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Democracy's hall of mirrors in the post-Gezi world? A call for global dialogue

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With the Ergenekon verdict, Turkey was to put behind it a history of coup d’états, and to open a new page by convicting generals (whose raison d’etre for the past 30 years was to fight terrorism) for participating in what is now officially a ‘terrorist organization’.

Oguz Alyanak
19 August 2013

Last week, Turkish democracy was put to the test as a local court reached a verdict on what is known as the Ergenekon trial—which began in 2008 as an investigation on the formation of a clandestine organization (Ergenekon) to overthrow the government—and concluded with the judges handing out aggravated and consecutive life sentences to over a dozen individuals, including the ex-Chief of Staff, former Turkish generals and Commander of the First Army in Turkey as well as prolonged sentences to a vast list of politicians, journalists, lawyers, professors, rectors and civil society representatives.

That the judges of this trial sentenced military generals would in itself suffice to make this verdict a historic one. However, the coup attempt, as was concluded by the verdict, was greater than a simple scheme of the military. Ergenekon was a rhizomatic organism with roots reaching into different corners of political, economic, social and intellectual life, and master-minded by a total of 275 defendants.

Ergenekon as a democratic paradox?

With the trial having reached a verdict, we are now at the stage where we discuss whether a big step has been taken in Turkey’s never-ending journey towards democracy or whether Ergenekon was even the right problem to address. These are questions that are discussed loudly in the Turkish media these days and the answers vary. The verdict was appreciated for pointing out the elephant in the room. Also known as the “deep state” [derin devlet], the five-year trial had undertaken the monumental task of dispensing with a clandestine organization that had originated even before the Turkish Republic was founded and lingered on to spread its strangling roots deep into existing institutions—a point made with precision by journalist/political scientist Nuray Mert. Ergenekon, in this sense, was to mark the judicial approval of the AKP’s efforts to dispense with the remnants of the Kemalist regime, and of its attempts to establish a classless, corporatist society where the national interest should override factional ones. With the Ergenekon verdict, Turkey was to put behind it a history of coup d’états, and to open a new page. Within this perspective, the trial was a success, even “a milestone for Turkish democracy” in that the judiciary was able to confront the military openly for its attempted intervention in politics and convict generals  (whose raison d’etre for the past 30 years was to fight terrorism) for participating in what is now officially a ‘terrorist organization’.

However, equally true was the other side of the medallion—thus marking the paradox— that in cleansing politics of the remnants of one regime, of the memory of one kind of corporatism, and of one deep state, the AKP was simultaneously giving birth to a new one. In this sense, the verdict was not so much a failure as, “a dark chapter in Turkey’s history”, in that it was yet another opportunity for the ruling Justice and Development Party to use the rhetoric on national security to deal with criticism and to further consolidate distrust in Turkish institutions—thus finding the legitimacy to transform these institutions and invent new rules and regulations for organizing social life.

But how could the same verdict be both commended and regretted, considered the result of both a democratic trial and an undemocratic, broad witch-hunt? How could it be fair and unfair at the same time? How could it represent both a move towards demilitarization and authoritarianism, seen as exemplary of the triumph of Turkish judiciary and its very failure, representative of the voice of the people yet also the voice of their very entrenched divisions?

Losing hope in democracy in the post-Gezi world?

The paradox that Turkey faces makes sense if we compare it with other examples—as people on the street also do on an everyday basis. As people turn on their TVs and witness the American state ganging up with firms such as Facebook and Google against the people and see protests suppressed in Greece or Brazil in a fashion similar to the way it was done in their own country, questions pop up: “When others do it, it is democracy, it is acceptable. When we [Turkey] do it, it is considered bad and unacceptable,” are words that I have been hearing often around me mainly by the opponents of the Gezi protests, as a new regime of distrust settles in the post-Gezi world.

Police violence, I am told, exists everywhere—look at how they treat the Occupy protestors in the United States or anti-G8 protestors in the U.K.; look at Brazil. But is it really acceptable to use such measures, I ask, and then I am directed to examples like Syria, Egypt and other non-functional post-Arab Spring examples. Are these the only examples we have before us? Do we get to choose only from among bad examples? Will complete chaos follow if the army or the police decide not to intervene?

I stand behind the protests not because I take particular pleasure in chaos. But in a world lacking a strong role model to instill in us the faith lost in democracy and to remind us again why in the post-World War II world, democracy was chosen as “the natural environment for the protection and effective realization of human rights” - these protests provided us with alternative words such as “respect” and spaces such as local forums, which at least carry the capacity, as Nilufer Gole wrote, “to bring people together in a convivial way.”

Today, what frustrates many of us with democratic standards is that we see no possibility that an alternative reality can be constructed by the people. Democracy lacks the momentum to transform that alternate image into reality. In Turkey, when one form of nostalgia—for a Kemalist past—is taken down, another, neo-Ottoman one is installed. What we get is the recycling of actors within the given structure; one deep state replacing another, one form of elitism giving way to another, one instrument of oppression exchanged with another.

Up until last month, with the Gezi Protest spreading and consequently suppressed, Gezi Park, like Occupy on the Brooklyn Bridge gave many of us the hope that the awareness that a structural critique was much in need was out there on the streets. Both Occupy and Gezi were able to show that what was wrong was far more than simply a politician, political party, or even a particular country, but rather a system that scavenged on reproducing power inequality in politics, economics and society. It was as much the state as neoliberal economics and as much politicians as nationalism that perpetuated the fault lines at all costs which force us to believe that we live in a country divided. But today, it is almost as if we, as individuals, are nevertheless conditioned to construct a social imaginary only within this prescribed vocabulary. There seems to be no room to construct something new and extraordinary that would jettison the given normative frame.

Turkey is not the only country struggling with paradoxes of democracy. However, what is fearsome in Turkey is that these paradoxes push us further to lose trust in democratically established institutions, such as the legislative, executive and judiciary branches of the state, where each—under the democratic principle of the separation of powers—is equally empowered and equally responsible for checking on the other to make sure that no one institution has the monopoly. Experiencing problems in its implementation, we look for failures in the theory. Yet, equally important is to question how and by whom the theory gets to be transformed into practice. As one consequence of the Ergenekon trial, Professors Acemoglu and Robinson expect the rule of law in Turkey to suffer the most. The law will be perceived as an instrument of suppression more than an instrument of democratic rights and freedoms. And when this occurs, it is our belief in a democracy that is obstructed.

It is within this light that we need to reconsider the Ergenekon trial. In terms of Turkey facing its past, Ergenekon is a step taken in the right direction. However, in terms of the missing elements in Turkey’s past that it cannot furnish, or the existing ones that it endeavors to repeat, it is a failure.

The questions that it leaves us with are not sui-generis to Turkish democracy. Democracies around the world continuously undertake undemocratic measures and use double-talk in approaching the developments at the periphery. As human life loses its value while being transformed into a mere voyeuristic fetish object (in France, the U.K. or the U.S.), into the mere casualties of a revolution (as in Egypt and Syria), or into the two sides of a showdown (as in Turkey), trust in democratic institutions suffers the most. What is much needed, then, instead of these make-believe democracies with their interminable frustrations, is a collective, global dialogue that extends beyond national borders on what democracy really is.

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