Unleashing nationalist and militarist elements in Turkish society

Depending on who one believes the country is either on the brink of civil war, or instead heroically participating in the Global War on Terror.

Julian de Medeiros
22 September 2015
Turkish soldiers on army parade , 2013.

Turkish soldiers on army parade , 2013. Demotix/Yiannis Kourtoglou.All rights reserved.In a recent column in the British newspaper The Guardian, Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu argued that by ignoring the humanitarian effects of the war in Syria, western countries ‘may potentially bring out the demons we thought we had buried long ago’.  The accusation is an oddly ironic one, as the Prime Minister’s party is currently on a mission to awaken Turkey’s own demons in what can only be interpreted as an attempt to reclaim the faltering majority it once enjoyed in parliament.

The flip side to this gamble, that an already AKP-wary public may see the conflict for what it is, and vote for more peaceful alternatives, may be the only way to steer Turkey away from its current collision course. In a country that prides itself on progress, everyone is currently losing. And as a result, even the infamous slant of majoritarianism in Turkish politics is undergoing a transformation into new and more vocal manifestations of nationalism and militarism. Yet after energizing the nationalist element of Turkish politics, the AKP may struggle to put the genie back in the bottle. For a party that came into power on the promise of peace with the Kurds and a diminished role of the military in Turkish society, the current conflict threatens to undo its decade-spanning political vision.

A curious paradox surrounds the persona of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. On the one hand, his AKP Government has mainstreamed conspiratorial accusations against ‘lobbies’ ‘traitors’ and ‘foreign agents’. Yet alternately, analysts and researchers have become hooked to a narrative of daily outrage in which Turkey’s controversial President is described as ‘sultan’ ‘dictator’ and ‘despot’. This is particularly true in the current climate. Depending on who one believes the country is either on the brink of civil war, or instead heroically participating in the Global War on Terror. In such an increasingly polarized media environment, with tensions escalating on both sides, the fringe elements of Turkish society, both on the left and right have seen opportunity to take centre stage, and the Government has done little to disguise where it’s sympathies lie.

Already the glaring injustice of the daily incarcerations of opponents for ‘insulting’ the President, while doing nothing to combat the recent attacks on media and HDP headquarters has become increasingly contentious. Yet arguably the critique of Erdoğan’s authoritarian style has become a trope in its own right. Instead, as every day more Turkish soldiers and policemen, not to mention the thousands of PKK militants, succumb to the already deathly toll of a conflict that since its inception has cost the lives of more than 40,000, the authoritarian whims of the current Government should no longer be dismissed as political squabbling, but as the final throes of a party that has lost its identity. Whether the AKP will be voted back into power or not, it will be unrecognizable from its original form. 

In this light, the resurgence of the Kurdish issue exists in two ideological realms. On the one hand, the renewed conflict in Turkey’s south-east can be seen a repeat of the 2009 campaign, simply rebooted under the guise of the War on Terror. On the other, it can be argued that the entry of the Kurdish-oriented HDP into Turkish parliamentary politics was so divisive a setback to the existing hierarchy, that the current conflict serves as a means by which to vilify and isolate the Kurdish vote, and as an attempt to rally the nationalist fringes of Turkish society.

Yet to start a military campaign also means allowing the Turkish military to gain significant traction. This constitutes a clear setback to the AKP, as it had been the first and only party to sideline the influence of the military in Turkish politics. As such, it would be an overgeneralization to suggest that Erdoğan and his party can simply command the nationalist vote as it pleases. Rather, as Halil M. Karaveli recently suggested in the New York Times, the current crisis with the Kurds will usher in an increased visibility of the military elite, and will make it much more difficult for the AKP to define the nationalist agenda without conceding some influence to the generals. Already the shift away from the AKP controlled intelligence services (MIT), towards an expanded role of the military, is a first indication of more to come. The effects of a strengthened military-class with an increasing stake in a continuation of the AKP Government can only bode ill for the future of democratic practice in Turkey.

This then seems to be the true effect of the current troubles; that the democratic process in modern Turkey exists as a convenient mantle for majoritarianism, rather than promoting pluralism and inclusiveness. The daily acts of violence that have come to characterize the harsh edges of such an isolationist interpretation of democracy are not only the result of previously dormant fault-lines in Turkish society, but rather the direct outcome of a deliberate strategy of polarization under which the AKP government has sought to consolidate its power. The sad irony is that the previous election, which was widely interpreted as a vote against such policies, has simply spurned the conservative and nationalist elements in the ruling party to sharpen their rhetoric and bring the country precariously close to (civil) war. Between a faltering economy and a stagnating political system, previously dormant elements of Turkish society will see their chance to make a comeback.

The deeper issue, and the bigger gamble, is that the AKP may have transformed into a party that can no longer justify its position in times of peace – and as such will continue to exploit the deepest of divides in Turkish society, no matter what the cost. As such, the repeated western outcry against the worsening state of press freedoms in Turkey, while no doubt heartfelt, is really beside the point. It is not the lack of press freedoms that are keeping Turkey back from being a well-functioning democracy. Instead, the daily outrages are indicative of a society that has become convinced that democracy is a zero-sum game of malicious dictators, nationalist zealots, and leftist conspirators.

It is a picture that has been carefully cultivated to promote the AKP as the safest bet in Turkish politics. And if the prospect of an election amidst such chaos seems ludicrous, then surely the hypothetical alternative –a state of emergency without a definitive government, is equally unappealing. Of course much may still change before November 1, yet already the upcoming election will be remembered not as a vote of pluralism, but instead as a referendum on the conflict with the Kurds, and on the future of the more aggressive, internationally isolated, and divided New Turkey.

The question then is no longer whether Turkey can sustain itself as a so-called bridge between East and West, but rather if the country’s destiny is to be an open democratic society, or a similitude of democracy paralyzed by the entrapments of its socio-political divides.

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