters domestic has partnered increasing refulgence on the foreign relations scene. Erdogan seems unalarmed - as only someone who claims that Hamas are "not a terrorist organization" could be - by the hypocrisy of decrying the fate of the Palestinians while occupying a third of Cyprus and immiserating Kurds and Armenians within his own country's borders.
While on the subject of Palestine, we should also remember where the so-called "humanitarian activists" (a wild misnomer if ever there was one) were from -- and whose boat they set sail in. Erdogan supported breaking the Gaza blockade, an act of war against a UN county, which Israel had legal right to stop (though not to comprehensively cock up). Given the huge regional political filip Erdogan received from providing the port of departure, and his petulant and demagogic response to it, it would be naïve to divorce the enthusiastic support given the flotilla by the deeply questionable IHH and the foreign policy aims of its state sponsor.
The Turkish PM has, after all, played games on the most spurious basis to court the favour of his Middle-Eastern allies before.
More generally, Erdogan has carefully fostered diplomatic and trade ties with Iran, Syria, Iraq. In receprosity for beneficial trading arrangements, Erdogan (with Lula) earlier this year struck a willfully duff nuclear fuel-swap deal with Iran. In a fit of pique over the UN's sensible rejection of this deal, Turkey voted 'no' to recent UN sanctions against Iran. The Turkish PM
To Erdogan's further discredit, during the last OIC conference he held cordial meetings in Istanbul with Omar Hassan al-Bashir, the Sudanese ruler and thug currently wanted by the International Criminal Court on charges of genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes in Darfur.
Eyes on the prize
While signing trade deals in Tehran, Erdogan recently told Mahmoud Ahmedinejad his party has "one face to the west and one face to the east". Turkey's constitution may now be in shape for EU membership, with an economy soon to follow. However, the country will not be ready to join the European experiment until it faces the crimes of its past, gives the right of self-determination to the Kurds, and proves by it's uniformity of relations with East and West that Ataturk's singular vision of "peace at home, peace in the world" continues.