Binnaz Toprak
Nov 08 2017

How can Turkey correct its course?

I would recommend reading the 2002 programme of Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) to fully comprehend the so-called 'metal fatigue' of the party ruling Turkey for the last sixteen years. What we have today is an AKP that is now determined to reverse its 2002 promises to move Turkish democracy forward, to implement social peace projects and to work towards Turkey's integration with the European Union.

Turkey is now labelled an “illiberal democracy” in the international political science literature. What this means is that Turkey is considered to be among the countries that satisfy only the minimum criteria for democracy. Illiberal democracies routinely violate their citizens' fundamental rights; they hold regular elections but lack an independent judiciary, a free press, a self-determining academia, or any other tool to keep their governments accountable.

AKP's understanding of democracy, which is currently reduced to holding elections, is precisely the definition of an “illiberal democracy”. Furthermore, the recent firing and detention of elected officials and city mayors is an indication that even this minimum criterion is being tested.

The sense of hopelessness among Turkish citizens began after the June 2015 elections, when opposition parties failed to agree on a coalition government, and those feelings were further reinforced following the November 2015 repeat elections, when the AKP government expedited efforts to oppress the opposition.

The United for Democracy (DIB) movement was set up in June 2016 for precisely this reason. The movement aimed to unite dissent. DIB's initial declaration emphasised citizens' rights to equality, peace, a fair and courteous state that respects different beliefs, political opinions and lifestyles, the prevention of violence toward women and preservation of the environment. The caucus consisted of representatives of political parties, women and LGBTI organisations, city advocacy and environmental communities, trade unions, professional chambers and academics, and media organisations that adopted these principles. The assembly agreed on four general areas to focus on: working for peace between ethnic groups in Turkey, freedom of belief and speech, identifying the undemocratic applications of state of emergency rules, and opposing the implementation of the presidential system.

Turkish democracy now is in an even worse shape than 2016 when the DIB was founded. All the warnings of experts that the “Turkish style” presidential system would result in a one-man regime turned out to be accurate. Parliament, which has struggled to establish a control mechanism over the president in the past, has been rendered impotent with changes in the parliamentary bylaws. The co-chairs and parliamentarians of the pro-minority political party, Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP), were arrested after the main opposition party, the Republican Peoples' Party (CHP), made the historical mistake of voting for the lifting of their parliamentary immunities. The judiciary is under the custody of the AKP government. After the July 15, 2016, coup attempt, emergency rule led to the arrest of thousands of Turkish citizens who are yet to be proven guilty. It seems many of those who were arrested are only accused of being a part of the organisation of Pennsylvania-based preacher Fethullah Gülen.

Many journalists, academics and businessmen not associated with Gülen, or with the attempted coup, were also detained and charged. The fundamental assumption of innocence, the right to humane treatment in detention, the right to counsel, and the right to be informed of charges were ignored. Fundamental human rights were ignored. Extended pre-trial detention was used as a punishment.

Today, Turkey is a country where there is insufficient freedom of speech. It is at odds with its neighbours, and while its Western counterparts are losing confidence in Turkey, the future of its European Union accession process is unsure.

All of these developments are resulting in an economic crisis; the Turkish lira is continually losing value and tourism revenues are dwindling. What we have right now is a polarised people and a polarised country that is losing its human capital.

Contrary to the AKP's claims, Turkey's problems are not because of some unidentified "foreign powers", but the AKP's own policies.

But the AKP's 16-year strategy of consolidating its vote share through a 'divide and conquer' strategy has backfired. Many divided groups came together for the April referendum on the new presidential system and the AKP barely reached 50 percent of the vote. These referendum results prove that the AKP could lose all the power it has accumulated if opposition groups unite.

The critical challenge facing those who want to stop this constant deterioration of democracy is to find a way to rebuild and expand unity into presidential, parliamentary and local elections in 2019.

United for Democracy (DIB) is aiming to keep this union alive into 2019. This is not a straightforward task.

It is essential for political parties to recognise that unity is the first and foremost priority for winning in 2019. Rather than acting alone, political parties should try to build a consensus, both among party leaders and their constituents. No party alone can win in 2019. Political parties and their supporters to should unite and find a compromise. This debate has to start right now. We cannot wait.

DIB is continuously working on beginning this critical debate.