Turkey's new aspiration

Published : Oct 22, 2004 00:00 IST

Turkey reforms a 78-year-old penal code and shelves a controversial move to reimpose a ban on adultery in a bid to enter the European Union.

RACING against time, the Turkish Parliament met in an emergency session on September 26 to approve a new penal code for the country. The urgency of the action betrayed Turkey's keenness to join the European Union because the European Commission is due to present a report in early October on whether talks can begin on Turkey's bid for E.U. membership.

The penal reform bill was the last in a series of reforms Turkey has undertaken in recent years to comply with the various criteria for E.U. membership. The changes in law are designed essentially to bring the country in line with the human rights laws in Europe.

The reform of the 78-year-old criminal code is a clear pointer to the kind of changes that are being sought within Turkey. The new law prescribes tougher penalties for perpetrators of torture. Torture in police stations and prisons would attract a 12-year jail term. The citizen's privacy is to be protected by restricting the interception of telephone calls and gathering of personal information. The police are liable for punishment if they enter homes without compelling reasons. Corruption in government is to be handled more firmly. The statute of limitations for major corruption cases, particularly those involving government and business, is to be abolished.

For the first time, major crimes such as genocide, crimes against humanity and trafficking in people and human organs find a mention in the Turkish penal code. All laws will have to be in accordance with the international agreements that Turkey has entered into.

A notable aspect of this extensive overhaul of legislation is that it seeks to improve the situation of women in Turkey. Discrimination on religious, ethnic and sexual grounds is made a crime. Specifically, punishments for assaults on women have been made stiffer. Rape within marriage has been recognised as a crime and there would be no leniency for rapists who marry their victims.

The new legislation stipulates life sentence for those indulging in "honour" killings of women accused of dishonouring the family through illicit affairs. Provocation will no longer be a defence in "honour" killings. The societal code of "honour" had once been part of the Turkish legal code and attacks on women were regarded as attacks on the family or as creating social disorder. Henceforth these are to be legally treated as attacks on individuals.

THE new penal code came near to being still-born. Its eventual passage came in dramatic circumstances, and required an emergency session of the Turkish Parliament. The government's earlier proposal of a clause criminalising adultery had brought the entire package of reforms under threat. The move to reintroduce the ban on adultery, which had been repealed in 1998, and make it punishable with either a fine or imprisonment provoked a wave of protest both within Turkey and across Europe.

Faced with the E.U.'s ultimatum to choose "either adultery or Europe" as the Turkish daily Cumhurriet described it, Turkey's leadership backed down. Voting on the penal code was suspended and the government withdrew the entire bill from Parliament after it became evident that a group of deputies of hardline Islamic orientation, including members from the ruling Justice and Development Party (Adalet ve Kalkinma Partisi or AKP) were planning to press forward with the clause to criminalise adultery.

The issue continued to create a massive stir in Turkey for many weeks before the E.U. deadline. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan travelled to Brussels for a meeting with the E.U.'s Enlargement Commissioner Guenter Verheugen in the third week of September. "No item which is not already included in the draft of the Turkish criminal code will be included and I mean by that the issue of adultery," Erdogan clarified in Brussels. From the E.U.'s part, Commissioner Verheugen declared that there were no hurdles to beginning talks on Turkey's membership, thus indicating the drift of his forthcoming report on Turkey. "We have been able to find solutions to the remaining outstanding problems," Verheugen said, and added that "there are no further conditions which Turkey must fulfil".

It is unclear why the adultery issue was raised in the first place. It is more of a mystery given that Erdogan and Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul have assiduously worked to further the cause of Turkey's E.U. membership. Many important reforms have been initiated over the past 18 months in the attempt to fulfil the political, economic and legal criteria for E.U. membership. These include a ban on the death penalty, changes to the courts, the Constitution and the civil code, the treatment of minorities and the military's role in government. The Turkish military highcommand constitutes an independent centre of decision-making and the E.U. has been insisting on a much greater political control over the military.

The timing of the adultery controversy, just when Turkey was on the point of getting an E.U. approval, has puzzled many observers. Turkey has been granted E.U.'s candidate-member status since 1999. Turkish newspapers speculating on the issue highlighted the Prime Minister's dilemma in an almost entirely Muslim country which looks to a future in Europe. Cumhurriet said that Erdogan was attempting to consolidate the conservative support base of the Justice Party. According to the daily Posta, the Prime Minister would have to perform a difficult balancing act to retain the support of hardline Muslim groups after backing down on the adultery issue.

THE AKP was started just three years ago. The party's roots are Islamic and it came to power in November 2002 amidst fears that Erdogan, its founder, intended to impose an Islamisation programme on the country. Erdogan himself could not be a candidate in that election because of a 1999 conviction on charges of attempting to undermine the foundations of the Turkish Republic. Since that time, the AKP can be said to have learnt much from the experience of another Turkish Islamic party, Refah, which was in power for a year under Necmettin Erbakan, who was forced by the military to resign in 1997.

The military remains a powerful factor in Turkish politics. It has seized power on three occasions since the 1960s in order to uphold the secular Kemalist state. The military regards itself as the guarantor of the secular republic founded early in the 20th century by Kemal Ataturk. It exercises power through the National Security Council (MGK), which includes the President, the Prime Minister and five senior Generals.

The AKP enjoys a big majority in Turkey's Parliament. Its extraordinary performance was for the most part a result of the economic crisis of 2001, which affected even the middle classes for the first time, and was in keeping with the revival of Islamic parties in the country stemming from the economic crises of the mid-1990s. It was a time when the affirmation of religious values accompanied the general disillusionment with the corruption and bankruptcy of the old system.

Erdogan is viewed as belonging to that generation of politicians that has moved a long way from its Islamic roots. Deposed Prime Minister Erbakan was once his mentor, but the 1990s had a moderating influence on Erdogan when Turkey entered the era of the free market. Abdullah Gul, a close associate of Erdogan, describes the AKP as a "conservative and democratic party". Erdogan himself has declared that the reforms being undertaken by the AKP are necessary not only for entering the E.U. but also for Turkey's own democratisation.

The AKP fared very well in local elections in March this year, taking nearly 43 per cent of the votes. Moreover, it was the only party to have registered a sizable presence across the country. However, it continues to face opposition from the secular establishment, namely, the military, the judiciary and the bureaucracy. The party's plans to reform the higher education system, for instance, faces stiff opposition from the Council for Higher Education.

The party now has a stronger and wider mandate across the country, thus effectively becoming the representative of the country's Anatolian majority, which accounts for 90 per cent of the country's population. The conservatives, with their roots in Anatolia, have become bolder in recent years and wear religious symbols like the headscarf. On the other hand, a ban dating back to the founding of the modern Turkish state prohibits state employees from wearing the headscarf or turban. In fact, some women leaders of the AKP could not contest the elections because they cover their heads. The party's core voters are expected to put more pressure on Erdogan on the headscarf issue. The Prime Minister will face more vigorous pressure on the issue from militant Islamic groups like the Milli Gorus, as had happened during the recent debate over the adultery issue.

Sign in to Unlock member-only benefits!
  • Bookmark stories to read later.
  • Comment on stories to start conversations.
  • Subscribe to our newsletters.
  • Get notified about discounts and offers to our products.
Sign in


Comments have to be in English, and in full sentences. They cannot be abusive or personal. Please abide to our community guidelines for posting your comment