Turkish ruling party founder says police violence unacceptable in democracy

A founding member of Turkey’s ruling Islamist party said the use of force to break up peaceful protests undermined the state’s legitimacy after police fired tear-gas at workers striking over deaths during construction of Istanbul’s third airport and arrested mothers protesting the disappearance of their children in the mainly Kurdish southeast.

Police and gendarmes last month broke up protests against poor working conditions that one opposition party says has led to the death of 37 people at site of the new airport, a showcase mega-project for President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. In August, baton-wielding police broke up an Istanbul sit-in by mothers against what they say is the forced disappearance of their children by security forces in the country’s Kurdish conflict.

“State officials should be embarrassed by having eliminated the basic legitimacy of the state. Using violence against those who have come together to express victimhood in a peaceful is unthinkable in any regime and a complete scandal in a democracy,” said Fatma Bostan Ünsal, alongside Erdoğan, one of the 64 founding members of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) in 2001.

The AKP promoted itself as a pious, democratic alternative to the staunchly secular parties that had dominated government in Turkey since the first democratic elections in 1950. But since coming to power in 2002, critics say the AKP has become intolerant of dissent and accuse Erdoğan of becoming increasingly authoritarian.

“Of course, I’m hugely disappointed,” Ünsal said in an interview, citing what she said was the sycophancy and plunder that characterised the party today.

Activist Nurten Ertuğrul was also an ardent supporter of the AKP in its early years when it portrayed itself as being a force against power that reflected the longing for democracy and freedom among the conservative religious majority. But now, she said, the party had lost its way.

Nurten Ertugrul
Nurten Ertugrul

“The AKP came to power with religious rhetoric. The AKP's discourse in the name of Islam has no place in Islam. Religion isn't understood correctly here. I don't know if you believe me or not, but we think about the same things regarding rights, justice, democracy, and freedom," Ertuğrul said.

When asked about the efficacy of trade unions in Turkey, Ünsal said, “If the trade unions had spoken out, the questions of being a member of a labor union, long working hours, and not being paid wages would have already been solved. But, unfortunately, due to their ideological differences, trade unions are totally dysfunctional and ineffective because they have become almost hostile to each other."

Both Ünsal and Ertuğrul reflect upon the early days of the AKP when they were both ardent supporters.

According to Ertuğrul, when the AKP came into being, their rhetoric was centered on being a force against power and reflected a “longing for democracy” felt among the majority of society. The self-proclaimed Islamic AKP vowed to deliver on its promises of democracy and freedom.

Ünsal said the crackdown on peaceful opposition was not healthy for democracy.

“Having places where people gather and express their points of view is insurance for every political system. The long-term stability of political systems depends on this. Therefore, I think that the closure of these spaces would mean being uninsured and would consequently bring about instability,” Ünsal said of the ban on the so-called Saturday Mothers protest against forced disappearances and the arrests that followed.

She said the break up of protests by workers at Istanbul’s massive new airport, due to open at the end of this month, highlighted how in some fields rights had deteriorated.

“Expressing injustice is marginalised by the powers that be, making it a crime. The right of workers to come together and organise and articulate their grievances through various methods are some of the rights recognised in the past century. What’s being done to workers shows how far we’ve regressed,” Ünsal said.

“The right to work in accordance with human dignity and to be paid is a fundamental right. We can understand from the workers’ demands that they are concerned about the most vital issues, such as the payment of their wages and safety.”

As power has become more concentrated in the hands of Erdoğan, many of the founding members and former leading lights of the AKP have been sidelined. Meanwhile, tens of thousands have been jailed and some 150,000 have lost their jobs in a widespread crackdown on opposition following a 2016 coup attempt that the government says was carried out by the secretive Gülen movement, an Islamist former ally of the AKP.

Dozens of journalists are among those jailed and most of the television and media in Turkey are now in the hands of figures close to the ruling party.

“Freedom of the press is crucial for keeping democratic societies alive and well. If there is only one law in political science, it’s that power destroys. To mitigate the detrimental effect of this power, press freedom has long been accepted as the basis of democracy,” Ünsal said.

Ertuğrul experienced the discrepancy between religious and political ideology her first day in politics. In 2014, she sat on the city council in Turkey’s Bingöl in a meeting for the election of deputy mayors. According to her, Mayor Yücel Barakazi for the AKP said that “religious and observant women can never be deputy mayors.” After that, she handed in her resignation.

“If not a contradiction, then what is the term for a mentality that works women day and night, sends them door to door, and has them meet at election coordination centers without regard for common norms of religion and courtesy, but today comes out with excuses to keep a woman in the background?”

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.