BACKGROUND: The Kurdish policy of the Turkish state during the 1990’s, the heyday of the military’s struggle against the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), became the object of criticism of the liberal intellectuals. These pointed out that the Kurdish question was being used to uphold a security state, which is prone to violations of basic human rights in the name the “interests” of the state, territorial and national integrity. Furthermore, they argued that the struggle against PKK not only led to restrictions of the liberties of the Kurdish population but also undermined the democratic development of the whole country.
The motto of the Turkish state during this era was “We need unity and togetherness more than ever”. This proposition implied that critics should keep their silence while the army was fighting against the internal enemy. The demand for silence aimed to shield the state, ensuring that the illegal methods and massive human rights violations in the fight against the Kurdish militants were not brought to public attention and scrutinized.
This is the background that explains why the “solution process” that was initiated by the Justice and Development Party (AKP) government in January 2013 to end the conflict with the Kurds was greeted by liberals as a watershed for Turkey’s democratization process. The government’s announced determination to solve the longstanding Kurdish problem promised to promote democratization as it meant that the militarization and securitization of the previous decades was going to end. The Kurdish question was finally going to be settled by political means instead of military instruments and security based discourses.
However, contrary to these expectations, the “solution process” has turned into a mechanism, which serves to exempt the AKP government from any kind of criticism. During the Gezi Protests last year, AKP officials claimed that the protesters had a secret agenda and that their intention was to sabotage the peace process by subverting the AKP government. In a similar vein, AKP officials reacted to the graft probe in December 2013 as a coup attempt and argued that the aim of Gülenist public prosecutors and police chiefs, who were allegedly plotting against the government, was to derail the process to solve the Kurdish problem.
The view that the “solution process” is something that confers immunity on the government lay behind the mass resignation of 19 columnists from the daily Taraf in April 2013. Taraf had served as the main battleship of the campaign of the AKP against the military, but it had become increasingly critical of the government. In a public letter, the resigning columnists accused Taraf’s editorial policy of undermining the peace process by emphasizing the democratic deficits of the AKP government and of the Kurdish movement. According to the columnists who left the daily in protest, peace stands above all other details and the actors of the peace-making process, the AKP government and PKK, should not be weakened by having their failures in other areas pointed out.
By making this argument, the intellectuals and pundits were repeating the pattern of the 1990s in an inverted form. While politicians, generals and bureaucrats during the 1990s were saying that it was absolutely essential not to voice criticism against the state “because we are fighting the PKK”, AKP circles and pro-AKP pundits are today mandating silence “because we are making peace with PKK”.
The strategies of the Turkish state to deal with the Kurdish question has undergone a dramatic change since the 1990s; but what has remained constant is the state’s stance toward the freedom of expression.
IMPLICATIONS: In fact, since the party’s arrival to power in 2002, the AKP and its supporters in the media have perfected the strategy to set goals that are impeccable in moral and liberal democratic terms in order to neuter the influence of political rivals.
The first step of this strategy consists of setting down a goal, which is incontestably moral and democratic. The AKP’s struggle to end the military’s tutelage over civilian politics was supported by the liberal and democratic intellectuals and ensured the support of international actors like the European Union. But the intellectual guardians of the AKP were quick to condemn those who raised question marks regarding the methods of the anti-military campaign. The critics of the irregularities of the judicial process in the Ergenekon and Sledgehammer cases were accused of having a pro-coup mindset. Extra-judicial practices were excused because they served a politically correct point, the elimination of military from the political space.
Similarly, following the graft probe, AKP officials and supporters in the media accused the followers of Fethullah Gülen of attempting to subvert the government; and this excused the intervention of the government into the judiciary. The AKP government presented its efforts to eliminate the “parallel state” as a fight for the supremacy of the democratically elected government. Measures taken to achieve this goal justified the government’s violation of the principle of separation of powers.
The “solution process,” which aims to cease the conflict between the Turkish state and the PKK, is another example of the AKP’s survival strategy. The government and its intellectual defendants assure that the “solution process” is going to produce peace, and the implication is that the government should not be criticized and weakened as it is engaged in this endeavor. Everyone is called upon to rally around the goal of achieving “peace.”
The second step of the AKP’s strategy consists in bypassing the democratic process in order to reach the outcome. The ruling party of Turkey has repeatedly demonstrated that it uses lofty goals like democratization to severely restrict the freedom of expression and to suspend the rule of law; “peace” is another such goal.
The “solution process” is executed in a non-transparent way, behind closed doors; its contents are not shared with the public. The framework and the roadmap of the process remain well-guarded government secrets. Even the parliamentarians of the AKP lack information about what the “solution process” is, and they recently expressed frustration about this at a party gathering chaired by AKP leader and Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu.
Secondly, the goal of achieving “peace” is used by AKP officials and pro-AKP pundits to harass critics; any attempt to question the government’s standpoint in the “solution process” leads immediately to the critics being labeled as belonging to the “war lobby”. Thirdly, the AKP government and its intellectual guardians view the AKP’s keeping its power as the sine qua non condition for the continuation of the “solution process”. Thus, they support the implementation of legal measures and restrictions, which restrict the public’s right to be informed. The National Intelligence Agency (MİT), which is shielded by law from judicial control, has been assigned as the responsible agency for the coordination of the “solution process.” And when the police chief in the city of Bingöl was killed during the violence that broke out in Turkey’s Kurdish-dominated southeast in the beginning of October, a broadcast ban was put it into effect. The AKP’s strategy in conducting the “solution process” thus rests on three pillars: keeping the contents of the process secret, and the stigmatization and intimidation of those who raise questions regarding the process.
CONCLUSIONS: The Turkish state has a long history of violating the basic liberties of its citizens in the name of its security needs. The Turkish state has historically been successful in convincing the citizens that their rights matter less than the interests of the state, and that the security of the state requires unity and sacrifice on the part of the citizens. States usually make such demands in times of war. In this sense, Turkey has been on a perpetual war footing for decades. The power of the state expands in times of war; paradoxically, the alleged needs of peace with PKK are similarly used to legitimize state power at the expense of democratic rights in Turkey today.
Contrary to what was previously the case, the Turkish state’s authority over the citizens and the suspension of the democratic practices are being justified by a discourse of peace and the “solution process”.
Nevertheless, the AKP’s strategy does not alter the fact that authoritarianism is ultimately built by manipulating the security needs of the citizens. Only, it underlines that “peace” – as it is understood by the AKP government – can be just as viable as a strategy to secure and defend authoritarian power as war. That, in turn, raises the question if the current quest for “peace” on these particular terms is morally superior to the previous practices of the Turkish state.
Burak Bilgehan Özpek is Associate Professor in the Department of International Relations in TOBB University of Economics and Technology, Ankara.
(Image Attribution: http://www.basbakanlik.gov.tr/)