Turkey’s relations with the European Union (EU) are at a critical juncture. As of 2002, the process of adapting Turkey’s legal framework to the EU’s political membership criteria began in earnest. The legislative amendments carried out in this respect amount to one of the largest, most wide-ranging reform processes Turkey has ever experienced. At the level of legislation, it involves updating Turkey’s laws to ensure that the prerequisites of a stable, pluralist democracy are in place, and that human rights are respected. In order for these amendments to be passed, however, the reforms must also be continuously justified vis-à-vis key constituencies. In this respect, the reforms are not only interesting from the perspective of EU-Turkey relations. They come at a crucial time in Turkey’s domestic politics, and pose a challenge to some of the most fundamental divisions in the country’s political party system. For the secularist state elite, supporting the reforms entails loosening their grip on the state, and allowing the public expression of Muslim and Kurdish identities. For the Islamic party elites, it involves modifying their anti-Western rhetoric, and reconciling their interests with the universalist norms expressed in the EU’s membership criteria. Thus, successfully following through with the legal prerequisites of EU membership requires not only legal engineering, but also a radical shift in Turkey’s political culture.
Against this background, this thesis addresses the question of how representatives of Turkey’s largest political parties have framed the reforms in public discourse. Specifically, using a qualitative and quantitative content analysis, it analyzes the debates in Turkey’s Grand National Assembly regarding a selection of key adaptation packages, and measures to what extent Turkish MPs, when justifying or opposing the amendments, have distanced themselves from the antagonistic ideologies with which they have been associated in the past.
The analysis finds that they have. In general, all of the parties have moderated their antagonistic discourses, and have emphasized the inherent and universal validity of the norms underlying them. The only clear exception is the far-right Nationalist Action Party, whose MPs see the reforms as a threat to Turkey’s unity. Interestingly, the analysis also finds that among the more moderate parties, those traditionally associated with the secular, Westernized state elite have had the most difficulties in adapting to the EU’s criteria. The Islamic parties, including the Justice and Development Party currently in government, have consistently emphasized the need for strengthening civil society and guaranteeing the freedom of speech and conscience. Although this may to some extent be a matter of self-interest, there are also indications that this is not the case.