Turkey's “passive revolution” and democracy

A near-decade of rule by strategic, business-friendly, moderate Islamists has transformed Turkey’s political dynamics. Now, the prospect of a third successive electoral victory seems to offer the Justice & Development Party (AKP) a chance to consolidate its hegemony over the once entrenched military-led “deep state”. But the situation is not so simple for the AKP, nor so clear for Turkey’s future. Rather, increasing domestic tension and regional turbulence are posing critical new questions over the country’s democracy and model of governance, says Kerem Oktem.
Kerem Oktem
9 June 2011

In the late evening of 12 June 2011, the central squares and main avenues of Turkey’s cities will be filled with buoyant crowds celebrating the third successive election victory of the Justice & Development Party (AKP). That, at least, is the scenario virtually all Turkey’s pollsters and commentators agree on - and it is hard, on the eve of the vote, to envisage any unexpected twist that would prove them wrong. Perhaps even a major armed confrontation between the military and the nationalist Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) in the southeastern provinces would at this stage only affect the result at the margin.

Where the pundits disagree is over some of the key details of the result: whether the AKP will be able to reach a two-thirds majority in parliament, to what extent the opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) will catch up, whether the Nationalist Action Party (MHP) will pass the 10% threshold to qualify for seats in parliament, and - an issue less discussed but no less important - how many Kurdish nationalist candidates and their socialist allies, who run as independents to circumvent the threshold, will be elected and to what extent the Kurds will be represented in the new parliament.

The near-certainty of another AKP victory ostensibly makes this Turkish election look like any other since the mildly Islamist party took office in November 2002. Yet if the country has enjoyed relative stability and impressive economic growth over the last decade, the build-up to the 12 June elections has exposed the fragility both of Turkey’s current political balance and the precariousness of this recent success story. 

The signs of a new turbulence are manifold in domestic and foreign policy alike. An authoritarian escalation has been intensifying on several fronts, from incidents of violent policing to interference with the campaigns of independent and socialist candidates; and the country seems to be backtracking to its default state of semi-democratic muddling through, this time moreover without the relative safety of a European anchor. The momentous transformations towards more inclusive political regimes which Turkey’s Arab neighbours are undergoing have caught Turkey’s much-heralded “model” of an “Islamic democracy” at a bad moment.   

Amid these uncertainties and disjunctions, the Economist and the New York Times’s suggestions that the AKP might have overstayed its welcome have provoked much indignation in government circles. The elections may be unlikely to bring the contender to power, yet Turkey’s governance is entering a choppy period. What, then, are the country’s prospects? 

The passive revolution

The beginnings of an answer to this question might be found by looking at the evolution of the AKP and its relationship to Turkey’s changing society.

The AKP was the less conservative heir of the more staunchly Islamist Refah Partisi (Welfare Party) and the Fazilet Partisi (Virtue Party), both of which in turn stood in the tradition of Turkey's Milli Gorus (National View) movement; these parties were banned by Turkey's constitutional court in (respectively) 1998 and 2001. Refah had been able to transform its electoral base from its original quasi-revolutionary mix of disenfranchised and ideologically excitable Islamists to a business-minded middle-class concerned to maintain the economic status quo.

The AKP has continued this process but also taken it to a new level, in what the Berkeley-based sociologist Cihan Tuğal has branded as a “passive revolution”. By winning further support among the emerging conservative middle classes, the party has allowed associated religious brotherhoods and social networks to extend their influence from the margins of society to the very centre of power.

The overall outcome has been to displace the hitherto omnipotent Kemalist political and economic elites, whose decades-long rule was guaranteed by the backing of the Republic of Turkey’s core institutions - mainly the army, judiciary, and bureaucracy. These elites have been virulently opposed at every stage to their emerging rivals’ “long march through the institutions”, and have employed many tactics to attempt to derail it: behind-the-scenes manipulation, cynical coup plans, the staging of terrorist actions by extreme-nationalist provocateurs, the murder of Christian missionaries and citizens (in the mid-2000s), and legal efforts to abort the election of Abdullah Gül as president (in 2007) and to close the ruling party (in 2008). Even all this has failed to prevent the Kemalist bloc’s loss of power or the decline in influence of the networks of Turkey’s derin devlet (“deep state”).

A major landmark in the confrontation between Turkey’s old and rising power-structures has been a multidimensional court case begun in 2008 (and still continuing), usually referred to as Ergenekon. The first tranche of several prosecutions against a cluster of senior military personnel, politicians, journalists and their henchmen signaled the AKP government’s intention to undertake a reckoning with Turkey’s “guardian state”, as the “deep state” is also known.  

The party’s courage in challenging a military establishment that has wreaked havoc with Turkey’s political arena since the beginning of multiparty politics in the 1950s - and even more since the military coup of 1980 - is very much to its credit. Many suspicious incidents, never fully investigated, indicate the obstacles it had to overcome: prominent among them the Susurluk scandal in 1996, when the untangling of a car-crash revealed the extent of the collusion between the Turkish military, political leaders, contract-killers and Kurdish tribal forces to fuel the war in the east.

By the time of the scandal in Semdinli in 2005 - when members of the gendarmerie were caught red-handed as they tried to bomb a Kurdish bookshop on the orders of their superiors, with the express goal of inflaming further violence - the AKP government was not yet confident enough to act firmly, but only a few years later in 2008 and for the first time in Turkish history the masterminds of the parallel security state were taken into detention.

The Ergenekon detentions were indeed a turning-point, in that almost instantly the murders of Christians and the attacks by extreme nationalist associations on critical intellectuals such as Orhan Pamuk and Elif Şafak stopped. At the same time, as the investigation morphed into the wider Ergenekon process, the initial promise of justice and transparency was to be disappointed. The trials were conducted by overzealous prosecutors trained in the authoritarian mindset of Turkey’s high judiciary, facing an overflowing dock of accused whose flexible, informal and longstanding (and allegedly conspiratorial) networks were for convenience and propaganda advantage rebranded and simplified as the “Ergenekon terror organisation”. Some investigative journalists who were following the case even found themselves eventually charged. 

Turkey’s liberals and democrats had hoped that the Ergenekon processes would result in the complete disclosure of the machinations of the “deep state”, including over the murder of the Turkish-Armenian journalist Hrant Dink and others. But like any previous Turkish government, the AKP - after settling scores with its erstwhile enemies, namely leading military officers, journalists and other public figures - seems to have chosen to accommodate their remnants in order to consolidate its new order. The risk now, in mid-2011, is that the Ergenekon court case turns into a farce.

This accommodationist turn in the AKP’s policy, whereby the party’s neuralgic centre around prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has artfully exploited the Ergenekon proceedings to solidify its power-base, is fully in accord with the mindset of a “passive revolution”. The party has preferred to avoid an aggressive challenge to the old Kemalist elites, in favour of using constitutional amendments and bureaucratic manoeuvres gradually to replace or demote their members.

By this process, the Justice & Development Party leaders have sought to reshape the military, judiciary and bureaucracy in the mould of a more religious Turkish identity. But in a diabolical (or dialectical) twist, their attitudes on a whole range of issues suggest that the AKP leaders themselves have been reshaped in the image of their Kemalist adversaries.  

A significant doctrinal contrast remains over Kemalist secularism - a deeply illiberal, anti-clerical and control-obsessed rendering of the relations between state and religion. But in other respects the AKP now looks as authoritarian and nationalist as its Kemalist predecessors, across a range of issues - such as violence against students protesting the government’s neo-liberal education policy, mounting pressure on oppositional newspapers, government initiatives to control the internet.

This return to the divisive language and authoritarian reflexes of the 1990s is reinforced by the diminishing prospects of an early accession to the European Union and thus the decreasing potency of the EU “anchor”, which have created space for the more socially conservative elements of the AKP (which is, after all, a party rooted in its Islamist heritage) to become more visible in routine policy formulation. For example, restrictions on the sale of alcohol in shops and for young people under 24 - a completely random age-limit - were averted only after a decision by the highest administrative court. 

The danger of escalation

In an atmosphere where restrictions on freedom of thought and expression are felt ever more clearly - particularly outside the cosmopolitan centres of western Turkey - perhaps the most worrying are developments in the Kurdish southeast.  

The AKP government’s “Kurdish opening” attempted to respond to the challenge of Kurdish ethno-nationalism by extending some basic cultural and educational rights, while targeting the legal representatives of the Kurdish movement. A series of questionable court cases saw around 2,000 mayors, municipal employees and members of the pro-Kurdish Peace & Democracy Party (BDP) taken into detention. The humiliating images of handcuffed Kurdish mayors lined up in front of prison-gates featured on Turkey’s habitually gory and irresponsible TV news shows.  

To its architects, the logic of a strategy that mixed concession and repression looked appealing: now that the military conspirators were checked, the Kurds would be won over by a combination of individual rights, an affirmation of Muslim brotherhood, economic incentives and infrastructure projects - while the pro-Kurdish parties would be crushed in one sweep.

To be fair to the AKP, the court case against the “Kurdish Communities Union” (KCK) - according to the indictment a front organisation of the PKK - is widely believed to have been prepared by deep-state actors within the judiciary. There is little doubt, however, that the government (probably after internal disagreements between liberal and nationalist wings of the AKP) erred on the side of repression and embraced the KCK trial, which is rendering Kurdish legal politics all but impossible.  

Yet, the strategy was based on two faulty assumptions: the military conspirators are alive and well, and no ethno-political conflict was ever solved by isolating and repressing the representative of one of the two sides. The latter point is particularly true for a political party such as the BDP, seen by most Kurds as the legal arm of the Kurdish liberation movement and as guarantor for the survival of Kurdish identity in what is still a country, whose institutions and text-books are defined by the principles of Turkish ethno-nationalism.  

A number of gruelling cases in the few weeks before the election has brought this truth close to home. Kurdish municipalities and activists, inspired by the Arab uprisings, set up “democracy tents” as an act of civil disobedience and to demonstrate in favour of a peaceful solution of the military conflict. Within a few days, TV screens filled with images of the police’s destruction of the tents and their dragging Kurdish politicians away through the mud.

Against this background, an escalation of attacks by the armed forces provoked the PKK, the armed wing of the Kurdish nationalist movement, to rescind its unilateral ceasefire. A gruesome incident in the unruly mountainous region of Dersim, Tunceli province, saw the mutilated bodies of ten PKK guerrillas presented to their families. Their eyes had been gouged out and ears cut off. The message was clear: the deep state is back, and the military is following orders.

The addressees of this dehumanising show were not the grieving parents, however; rather, the act was a wider reminder to the Ankara government that it is not calling the shots in Kurdistan. But neither Recep Tayyip Erdogan nor his close aides - who have failed to disown the KCK case - appear to have received the message.  

This escalation could be seen as part of the polarising pre-election atmosphere, in which Erdogan’s vitriolic leadership style is now being matched by his main contender, Kemal Kilicdaroglu of the Republican People’s Party. But the re-empowerment of the guardians and the AKP government’s strategic deficiencies are also key to understanding the worrisome deterioration in the Kurdish provinces and the growing incidence of political violence across the country. It appears that Erdogan and his cadres are blinded by the power they believe they have secured. They now think of the state as “theirs”. They might be proven wrong.  

The decisive election

This poisonous political environment does not bode well for Turkey. But the country has long experience of such tough periods, and the way this one develops could be affected by what happens in the election on 12 June.  

The most important variable, in the context of an almost certain AKP victory, will be the constellation of the power of political parties relative to each other. The AKP’s approval-ratings vary between 40%-50%, while the CHP has edged up to around 30% - an improved performance compared to that under Deniz Baykal, who was removed from the leadership in 2010 in an inner-party coup. The MHP, deeply troubled by the same kind of sex-videos scandal that toppled Baykal, could fail to reach the 10% threshold.

An MHP out of parliament and an AKP with more than 40% of the vote would almost certainly ensure the ruling party the two-thirds majority in parliament it needs to change the constitution on its own. A weaker result for the AKP, combined with a strong CHP presence and an MHP in parliament would impede the constitutional-reform process, without undermining the AKP’s majority rule.

This election will hence also be decisive for the AKP’s constitutional-reform project. This began as an attempt to revise the deeply illiberal constitution introduced by the junta that took power in 1980. If my reading of the party’s current authoritarian shift is accurate, hopes for a constitution based on a substantive commitment to the rule of law and liberal-democratic principles now seem less realistic. More likely would be an illiberal constitution, this time inspired by Islamic nationalist rather than secular values, together with a change from a parliamentary to a presidential democracy (a pet project of Erdogan’s inner circle); these would amount to a massive step towards a consolidated hegemony of the AKP elites and its supporters, and away from the hopes for a Europe-oriented democracy.

But if the AKP were to emerge from the elections short of the 367 votes needed to pass constitutional amendments without having to go through referenda, there may be a chance for a scenario where constitutional change evolves towards a more consensual direction. The stakes are very high.

The Republican People’s Party has been for most of its history part of the state establishment and deeply involved in the Turkish political system’s endemic manipulations. More recently it has appeared to undergo an impressive transition - at least in terms of its discourse and election manifesto - towards becoming a social-democratic alternative to the AKP, involving the input of talented young people from outside the party membership.

The reinvention of an isolationist ethno-nationalist party acting on a rather cynical notion of state reason has come slightly too quickly and smoothly to be entirely convincing, however. For instance, some of the architects of the “new CHP” are strong Kemalists with strong anti-liberal and elitist reflexes; the party has appointed a few rather unseemly suspects of the Ergenekon case as parliamentary candidates; and many of the cadres who ensured the party’s role as an extension of the deep state remain firmly in place.  

The CHP is indeed a peculiar mix of committed democrats and nationalists, diehard Kemalists and leftwing Kurdish activists. Its current reality could be a party on the way to real democratic transition, or an interim phase of strategic alliance-making before the old guard steps out of the shadows to bring the guardians back to power. Until this ambiguity is resolved in favour of the former scenario, the CHP’s challenge to the AKP will remain inconclusive.

Finally, despite a growing number of cases of unlawful interference - such as the planting by the police of molotov cocktails in the election office of socialist independent candidate Sırrı Sürreya Önder - the alliance of Kurdish nationalist and socialist independents will probably have as many as thirty members of parliament. In terms of numbers, this is a small group; but it could play an important role in the process of constitutional reform, should consensual politics prevail. For a peaceful solution of the Kurdish problem, this might be one of the last chances.

After the party

Whatever the election outcome, the AKP’s third term in government will shape the future of Turkey’s democracy for a long time to come. An illiberal constitution and a tilt toward a presidential system would amount to full AKP hegemony and put the country on an uncertain path to Russian-style “sovereign democracy”, stronger Islamic orientations and less freedom for its citizens.

If it falls short of this transformative agenda, the AKP could muddle through - either by continuing its authoritarian trend or returning to a diluted pro-reform course. Beyond these, and if the worst-case scenario of a bloody return of the guardians can be avoided, the idea of the AKP cadres realising the need for a rational, democratic, forward-looking new strategy might be just conceivable.  

A reformed AKP government that listened to such a recommendation would reiterate the commitment to a democratic, European-oriented Turkey and sit down with the Kurdish nationalists to avert a prolonged destructive cycle of confrontation and violence. This change in perspective and policy would, however, require the AKP leadership to make very tough choices - including a new moderation from prime minister Erdogan, who seems to have become a liability for the party’s more liberal minds, but whose charisma still pulls the crowds in Turkey and in the places where the Arab public sphere is undergoing radical reinvention.

A change of this scale would also need to be part of a wider shift in Turkey’s political culture. A stronger CHP, which forswears its complicity in deep-state manipulation and reconsiders the more problematic aspects of its Kemalist legacy, could help. So could a convincing revival of the European anchor. Both would be little short of miraculous. More likely, for the time being at least, are even more nasty twist and turns.  

The Turkey that will begin to emerge on 13 June 2011 may soon in significant ways resemble the country before the dynamic three years of pro-European reform, 2002-05. There will be more deaths in Kurdistan, more police violence, more torture, more arbitrary detentions and more deep state. More broadly, it looks as if the AKP dream of an ever-expanding Islamic middle class, and of a “Muslim conservative democracy” might be nearing its end.  

The historic precedents of Turkey’s cyclical politics suggest that the resultant awakening will be painful, and is likely to be triggered either by political cataclysm or economic crisis. After all, people in Turkey have been voting for the AKP primarily because they were offered and have experienced a significant rise in their material wealth and access to public services.

Yet as with any capitalist boom, a bust is always within reach. Turkey’s history in recent decades is a textbook case of interconnected political and economic convulsions. After the elections, Turkey will be more “business as usual” than “model” for any neighbour. Miracles notwithstanding, of course.

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