Back from the brink

Observations on Turkey

Turkey's political leaders have a taste for high drama. Until a few days prior to the 30 July verdict, it had appeared a near certainty that the country's constitutional court would uphold an indictment calling for the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and President Abdullah Gü to be banned for supposedly pursuing an Islamist agenda, contrary to Turkey's founding secularist principles.

One MP told me bleakly that he was "90 per cent sure" his party would be outlawed. Instead, after nearly five months of deliberation, the court's 11 judges rejected that option by a single vote. Turkey had stood, according to the newspaper columnist Ömer Taspinar, on "the brink of political suicide and miraculously managed to survive".

The court's decision was seized on by some in AKP as evidence that the balance of power in Turkey had swung further in favour of the ruling party at the expense of a secular elite that AKP sees as being out of touch with the realities of Turkish life beyond the upmarket neighbourhoods of Istanbul and Ankara.

"This decision shows that the exclusive state elite cannot get its way, despite everything it has been trying since last year," the AKP MP Suat Kiniklioglu told me.

In calling elections a year ago, and winning them by a landslide, Erdogan was hailed for having stared down the threat of a secularist-backed coup after Turkish military leaders expressed concerns over the nomination of Gü - a practising Muslim whose wife wears a headscarf - to the presidency. Now Erdogan has stared down the threat of a "judicial coup" as well.

Ultimately, however, the court's decision appears to be grounded in pragmatic rather than ideological considerations. Since coming to power in 2002, AKP has been credited with bringing good governance and fiscal competence to Turkey, triggering a surge of investment and prosperity in the party's Anatolian heartland.

Internationally, Turkey has established itself as a key player in the Middle East, hosting peace talks between Israel and Syria and wielding major influence, through military force, diplomacy and investment, in Iraq. Meanwhile, AKP has continued to forge closer ties with the EU.

Turkey's international standing would have been critically undermined by a verdict against AKP. Perhaps more critically still, last month's bombings in Istanbul, in which 17 people died, provided a fresh reminder of the real security threats, both Kurdish and Islamist, that Turkey faces, and beside which all other political distractions pale.

But the case raises fundamental issues. In February the same court overturned AKP efforts to lift a ban on the wearing of headscarves in universities - still the most emotive and divisive issue in Turkish politics. With ten of the court's 11 judges agreeing that AKP had become a focal point for anti-secularist activities, the country remains caught in a power struggle between an Establishment loyal to the Kemalist founding principles of the republic and the agents of a new, more democratic Turkey that is comfortable with its Islamic traditions. That argument is not going to be resolved without painful constitutional reconstructive surgery.

Still, it is a sign of Turkey's political progress that the members of a predominantly secularist court had the sense to retreat from the edge of a precipice over which their predecessors might once have stepped without hesitation.

"Turkey has to have the political maturity to talk about these issues," says the political analyst Ibrahim Kalin. "Along the way I think the more extreme voices will be eliminated."

This article first appeared in the 11 August 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Spies for hire

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Is anyone prepared to solve the NHS funding crisis?

As long as the political taboo on raising taxes endures, the service will be in financial peril. 

It has long been clear that the NHS is in financial ill-health. But today's figures, conveniently delayed until after the Conservative conference, are still stunningly bad. The service ran a deficit of £930m between April and June (greater than the £820m recorded for the whole of the 2014/15 financial year) and is on course for a shortfall of at least £2bn this year - its worst position for a generation. 

Though often described as having been shielded from austerity, owing to its ring-fenced budget, the NHS is enduring the toughest spending settlement in its history. Since 1950, health spending has grown at an average annual rate of 4 per cent, but over the last parliament it rose by just 0.5 per cent. An ageing population, rising treatment costs and the social care crisis all mean that the NHS has to run merely to stand still. The Tories have pledged to provide £10bn more for the service but this still leaves £20bn of efficiency savings required. 

Speculation is now turning to whether George Osborne will provide an emergency injection of funds in the Autumn Statement on 25 November. But the long-term question is whether anyone is prepared to offer a sustainable solution to the crisis. Health experts argue that only a rise in general taxation (income tax, VAT, national insurance), patient charges or a hypothecated "health tax" will secure the future of a universal, high-quality service. But the political taboo against increasing taxes on all but the richest means no politician has ventured into this territory. Shadow health secretary Heidi Alexander has today called for the government to "find money urgently to get through the coming winter months". But the bigger question is whether, under Jeremy Corbyn, Labour is prepared to go beyond sticking-plaster solutions. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.