The false promise of Turkish democracy

In its first real test after the end of military control, Turkish democracy has failed. If democracy cannot keep its promise and bring peace, then what can?

Murat Ulgul
7 August 2015
Istanbul protest at government's cessation of peace process with PKK, July, 2015.

Istanbul protest at government's cessation of peace process with PKK, July, 2015. Demotix/Erhan Demirtas. All rights reserved.In spite of being one of the only polities in the Middle East considered as a democracy-model for other Muslim nations by American administrations, Turkey has had an uneasy relationship with democracy throughout its history.

While its founding fathers desired western-style governance, Turkey’s first twenty-seven years passed under a single-party regime whose opposition parties were closed or banned when they contradicted the ruling Kemalist ideology. In response to the Soviet threat following the Second World War, the regime adopted multi-party elections in order to be accepted into the western bloc. Yet when the founding Republican People’s Party lost power to the Democrat Party in 1950, the military emerged as the ultimate power in Turkish politics.

Starting with the military coup in 1960, the military intervened in every decade – in 1971, 1980 and 1997 – whenever they believed the Kemalist ideology and state security were under threat. As a result, although there were civilian regimes and electoral politics in the political system, the Turkish people have rarely experienced genuine democracy almost throughout their entire history.

The picture changed in 2007 when the pro-Islamist Justice and Development Party (AKP) and the military challenged each other over Abdullah Gul’s nomination to the presidency. Although Turkey’s military opposed an Islamist politician’s candidacy, the election following the disagreement ended with the AKP’s victory, which significantly diminished military prestige. A year later, this prestige declined further as some retired soldiers, even a former chief of army staff, were accused of, and put on trial for, planning a coup. With these developments, military control of Turkish politics ended and Turkish politics entered a truly democratic stage for the first time in its history.

The Kurdish question

This democratization process raised hopes on many issues, but especially on the Kurdish question. Since 1923, both the founding fathers and the military chose to end the Kurdish question through military and economic means while social and political concessions were avoided, using the argument that they may be the first step on the way to an independent Kurdish state.

Since its formation, AKP leaders, especially president Recep Tayyip Erdogan, have opposed militarist policies and in 2009, when the military no longer controlled politics, the party started out on important cultural and political reforms. With the confidence of being a single party government, the AKP started the Democratic Opening process in 2009 and met with several Kurdish groups in order to understand Kurdish grievances. During this period, violence between the state and the PKK terrorist organization diminished as indirect contacts between both sides were established. In 2013, the government announced a Democracy Package which included some cultural reforms and a “solution process” designed to curtail the long-lasting violence. All these policies, which could not have been undertaken in the period of military control, were the result of democratization. The promise was the solution to the long-lasting Kurdish question.Yet, democracy is never a perfect political system and may intensify existing problems, especially once personal and party interests are at stake. After ending the military control of politics, the AKP seemingly slowed democratic consolidation in Turkey. Accession to the European Union, which had been the central focus between 2002 and 2007, was removed from the agenda, while growing religiosity in politics and excessive police repression during the Gezi park protests in 2013 raised question about the AKP’s commitment to democracy.

However, despite domestic and international criticism, Ankara did not step back from the solution process in this period until it came to the recent elections in June 2015. Due to electoral concerns, the AKP suspended the solution process during the pre-election period while charismatic Kurdish leader Selahattin Demirtas’ moderate speeches increased his popularity not only in the Kurdish region but in western Turkey as well. Consequently, the AKP lost around 9 per cent of the vote compared to the 2011 elections while both the ethnic-Turkish Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) and ethnic-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) increased their votes. The AKP lost its ability to form a single-party government by losing its parliamentary majority.

This electoral result has changed all the political equations in Turkey. While the MHP increased its opposition both to the solution process and to the HDP’s presence in the assembly, the AKP also played on Turkish nationalist sentiment by accusing the HDP of being on the same side as the PKK terrorist organization. Speeches by AKP officials implied that the government has no desire to continue the solution process which, they believe, cost them their parliamentarian majority. The Suruc massacre by an ISIS member led to further deterioration of the situation. Following the attack, which killed 32 people, the HDP blamed the government and intelligence agencies for not preventing the attack, while the PKK initiated a terrorist campaign by killing Turkish security officers and kidnapping people.

This has given the AKP and MHP more of a chance to increase their militarist-nationalist rhetoric, while the HDP has proved unable to criticize the PKK, again mainly out of its own electoral concerns in southeast Turkey. All parties have chosen to fight rather than take the last steps in the solution process.

Consequently, all the political parties are starting to follow the same paths they took in the 1990s. While the PKK organizes terrorist attacks, the Turkish army hits the PKK camps in northern Iraq and both the MHP and AKP have started a political campaign to remove Kurdish parliamentarians’ immunity.

The situation today shows that Turkey’s problem with democracy is more structural and normative than simply a civil-military relations problem. With a politically-aggressive military removed, Turkish politicians are still unable to play by the rules of democracy, as both the AKP and MHP are unwilling to recognize the HDP’s electoral gains. At the same time, the HDP cannot effectively differentiate itself from PKK terrorism, as its leaders cannot criticize the organization.

But most importantly, all sides expend all their effort on protecting their personal and party interests instead of fixing the system that they broke. In its first real test after the end of military control, Turkish democracy has failed. If democracy cannot keep its promise and bring peace, then what can?

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