Monday, 05 December 2011

Has Erdogan Reached His "Democratic Limits"?

Published in Articles

By Halil M. Karaveli (vol. 4, no. 23 of the Turkey Analyst) 

Internal and external dynamics no longer compel Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to transcend his democratic limits. It was the confluence of a particular set of external and internal dynamics that worked to ensure the Turkish Islamists’ conversion to democracy. These dynamics are no longer at work. Instead, as Turkey’s strategic value – and Erdoğan’s international fame – has soared in the wake of the Arab revolutions, traditional Turkish state authoritarianism is being offered a new lease on life.

BACKGROUND:  Faced with some criticism in the media after the arrests on November 1, 2011 of prominent intellectuals Professor Büşra Ersanlı, publisher and human rights activist Ragıp Zarakolu and twenty one Kurdish activists on charges of “supporting terrorism”, Prime Minister Erdoğan retorted that “liberties are not unlimited”. In a recent interview in the liberal daily Taraf, the former deputy chairman of the Justice and Development Party (AKP), Dengir Mir Mehmet Fırat, worries that Erdoğan may have reached his democratic limits:  “We all have our limits, and it may be that Mr. Tayyip has reached his. He could very well say, “What do you want from me? What more are you asking from me?” speculated Fırat. Erdoğan, he suggested, may have come to believe that he has already been accommodating enough toward the Kurds, as the state television now broadcasts a Kurdish-language channel.

The former deputy chairman of the AKP, who is a Kurd, says that he has lost hope that a new, liberal constitution will be drafted by the current parliament. The Republican People’s Party (CHP) and the Nationalist Action Party (MHP) have made clear that they will not concede to any changes of the Turkish nationalist ideological content of the constitution, with which the ruling AKP has in turn concurred. The constitution announces that the Turkish republic embraces “Atatürkist nationalism” and that the state and the nation form an indivisible unity. It is the promulgation of Turkish nationalism as the ideology of the state and the imposition of Turkishness on the whole of society with which liberals and Kurds have taken issue. “If these articles of the constitution are to be preserved, then there is no point in drafting a new constitution”, remarks Fırat.

Yet, as he also points out, changes that widen the scope of civil liberties might very well be enacted without changing the constitution; the resistance of the CHP and MHP does not absolve the AKP government which has no excuse for not rewriting the anti-terror law, which severely circumscribes the freedom of expression, making the mere advocacy of extended Kurdish rights liable for prosecution.

IMPLICATIONS: In the 1990s, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan once stated that “democracy is a streetcar that you get off once you have reached your destination”. At the time, many assumed that the “destination” in question would prove to be some version of Sharia-rule; today, however, the evidence is accumulating that state authoritarianism in the traditional Turkish mould is where Erdoğan is getting off.

The fears that the AKP would turn Turkey into an Islamic state have subsided; indeed, the issue of secularism has ceased to occupy the center stage of Turkish politics. It is no longer the rallying call of the opposition to the AKP; instead, Erdoğan is now exhorting Egyptians and others in the Middle East to emulate “secularism” of the Turkish variety. That conversion is in fact less consequential than it would seem, because the officially secular Turkish republic has always been a Sunni state in disguise. Alongside Turkish nationalism, the authoritarian Turkish state has made use of Sunni Islam – the constitution mandates compulsory education in Sunni Islam and a state directorate of religious affairs promotes Sunni Islam at the expense of other denominations -- in order to keep society in check. The new holders of state power are no less sensitive about preserving the prerogatives of the state; commenting on the mass arrests of Kurdish representatives, Prime Minister Erdoğan recently stated that “We are not going to tolerate a parallel state within state; if saying this amounts to statism and nationalism, then I am indeed statist and nationalist.”

It was the confluence of a particular set of external and internal dynamics that worked to ensure the Turkish Islamists’ conversion to democracy; these dynamics are no longer at work. The Islamists became democratic converts out of necessity; by refashioning themselves as democratic reformists, by appropriating a liberal reform agenda, they succeeded in dispelling the concerns about their aims in the West, while they gained legitimacy well beyond their core constituency at home. Set against the old holders and defenders of authoritarian state power, the generals and their supporters in society, the reformist AKP could not but appear democratic.

Indeed, even though the AKP has by now fit comfortably into the constitutional costume bequeathed by the generals, positioning itself as the antithesis of kemalism still pays off, enabling the AKP to lay claim to the higher, democratic ground. On November 23, 2011, Erdoğan offered an “apology” in the name of the state for the ethnocide that was committed by the Turkish armed forces against the Alevi Kurds in the province of Dersim, (today called Tunceli) in 1938. In fact, Erdoğan had seized a golden opportunity to assail the CHP, which was the state party at the time, after a CHP parliamentarian in heretical terms had called on his party to acknowledge its responsibility for the ethnocide in Dersim. That had put the hapless leader of the CHP, Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, who hails from Dersim, but who cannot afford to alienate the Kemalists who dominate the party, in a quandary. “If there is any such thing stipulated in the literature, then by all means, I do offer my apology in the name of the state, but you are the one who ought to apologize in the name of the CHP mentality, since you claim to be the leader of a “new CHP”. Now, let’s see if you will save your honor”, blasted Erdoğan.

The leader of the CHP retorted that the prime minister had used “the language of the Armenian Diaspora”, and predicted that Erdoğan would next apologize to the Armenians. Kılıçdaroğlu came out of the affair humiliated, as someone who is unable to speak up about a tragedy in which members of his own family had perished. Erdoğan meanwhile, reaped praise from pro-government commentators who hailed him as a “courageous” leader who had made history.  Yet, Erdoğan is not casting himself as another Mikhail Gorbachev, the last leader of the Soviet Union, who encouraged “glasnost”, openness, about past atrocities. In the same speech in which he denounced the CHP for its responsibility for the Dersim massacre, Erdoğan also admonished the AKP parliamentarian who had most actively pursued the Dersim issue not to involve himself further in the matter; “Enough is enough”, Erdoğan said. A week later, a proposal by the pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) to appoint a parliamentary commission to investigate what had transpired in Dersim was voted down by the AKP in parliament.

In practice, the AKP’s and the CHP’s views on ethnic diversity differ little. The Dersim “apology” notwithstanding, the AKP is yet to unequivocally disengage from the statist-nationalist stance of which the Dersim massacre was an extreme, but for the 1930’s not untypical, expression. What had prompted the Turkish state to attack its own citizens in Dersim was their resistance to bend to the dictate of the state that they conform to the identity that it prescribed. Erdoğan is yet to come to terms with the implications of the fact that the Kurds in Turkey are a distinct people. “Education in the mother tongue (for the Kurds) is not something that lies within Erdoğan’s democratic limits”, says Dengir Mir Mehmet Fırat, the former deputy chairman of the AKP. Nor are there any signs that the party of the Sunni conservatives is prepared to recognize the Alevis as the equals of the Sunnis, and committed to ensuring that they are no longer discriminated against by the state.

CONCLUSIONS: When the AKP came to power nearly a decade ago, calls for a liberal reform agenda resonated among wide sections of the electorate. The specter of EU membership held a powerful appeal. Today, the AKP is much less prompted to pursue liberal reform; not only has the AKP little need any more to prove its reformist credentials, since the generals have been defeated, but the attitudes of the electorate have changed as well. With Turkey seemingly on the rise as a political and economic power, EU membership has ceased to hold the attraction it once did. That, in turn, means that the entrenched nationalism of Turkish society is no longer challenged by an alternative, liberal vision.

The AKP government is also bound to feel emboldened by the apparent success – so far – of the military and political campaign waged against the Kurdish movement; the Turkish army seems to be prevailing against the PKK, while the political arm of the Kurdish movement has been crippled by the mass arrests. The Turkish government may well have concluded that it is on the right track toward solving the Kurdish issue, since the crackdown on Kurdish representatives has not triggered any protests among the Kurdish population, although the AKP did suffer significant losses in the Kurdish provinces in the June 2011 general election.

Somewhat paradoxically, the international perception of Turkey as a rising, economic and political power, as a  “model” for the rest of the Middle East, could also have an adverse effect on the country’s democratic prospects. Turkey’s strategic value has soared in the wake of the Arab revolutions, and Erdoğan has, as the former deputy chairman of the AKP notes, gained international fame. Dengir Mir Mehmet Fırat allows for the possibility that becoming a world political figure might help Erdoğan disengage from inherited political habits, but he warns of the dangers that come with such fame, as the temptation to assume that he knows best could prove difficult to resist: “Let’s hope that Erdoğan has transcended his own (democratic) limits and attained the universal as a result of his international contacts.” But that assumes that universal values are indeed a primary point of reference in those contacts.

Halil M. Karaveli is Senior Fellow and Managing Editor of theTurkey Analystat the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program Joint Center.

© Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program Joint Center, 2010. This article may be reprinted provided that the following sentence be included: "This article was first published in the Turkey Analyst (, a biweekly publication of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program Joint Center".

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The Turkey Analyst is a publication of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Joint Center, designed to bring authoritative analysis and news on the rapidly developing domestic and foreign policy issues in Turkey. It includes topical analysis, as well as a summary of the Turkish media debate.


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