External Affairs

The Turks Have Been Pushed into Bartering their Freedoms for Security

Until recently, it was the Turkish army that wrecked the country’s democratic prospects, but today it is the president, now emboldened by a crushing electoral victory, who will continue to curb the democratic rights of Turkey’s citizens

A Turkish flag hangs in the window of a building in Sirkeci, Istanbul. Credit: Richard Ha/Flickr, CC 2.0

A Turkish flag hangs in the window of a building in Sirkeci, Istanbul. Credit: Richard Ha/Flickr, CC 2.0

In an article for Today’s Zaman a day before the November 1 snap elections, Anwar Alam, an Indian professor at Zirve University in Gaziantep, noted that the people of Turkey were going to elect a government in the name of democracy without any prospect of democracy in their everyday life. The choice was a Hobbesian one, for a possible win for the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) would be tantamount to legitimising its authoritarian and increasingly majoritarian politics. Alam concluded: “Thus, unless Turkey undergoes the de-Turkification/de-statification of its national identity or sheds its culture of majoritarianism, the development of a democratic national identity is not possible.”

The results of the election show that neither de-Turkification nor an end to majoritarianism is in sight. In fact, the results point to the possibility of a potent mix of intense Turkish nationalism of the neo-Ottomanist variety and Islamic majoritarianism – both of which are hostile to the non-Turkish and non-Muslim or religion-neutral components of the polity – thereby destroying the already weak basis of democracy and civil rights in the country.

The mandate of the people can be rather cynically read as a well thought out preference for security and stability over democracy, freedoms and civil rights because five months ago the same people overwhelmingly expressed sentiments totally at odds with the latest result.

The AKP successfully reversed the results of the elections held in June in which no party was able to gain a parliamentary majority. In a matter of just five month, its vote share rose from 40.8% to 48.5%. Since a non-AKP coalition was impossible to build because of the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP)’s refusal to share power with the predominantly Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP), the electorate was actually faced with not only a Hobbesian but a Hobson’s choice as well in which they decided to vote for AKP. According to the Turkish constitution, a fractured mandate means holding elections repeatedly until a majority government is formed. So the people preferred an electorally buttressed autocracy to elections becoming a national pastime.

In fact, the elections were all about Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, the all-powerful president of Turkey, whose infinite ambitions and sinister propaganda strategies centring on security and stability determined the contours of the campaigns and the final outcome. The specrtre of terrorism by both the Kurdistan Workers’ Party and the Islamic State staring Turkey in the face, coupled with the absence of any credible political choice, clinched the victory of AKP.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan at the opening session of the Women-20 (W20) Summit in Istanbul, Turkey on October 16, 2015. Credit: G20 Pool/Salih Zeki Fazlioglu / Anadolu Agency

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan at the opening session of the Women-20 (W20) Summit in Istanbul, Turkey on October 16, 2015. Credit: G20 Pool/Salih Zeki Fazlioglu / Anadolu Agency

Soon after the June election results, this writer wrote in The Wire: “In all likelihood, we will hear in the days to come the shrill rhetoric of Turkish nationalism and anti-Kurd pronouncements much more than at any time in the recent past. The AKP’s propaganda will hark back to the perceived glories of the Ottoman Empire, while the secular nationalists will grow more nostalgic about the Kemalist period. The expressions of hatred against the Kurds and other non-Turkish minorities may become stronger. Turkey is entering a phase marked more by uncertainty than by secular or Islamic certitudes.”

This is precisely what happened in the run up to the elections, except that the Islamist certitudes stayed. Erdogan adroitly rode to a resounding victory on the fears of a polity gripped by fears of terrorism, instability and insecurity. The long-standing polarisation of Turks between a religiously conservative majority and a secular fundamentalist elite minority helped too, in spite of the massive disillusionment with Erdoğan’s arrogance and autocratic style as reflected in the June election results.

The AKP won 317 seats in the 550-strong parliament, coming perilously close to a two-thirds majority – which would have allowed it to amend the Constitution to fulfil Erdoğan’s dream of turning Turkey into an authoritarian presidency.

It is important to point out here, as Basak Alpan recently argued, that a typical trend in Turkish politics is that around 60% of the electorate always voted for the right-wing parties. This trend, he said, has shifted further rightwards from the 1990s when security emerged as the primary determinant of political preferences because of the end of Cold War internationally and the intense clashes between the PKK and the armed forces domestically.

Voters casting their ballots in Ankara on November 2015. Credit: OSCE Parliamentary Assembly/Flickr CC BY-SA 2.0

Voters casting their ballots in Ankara on November 2015. Credit: OSCE Parliamentary Assembly/Flickr CC BY-SA 2.0

Two factors differentiate the AKP from the right-wing political formations of the past. First, the party is a potent mix of Turkish nationalism and a rather mild form of culturally and nationalistically cushioned Islamism. Its nationalism is different in that it derives inspiration from the Ottoman glories, unlike the Kemalists who had no enthusiasm for the legacy of the Turkish caliphate. Its Islamism too is different in that it does not call for the immediate implementation of a Sharia-controlled system of governance – unlike other mainstream Islamist groups in the Muslim world. This moderation in terms of a flexible position on Sharia is what influenced the Tunisian Islamists to strike a compromise with the secularists in their country after the Arab Spring. Soon after the revolution, Rached Ghannouchi, leader of the Tunisian Ennahda, waxed eloquent on the extent of influence the AKP had on him and his party.

Second, in contrast to the self-avowedly secularist governments of Turkey during the cold war era, the successive AKP-led governments and Erdoğan himself never concealed their ambitions of playing a leading political role in the Islamic world, comparable to the one that the Ottoman sultans played in a bygone era, albeit without explicit imperial designs. I am not saying this as a value judgment, but as a fact that will have immense political implications in the present juncture, as Turkey’s immediate neighbourhood is plagued by violence with serious religious and ethnic dimensions.

Writing on the wall

So what are the possibilities that the November election results throw up in terms of Turkey’s domestic and international scenarios? Primarily, the democratic deficit that marked the country for a long time will continue to increase. Until the end of the last century, it was the Turkish army that wrecked the country’s democratic prospects, but now the army is largely under civilian control. It is the president, now emboldened by a crushing electoral victory, who will continue to curb the democratic rights of the citizens and revive the ‘eastern’ characteristics of Turkey.

In the light of the vitiated atmosphere of the past few months, the successful resumption of the Kurdish peace process looks unlikely, particularly in the context of Turkey’s belligerent approach to the emerging Kurdish autonomy in northern Syria. Containing the menace of the Islamic State, arguably a secret ally turned bitter foe, is another major challenge, but the problem is that almost all the major warring parties in Syria are at odds with Turkey. Opening three separate battlefronts in Syria – against the Bashar Assad regime, the IS, and PKK/PYD – while simultaneously resuming the Kurdish peace process back home will prove an impossible task. Of course, the formation of a strong single party government with neoliberal convictions and an autocratic style is definitely going to help in the short term to create the illusion that the economy is on an upswing.

In short; Turkey is entering uncharted waters in the backdrop of turbulent developments in its European and Asian neighbourhoods. Imagine India under a single party BJP government with a nearly two-thirds majority while Amit Shah and Narendra Modi serve as Prime Minister and empowered President respectively. Turkey is already there.

Shajahan Madampat is a writer based in Abu Dhabi