Authoritarian Shifts and the Façade of Democracy in Turkey
During the first decade of the new millennium, there was a widespread belief that Turkey was on its way to become a democratic, human rights-respecting country. Today, after nearly two decades of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) rule, the country is frequently referred to as a personal dictatorship, a 21st century-sultanate, or a hybrid regime at best. How did the rule of law, democratic institutions and mechanisms, and human rights conditions in Turkey deteriorate so rapidly? The answer requires a contextual analysis of the policies pursued by the AKP and its leader Recep Tayyip Erdoğan with attention to the target of these policies and the role they and other actors played in facilitating the authoritarian downturn. Thus, the discussion evolves around the following arguments: (1) the AKP rule and Erdoğan’s authoritarianism do not constitute a major deviation from the practice of politics in Turkey; (2) in addition to populism, the party pursued various policies that served the interests or demands of different groups (e.g., Turkish liberals and leftists, Kurdish leaders, the United States, the European Union, and the Western academia and press), which then helped the AKP to consolidate its power; and (3) the shift from democratic reforms toward authoritarian control took place circa 2007, much earlier than the commonly accepted turning points of the 2011 elections or the repression of Gezi Park demonstrations in 2013. Emphasizing Erdoğan’s reliance on maintaining a façade of democracy, the paper also contends that this façade allows the opposition some room that the opposition parties and groups, as well as the international supporters of democracy and human rights, need to use wisely.
In dem ersten Jahrzehnt des neuen Jahrtausends schien die Türkei auf dem Weg zu einem demokratischen Land zu sein, das die Menschenrechte achtet. Heute, nach fast zwei Jahrzehnten Regierungszeit der Partei für Gerechtigkeit und Entwicklung (AKP), wird das Land jedoch häufig als eine Diktatur, ein Sultanat des 21. Jahrhunderts oder bestenfalls als ein hybrides Regime bezeichnet. Wie haben sich die Rechtsstaatlichkeit, die demokratischen Institutionen und Verfahren sowie die Menschenrechtslage in der Türkei so rasch verschlechtert? Die Antwort erfordert eine Kontextanalyse der von der AKP und ihrem Parteiführer Recep Tayyip Erdoğan verfolgten Politik, ihrer Ziele sowie dem Zusammenspiel der Akteure bei dem Rückfall in den Autoritarismus. Die Diskussion kreist um folgende Thesen: (1) Die AKP-Regierung und der Autoritarismus von Erdoğan stellen keine wesentliche Abweichung von der politischen Praxis in der Türkei dar. (2) Neben dem Populismus verfolgte die Partei Vorgehensweisen, die den Interessen verschiedener Gruppierungen dienten (z.B. den türkischen Liberalen und Linken, kurdischen Führern, den Vereinigten Staaten, der Europäischen Union und der westlichen Wissenschaft und Presse). Dies half der AKP bei der Konsolidierung ihrer Macht; (3) Der Übergang von demokratischen Reformen zu autoritärer Kontrolle spielte sich um 2007 ab, viel früher als die üblich geltenden Wendepunkte im Zuge der Wahlen 2011 oder der Niederschlagung der Demonstrationen im Gezi-Park 2013. Betonend, dass Erdoğan die demokratische Fassade verlässlich aufrechterhält, behauptet der Beitrag außerdem, dass genau diese Fassade einen Spielraum schafft, welche Oppositionsparteien und -gruppen sowie internationale Verfechter der Demokratie und Menschenrechte klug nutzen sollen.
"Democracy is a street car that we take to reach our destination, then we hop off."
R.T. Erdogan, Milliyet, July 14, 1996
"Don’t you know it’s darkest before the dawn
And it’s this thought keeps me moving on"
During the first decade of the new millennium, there was a widespread belief that Turkey was on its way to become a democratic, human rights-respecting country. Increasing public awareness and vigilance about human rights and successive governments’ willingness to accommodate them, at least in order to meet the European Union’s membership criteria, signaled a promising future. Although some doubts about the level of commitment and the effective implementation of reforms remained (Arat 2007), high hopes about the direction of change were shared by a majority of Turkey’s citizens, as well as international observers.
Today, the country is frequently referred to as a personal dictatorship, a 21st century-sultanate, or a hybrid regime at best (Bayulgen et al. 2018). Academics and journalists have been under siege, and their dismissal and prosecution, as well as those of many state employees, became a routine practice under the state of emergency declared after the aborted coup of July 2016. Travel restrictions, the government takeover of media and business outlets, seizure of elected local governments, and other forms of repression against all “suspected” opposition reached an all-time high. Referring to the treatment of journalists as a “witch hunt waged by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government against its media critics,” Reporters Without Borders assigned Turkey the rank of 157 out of 180 countries on its World Freedom of Press Index both for 2018 and 2019. While violence against women has been on the rise, the government is engaged in a process of reversing egalitarian policies adopted during the reform period. The demands for equality in dignity by LGBT+ groups have not been only ignored but repressed through various mechanisms. International human rights organizations have documented a range of human rights violations, impunity, routine prosecution, and frequent arrests and imprisonment of many, including human rights advocates, on yet to be documented charges of terrorism and treason. According to the President of Turkey’s Court of Cassation, as of November 2017, eight percent of the country’s population was under investigation. The independence of the judiciary severely compromised, the law has become a government weapon against its political opponents and other critics.
How did the rule of law, democratic institutions and mechanisms, and human rights conditions in Turkey deteriorate so rapidly? The answer demands contextualization of events, highlighting some turning points and recognizing the role of a range of actors. Contrary to the common perception, the erosion started much before the repressive policies that emerged after the 2011 elections and escalated following the 2013 Gezi Park demonstrations. Neither did Erdogan achieve the unprecedented executive authority and control over the entire state apparatus single-handedly. While he might have been successful in hiding his authoritarian plans, even from his own comrades, the rise and consolidation of his party’s rule were enabled by many (e.g., Turkish liberals and leftists, Kurdish leaders, the United States, the European Union, and the Western Press). Moreover, the conduct of his Justice and Development Party (AKP) does not constitute a major deviation from the practice of politics in Turkey, where democratic aspiration has been strong but commitment weak – both among the political elite and the public – as democratic principles and institutions were frequently sacrificed for some other goals. The yearning for democracy, however, forces leaders to pledge an allegiance and keeps the country bouncing back from authoritarian downturns. Erdogan’s current effort to maintain a façade of democracy allows the opposition some room, but its effective use requires careful assessment by all national and international supporters of democracy and human rights.
2. Deficient Democracy and the Deficit of Democrats: The Context
Since its establishment in 1923, the Republic of Turkey has been wavering between democratic aspirations and authoritarian impulses. The democratic rule was interrupted by three military coups and other interventions and was compromised by undemocratic policies of elected governments. In a way, the democracy deficit has been aided, if not caused, by a deficit of democrats.
Yet, with all of its flaws, the country maintained a special position in the region, where continuous repressive authoritarian rule has been the norm. In Turkey, promotion of human rights and democratic institutions have not been absent even though far from being complete or stable. The advancement of human rights did coexist with repression (Arat 2019b, 2016). For example, the 1920s and 1930s witnessed the promotion of free public education and women’s rights, alongside the bombings and forced migration of Kurds, as well as the repression of religious groups and left-wing politics. Similarly, the 1961 Constitution ushered in the principles for a “rights-respecting” state, while also introducing agencies that established the military tutelage over civilian rule. The 1990s recorded various legislative reforms, constitutional amendments, and creation of state agencies toward improving human rights, while also involving a state of emergency in Kurdish majority provinces that curtailed practically all rights, persecution of the media, and disappearances, as well as banning head-scarved women from entering university premises.
From this historical perspective, the incongruous rule of the AKP since 2002 is not an exception, though the current form of state terrorism and disregard for the rule of law are unprecedented. The military governments that followed coups in 1960, 1971 and 1980 were brutal and involved massive arrests, numerous public servant dismissals, torture, and even executions, but none of them had the broad and seemingly arbitrary arrests and punishments exercised by the AKP since the 2015 elections. While the military rulers suspended some laws and institutions, the AKP simply took over or dismantled them.
The AKP came to power in the midst of an economic crisis but also at a time of relative calm in the activities of the Kurdish militia PKK, which had been engaged in a war with the Turkish military since the mid-1980s. A reform process that was launched in an effort to facilitate Turkey’s candidacy to the European Union (EU) was also in progress.
Being the “reformist” split from the religious Virtue Party (Fazilet Partisi, FP), which had been closed down by the Constitutional Court in 2001, the AKP leaders distanced themselves from the FP’s conservative outlook (Cizre 2008). Claiming that they left their radical and militant past behind in favor of secularism, they emphasized a non-religious rhetoric, preferred to be branded as “Conservative Democrats,” and assumed a pro-human rights and pro-EU platform. In addition to being pro-reform, the AKP invoked a sense of victimhood, presenting itself and its core constituency – conservative Sunnite Muslims – as a group that has been politically repressed and socially rejected due to the state policies of laicism/secularism pursued since the 1920s. These grievances were not completely unfounded, as various religious parties had been accused of attempting to establish Sharia rule and closed down by the Constitutional Court, the teaching and practice of Islam were guided and controlled by the state, and restrictions were placed on any expression of religion by public servants. On the other hand, various religious parties participated in coalition governments and ran municipal governments over the years, and the military government established after the 1980 coup buttressed religious education as an anti-left, anti-communist measure (similar to the U.S. approach and policies in the region). Despite this fertile ground that enabled the rise of the AKP and the fact that the party has been in power for nearly two decades, Erdogan continues to capitalize on this sense of exclusion and “victimhood,” which still seems to resonate with the conservative religious segments of the society.
3. The AKP’s Political Strategies and Supporters
In addition to playing the “victimhood card” to mobilize its core constituency, the AKP also pursued a range of policies to expand its appeal, garner the support of secularist groups, and appease NATO, EU and other western allies. Among these policies, which sometimes involved abrupt switches or contradictory elements, we can highlight the following: embracing neoliberal economics, which was pushed both by the IMF and the EU but also pleased various business groups in Turkey (Eder 2011); launching the initiative of “the alliance of civilizations” that reinforced its “moderate Muslim” image both at home and abroad; seeking ways to end the military tutelage that was welcomed by liberal and left-wing progressives who had suffered the most under the military regimes and courts; inviting secularist liberals and leftists to participate in various government initiatives (including nominating and appointing them to political positions); using charity, clientelism, and selective endorsement of public services to gain the support of rural and urban poor; using various mechanisms, including granting national and municipal government contracts, to support the development of Islamist “green capital” and gain the loyalty of non-religious business people; in sync with the EU membership requirements, granting some cultural rights to Kurds and property rights to non-Muslim minority communities; and, on-and-off peace initiatives that engaged Kurdish nationalists, signaling to them there was finally a “Turkish” government willing to negotiate with them.
However, between the peace talks, and sometimes while the negotiations were ongoing, Kurdish rights advocates and elected politicians would be subject to persecution and prosecution. This strategy of oscillation between negotiation and repression can be taken as an effort to please, or at least appease, Turkish nationalists (both on the right and left), as well as the military. The harassment of Kurds was pursued to serve two additional political goals. First, it intended to weaken the political capital of nationalist Kurds in the eastern provinces and secure the electoral support of religious Kurds. Second, it could satisfy its long-time ally, the Gülenist network, which espoused Turkish nationalism and a certain version of pan-Islamism, despite preaching inter-faith dialogue.
“Gülenist” refers to the follower of a Muslim cleric, Fetullah Gülen, who has been living in the United States since 1999. The Gülen network – a murky global organization, the modus operandi of which resembles a combination of cult, missionary service, and mafia – was an ally of the AKP since the inception of the party. Gülenists infiltrated the state agencies such as the judiciary, police force, and the Ministry of Education, both with and without the knowledge and blessing of the AKP (see, Arat 2016, 2019b, Taş 2018, Şık. 2000).
Most analysts take the post-2011 elections as the turning point in the AKP policies, marking a switch from pursuing human rights reforms to becoming increasingly restrictive and authoritarian. They recognize the Gezi Park protests of 2013 as the first major resistance to this trend and the government’s disproportional use of power against the protestors as the first overt expression of the AKP leadership’s authoritarianism. However, a closer inspection of the above-mentioned strategies and policies pursued by successive AKP governments and its leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan would reveal that the handwriting was on the wall at least since the 2007 elections. What happened during those four years between 2007 and 2011 is crucial to understanding how the progressive, pro-human rights path on which the country was set starting in the late 1990s gave way to a situation of chaos and whimsical rule by a defiant and vengeful leader.
4. The Earlier Signs
Due process rights have never been secure in Turkey, although some improvements were made in the early 2000s, when a series of legislative reform packages were adopted to harmonize the country’s laws and institutions with those of the EU (Arat/Smith 2014). The most spectacular abuses, however, emerged in relation to the investigation and prosecution of the Ergenekon and Sledgehammer cases. “Ergenekon” was the name that prosecutors gave to a supposed clandestine organization of some secularist Turkish nationalists who conspired to destabilize the country and topple the AKP government. The allegations and investigations that started in 2007 led to the indictment of over 500 people within a year. The Ergenekon trials, along with the case of Operation Sledgehammer that involved similar charges, were supported by the liberal press and some left-wing intellectuals for attempting to curb the political influence of the military (Ersoy/Üstüner 2016). Ending the military oversight and control over politics was also required by the EU. But the investigations and arrests quickly turned into a witch hunt (Rodrik 2010). Hundreds of people – military officers (including top generals), judges, journalists, media executives, trade unionists, academics, university presidents, television personalities, and others who were accused of anti-government conspiracy and plotting coup – were detained and held for extended periods without charge. The indictments were issued by using and citing what would later be proven “fabricated” events, institutions and evidence. Although the retrial of these cases resulted in acquittals, the trials marked the beginning of a tradition of using the courts against the government opposition. Fallacious arrests or years-long detentions without charges have become a common practice, targeting Kurdish politicians and elected officials, intellectuals, human rights activists, and university students who demonstrate against the government or simply demand free education. As Gülenist prosecutors, judges and police officers carried out pre-dawn raids, false indictments, and harsh penalties, many liberals and leftists turned a blind eye to the military officers’ false and improper prosecution. Later, especially after the 2016 coup attempt, liberals and leftists, as well as Gülenists, became the targets of the same kind of accusation and treatment themselves.
The 2010 referendum for constitutional amendments was another turning point. The amendment package included some improvements in the constitution that had been designed by the military in 1982, in preparation for returning to electoral politics. The 1982 Constitution was restrictive by all means and meant to reinforce the military oversight over civilian governments. Several of its articles were amended over the years. In 2010, the AKP was particularly interested in changing the judicial appointment processes and the workings of the high courts. Constituting the most controversial provisions of the amendment package, these included expanding the executive power over the judiciary through direct appointments to the high courts and participation of the Ministry of Justice at the meetings of the Council of Judges and Prosecutors as its chair. These new mechanisms would allow the AKP to appoint its supporters, who at the time happened to be largely Gülenists, and guide the courts.
The two main opposition parties – the Republican People’s Party (CHP) and the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) – objected to the amendments mainly because of these provisions. The pro-Kurdish party decided not to participate in the referendum, as it could not bring itself to support it but also did not want to jeopardize the ongoing peace negotiations with the AKP government by calling for a “NO” vote and alienating it. Some leftists and liberals supported the amendments by launching a campaign called “not enough, but yes.” Despite being aware that the changes would compromise the separation of powers, they considered the AKP control over the judiciary as preferable to maintaining a non-partisan but ideologically “security-oriented” judiciary. Not foreseen by the boycotting Kurdish leaders or the “not enough, but yes“ campaigners was the takeover of the judiciary by the AKP’s ally Gülenists; they also underestimated the extent to which the referendum would bolster the ego of Erdogan and enhance the confidence and power of the AKP.
Major European countries and the EU also applauded the amendments as “progress,” although the European Council of Democracy through Law (also known as the Venice Commission) raised questions about their likely adverse impact on the independence of the judiciary. In fact, both the EU and the US had been fans of the AKP, despite some EU countries’ reluctance to grant membership to Turkey. The US President George W. Bush viewed the AKP-led Turkey as a model state of “moderate Islam” that would be a key constructive player in his “Greater Middle East Initiative/Project,” and both Bush and his successor Barack Obama, as well as their ambassadors to Turkey and other government officials, continuously praised the AKP government.
The majority of the Western media and academia echoed their governments and Turkish liberals. The AKP also cultivated the support of international academics and journalists through flattery, by granting them access to the party’s top leadership, who would then consciously or subconsciously express their gratitude by producing pro-AKP analyses and commentaries. Both national and international supporters of the AKP overlooked or whitewashed the problematic aspects of its policies, perhaps with a conviction that the benefits of the reform policies were worth the tradeoffs. In the process, however, they did not simply support the AKP government but weakened the already feeble opposition through constant and indiscriminate criticisms. Oversimplifying Turkey’s political cleavages, they boxed differences into “reactionary-secularist” and “progressive-religious” camps and sided with the latter in its “revenge match” with the former, which was also characterized as “the oppressive elite” in line with the AKP discourse.
It is true that the major opposition parties failed to propose viable policy alternatives, aggregate the interests of the discontented segments of the society effectively, and play a constructive role. In fact, they sometimes appeared to be resisting change for the sake of opposing the AKP. Yet, the European and US officials, and several foreign and Turkish journalists would lump all critics of AKP policies together and discredit them as staunch secularists who were concerned about losing their privileges and thus acting as nostalgic reactionaries. There were times that one could pick up a supposedly independent Turkish daily, or a foreign journal such as The New York Times, and read more criticisms of the opposition parties than the governing one.
Another landslide victory in the 2011 parliamentary elections boosted the AKP’s confidence further. Now, the military disgraced and restrained, parliamentary opposition weakened, and the judiciary increasingly under control, the government did not have to court and comfort liberals and could seek implementing its full agenda. Erdogan continued to intimidate journalists and others who criticized him by suing them for “defamation” and pressured their bosses to restrain and control them. To silence the public at large, the government used the restrictive clauses of laws to block hundreds of websites or search engines such as YouTube (Tunç 2013). The government’s attack and restrictions on traditional and social media outlets were intensified after the 2013 Gezi Park protests.
5. Overt and Increased Authoritarianism
Gezi Park protests started as a small environmentalist group’s effort to save a small park in central Istanbul from Erdogan’s construction plans but quickly turned into a country-wide protest movement against the government’s increasing authoritarianism, intrusion into lifestyle choices, and commercialization of the urban public space. These protests were notable for their spontaneity, use of social media, marking an unusual solidarity among ideologically and culturally diverse participants, and mobilizing a previously apolitical segment of the youth (Özkırımlı 2014). The government response was disproportional use of force and resulted in several casualties and injuries and the prosecution of participants for terrorism. After the 2016 coup attempt, the Gezi movement was branded as an uprising aimed at “annihilation of the Republic of Turkey and its government and obstructing government administration” and “involved terrorist organizations” such as Gülenists, PKK, and the Marxist DHKP/C and MLKP, “as active participants or supporters.”
The mobilization and solidarity of different groups demonstrated by the Gezi protests appeared promising. However, the movement ended up being short-lived, partially due to the participants’ reluctance to form an organization or join forces with the existing ones, and partially due to the weakness of the opposition parties.
The government repression increased after its once allied Gülenists turned against the AKP, not only revealing high-level corruptions by some cabinet members and their sons but also circulating audio-tapes that implicated Erdogan and his son. Following these “attacks” against the AKP in December 2013, Erdogan declared the Gülenist network a terrorist organization, now referred to by the acronym FETÖ (Fetullah Gülen Terrorist Organization). From this point on, Erdogan’s policies had to focus on remaining in power at all cost, since losing power would mean facing charges of rampant corruption. In other words, the struggle for power for Erdogan ceased to be just a political struggle but became an existential one.
The opposition parties’ inability to compromise and collaborate around some common denominators led to two more missed opportunities – the 2014 Presidential elections and the aftermath of the 2015 parliamentary elections. The main obstacle in both instances was the “Turkish nationalist” MHP’s unwillingness to join in any effort that involved the pro-Kurdish HDP (the Peoples’ Democratic Party), which it perceived as its antithesis and the principal threat to the country’s Turkish identity and territorial integrity. The CHP also embodied a Turkish nationalist segment, and, despite assuming a Social Democratic identity in the 1970s, it has been cold toward “the radical left” (socialists and communists) yet willing to accommodate and collaborate with the Islamists and Turkish nationalist parties. Thus, it worked with the MHP during the 2014 presidential elections and supported a religious candidate who had no mass appeal and turned off some segments even within the CHP’s core electorate. Consequently, Erdogan was elected President in the first run. When the AKP failed to acquire a majority in June 2015 parliamentary elections, the CHP sought to establish a three-party coalition that included both the HDP and MHP, but it could not convince the MHP, which a few years later became partners with the AKP.
Erdogan’s strategy, on the other hand, was cunningly masterful. Through successive and mostly quiet internal purges, he had already reduced the AKP into an apparatus of personal rule and a device for rewarding loyalties. After the June 2015 elections, he first created the impression that the AKP was seeking a coalition with different parties. Then, declaring the process unsuccessful, he called for new elections in November. In the ensuing situation of chaos and instability, he not only tried to restrict the opposition, particularly the HDP, but also convinced people that they had to bring the AKP to power as a majority government to enjoy peace and stability. The PKK and ISIS attacks inadvertently helped his strategy, and the AKP came out of the November 2015 elections as a smaller party but still able to form a majority government.
In the midst of this turmoil, only two weeks to the November 2015 elections, the German Chancellor Angela Merkel chose to ignore Erdogan’s undemocratic conduct and visited him to seek his help in blocking the flow of Syrian and other refugees from the Middle East and Asia. Merkel’s legitimizing move was later repeated by Theresa May, who arranged for Erdogan to have an audience with the Queen during his May 2018 visit to the United Kingdom (UK), in order to reinforce the UK-Turkey trade relations and ease the economic impact of the Brexit crises. Unsurprisingly, Erdogan used the spotlight to justify human rights violations in Turkey and denounce the jailed journalists as terrorists.
After securing the continuity of the AKP rule in November 2015, Erdogan started to go after the opposition with vengeance. Once again, the Kurdish majority provinces in the East became war zones. Massive bombings turned neighborhoods into rubbles, towns were put under siege, and curfews trapped civilians, making them unable to attend their wounded or bury the dead (United Nations 2017). When 1200 plus academics signed a petition in January 2016, calling for an end to “the massacre” and urging the government to revive the peace process, he charged them with aiding terrorism. They were fired from their posts, arrested, prosecuted and even imprisoned. Finally, referring to it as a “blessing from God,” Erdogan capitalized on the 2016 coup attempt and launched a massive “clean-up” effort to uproot Gülenists, the assumed architects and executors of the coup, from the civil and military bureaucracy, closed down their media outlets, schools and dormitories, and took over Gülenist business establishments. The charge of “belonging to the Gülenist network” started to be extended to all voices of dissent, on whimsical or no evidence.
Immediately after the coup attempt, the government had declared a state of emergency (with Turkish acronym OHAL). OHAL allows the government to rule by decrees, which have the power of law but can escape parliamentary or judiciary oversight, and permits loosening due process rights. Renewed every three months, OHAL became the de facto regime for two years after July 2016. It was under this emergency regime the country adopted another set of constitutional amendments.
Citizens of Turkey have been longing for a new, a human rights-protecting constitution that would be devised through a participant process and prepare the foundation for a lasting peace (Gunter 2012). The AKP government, however, single-handedly issued one that transferred practically all power to the office of Presidency (held by its leader Erdogan) and rushed for its adoption through a referendum carried out on April 16, 2017. Despite the restrictions placed by OHAL and copious harassments and attacks carried out by the government and its supporters, determined citizens managed to mobilize the public for the “NO” vote, but the AKP won the referendum by a slight margin. Its victory, however, was tainted by numerous allegations of irregularities and violations. Individuals’ and opposition parties’ legal challenges went nowhere, since the High Council of Elections (YSK) and courts had ceased to work as agencies independent from the executive branch.
Yet, the resilience demonstrated by the “NO” campaign was a spark, and the belief that they actually had the numbers to change the system helped mobilize people for the 2018 presidential and parliamentary elections. The elections, however, were hardly free. The government not only used its political and media power to garner support but also to impede activities of the opposition. The YSK, which is supposed to be an independent state agency but largely consisted of AKP appointees, failed to address the irregularity claims. The result was another victory for the AKP and Erdogan. On the other hand, when the municipal elections, held in March 2019, showed a clear decline in the AKP votes, allowing the opposition to win several major municipalities, including the posts of mayor in Istanbul and Ankara, the YSK was responsive to the AKP demands for investigation and scheduled new elections for the mayor of Istanbul. Moreover, the YSK nulled the election of several HDP mayors, claiming that they had not been eligible for elections due to their removal from their earlier elected posts under OHAL, and allowed the runner-up candidate to assume the office. The electorates’ choice was further affronted by the Ministry of Interior Affairs that accused the mayors of several Kurdish-majority cities for supporting terrorism, without a shard of evidence, and removed them from office.
Erdogan’s calls for the repeat of two major elections lost by his party – the June 2015 parliamentary elections and the 2019 Istanbul mayoral elections – also reveal his qualified endorsement of electoral democracy. By respecting the outcome of elections as long as they result in AKP victories, he shows that one can compete but would not be allowed to win or rule.
6. The Façade of Democracy and its Uses
As already noted, a main tactic of the AKP has been playing the innocent victim. Despite being in power for nearly two decades, Erdogan continues to use this “victim card” to deflate criticisms and accountability and to mobilize public support. Now, in addition to the internal threats that are all labeled “terrorists” – the secularists, Gülenists, Kurds, and leftists – he also claims that some foreign entities are behind all opposition and aimed at weakening Turkey and toppling the AKP government. Any criticism directed at him is treated as a part of this conspiracy and interpreted as a threat to the state and the country. “L’état, c’est moi” might have been coined by Louis XIV but is effectively personified by Erdogan.
However, public support is important to Erdogan. His successive landslide electoral victories in the past led him to promote “majoritarianism” and claim “public mandate” to justify his policies. His mastery of the voting processes and ability to manipulate elections through various mechanisms to yield favorable outcomes encourage him to call for elections and referendums. Continuing with the electoral process also provides a convenient façade of democracy. Thus, opposition groups and parties are allowed to exist, but he uses the judiciary as a weapon to suppress them. While he closed down most of the opposition media on charges of terrorism and is capable of doing so for the rest, he allows the operation of a few opposition outlets in order to maintain this façade of democracy. Yet, they are not left completely free, and their editors and journalists are intermittently subjected to attacks and prosecution.
His desire to legitimize his de facto one-man rule – clearly manifested since he became the President of the country in 2014 – by holding a constitutional referendum in 2017, was another attempt to maintain this democracy façade. He can claim that he is not an autocratic Sultan but an elected leader of a democratic state who is exercising his constitutional power. This façade also helps the EU, the U.S., and other allies save face in their dealings with Turkey.
This appeal to democracy through pretense, however, provides the opposition with some space to mobilize the public and challenge Erdogan’s policies and authority. But, in order to be effective, the opposition – both the public and political parties – has to establish a united front. Focusing on the common goal, instead of pointing out each other’s weaknesses, is needed more than ever. The challenge is to acknowledge one’s own past mistakes and work with others, who might have committed errors and wrongs in the past, without condemning them. It may not be the best time for the already small opposition media and left-wing intellectuals to hold the current CHP accountable for the anti-religious and anti-Kurdish repressions carried out during the CHP’s one-party rule in the 1920s and 1930s, since such criticisms only help Erdogan, who takes every opportunity to validate his claims of victimhood (as a Muslim repressed under staunch secularism) and to inflict conflict among potential allies (Kurdish politicians and the CHP).
As the MHP appears to be blended into the AKP in a Turkish nationalist alliance (though it may be using the alliance to revive its base), the CHP and the HDP – as well as the MHP-splinter Iyi Parti – can reevaluate their position and strategies and focus on the goal of restoring democratic mechanisms and the rule of law, which they all need. This requires the CHP to overcome its nationalist impulse and speak to the needs of impoverished and silenced masses. As the main opposition party, it should use its power and voice to publicize and denounce the rise of authoritarianism and repression in the country, instead of sticking to some nationalist pride and deflating foreign observers’ criticism of the current regime in Turkey. Most important, it should refrain from supporting AKP’s militarism, as it recently did by endorsing the government bill that allowed Turkey’s invasion of some Syrian provinces to curb the activities of Kurdish nationalists.
Similarly, the pro-Kurdish HDP, which is viewed by many liberals and leftists as more than an ethnic party and as the best hope for democracy in Turkey, should recognize that the votes that made it the third largest party comes from a broader constituency and learn to speak to broader interests. In fact, regardless of the rhetoric and detachment at the leadership level, the constituencies of these two parties have been cognizant of the importance of strengthening the other party and voting strategically at least since 2015. Many CHP followers voted for the HDP in 2015 and 2018 parliamentary elections to ensure that the HDP passed the 10 percent threshold and entered the parliament. Similarly, some HDP voters supported the CHP candidate Muharrem Ince at the presidential elections, despite the fact that the HDP had its own candidate.
The HDP leadership acknowledged the importance of this electoral alliance by signaling its sizable electorate in major metropolises to support the mayoral candidates put out by the CHP and allies to increase their chances against the AKP-MHP alliance. The HDP should also refrain from directly or indirectly supporting Erdogan’s agenda. This requires taking a clear position against violence and focusing on the present problems and threats in seeking alliances. As indicated earlier, in addition to provoking polarization, Erdogan has been adept at pursuing the strategy of divide and rule.
Perhaps the bigger onus on this matter falls on the CHP. If it is serious in restoring democracy and being a contender for power, it cannot continue to allow the AKP to be the only party that offers a solution to the Kurdish question; it has to present itself as the hope for a non-military solution. The party leadership has to put the grievances of Kurds on its agenda, emphatically acknowledge the legitimacy of the HDP, and seek an open dialogue with it, as it did in 2015, instead of trying to appeal to the Turkish nationalist and religious constituencies that constitute the AKP and MHP base. That base may be partially captured by the new right-wing parties recently established by former AKP leaders, who had held cabinet posts, including the post of Prime Minister but who were later discarded or estranged by Erdogan. The exigent task for the current opposition parties is to overcome the identity politics, which was inflamed by the military rulers in the 1980s to repress class-politics and was then grabbed by the AKP to revive the Turkish-Nationalist-Islamist identity as a mobilizing force. Turkey needs committed democrats who respect and protect the rights of all without discrimination, and democrats need to work together for democracy, which cannot be reduced to elections and majoritarianism.
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Zehra F. Kabasakal Arat ist Professorin für Politikwissenschaft an der Universität Conneticut, USA.