Cengiz Aktar
Jul 05 2019

Is Turkey again a democracy?

There is probably no concept that has been abused as extensively as democracy. Once the regimes of the Soviet bloc presented themselves as the champions of democracy. Dreadful African states love to put “democratic” in their names. The newly established far-right group in the European Parliament has named itself “Identity and Democracy”. A system, in these people’s terms, can be called democratic so long as voters are electing the enemies of democracy.

Meanwhile, in countries with functioning democracies, there is no such self-admiration and image-creation. Turkey does not fall into this latter category, though some say democracy suddenly returned to Turkey after this year’s local elections. There are two reasons for this assumption.

Firstly, the fact that elections were held and the opposition won the mayoral seats in five of six of Turkey’s largest cities means Turkey has found its democratic feet again. Nobody cares that the elections were neither free nor fair. So long as democracy is back, it doesn’t matter.

The second assumption is that the opposition, composed of apples and pears, is democratic just because they are opposing a totalitarian regime.

But let’s start with the first assumption. Pro-government commentators, writing for the foreign press, spread propaganda claiming that the opposition’s victories in the March 31 local elections proved the resilience of Turkish democracy. When the Istanbul vote was cancelled unfairly, they repeated this rhetoric and started saying that the result of the Istanbul rerun, held on June 23, proved democracy’s existence.

The most ridiculous thing is that those apologists do not realise that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is espousing the very same theory: “The people’s will has manifested itself once more, our strongly grounded democracy has won again.”

When the word democracy is used so easily by everybody, you enable Erdoğan by creating the image of a so-called unity of national purpose and belief to the rest of the world. Those who are looking at investing and who are doing business in Turkey have hopped on the bandwagon because they hoped Turkey would resolve its troubles so they could profit from this so-called new era of hope. They rejoiced at the government and opposition’s joint chorus of “Turkey is a democracy”

So here is a Turkey, where millions -- yes millions -- of citizens suffer, get bullied, or are insulted, where people who are dismissed from public service face societal death, where thousands were imprisoned for no reason or have to flee the country and seek the protection of a different state, where justice is almost totally lacking, where the law only works in favour of the regime. This very same Turkey that is now being referred to as a democracy is a country that has sunk to the lowest ranks of all rights and freedoms indexes. Shame on you!

Leaving aside the sincere democrats, whose only hope was to somehow rupture the regime’s fortress by voting in local polls, let’s now discuss what this pathetic celebration of democracy means for the opposition.

Generally, there is hope that the ‘Alliance for Istanbul’ of the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) will turn into a nationwide ‘Alliance for Democracy’, which is also an ambition of the Kurdish movement. Yet, with whom and on what common platform?

It is time to revisit the performance of opposition parties so far in supporting democracy and to recall to what extent they can be deemed democratic.

Is the CHP, which joined the AKP’s “Yenikapı spirit” – Erdoğan’s call for national unity after the failed coup – democratic? Can the CHP be considered democrats when the party indirectly allowed the regime to imprison Kurdish politicians? Unfortunately, this party has no such programme apart from empty talk.

The Islamist Felicity Party, a small rival to Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP), is headed by a lawyer who defended the perpetrators of one of Turkey’s deepest traumas, the 1993 Sivas Massacre, in which 35 people, mostly of Turkey’s large Alevi minority, perished. Furthermore, contrary to the CHP, this party has never claimed to seek democracy.

The same is true for the nationalist Good Party. Neither Meral Akşener, the hawkish interior minister of the mid 1990’s, nor her party has any intention to make the country more democratic. An attack against Syrian refugees last week in Istanbul’s Küçükçekmece district in which the Good Party, which is anti-Syrian, indirectly played a part is just one obvious example of why nothing democratic will come out of this party.

Moreover, some expect that a new party that will be formed by former AKP luminaries will join the opposition. Reports indicate that the party will aim to resurrect the AKP of old, to take the movement back to its early days through democratic reforms, a return to the parliamentary system, re-establishing the separation of powers and by ensuring a fully functioning market economy. It is not too difficult to see that this party will fail to collect and reconstruct even the tiniest part of Turkey’s ruins with its “well intended” priorities and principles, let alone bringing it democracy.

We are still acting with the laziness of creating political alternatives through elections and hoping for solutions through new leaders. The extensiveness of “election and leader fetishism” gives miraculous weight to those institutions. People think that democracy means changing those in power from one election to another. According to this logic, the criteria is to defeat Erdoğan who has been ruling the country for a long time and whom people are sick and tired of.

Is it possible to actually create a democratic reality from these grand post-election words with this opposition?

And, does not this verbal crescendo that Turkey has “returned to democracy” risk hurting the resistance against the totalitarian regime and Erdoğan by creating merely hope and lethargy?

Isn’t it time to seek more local, civil and disobedient ways of resisting a totalitarian regime that go beyond election fetishism; to ask the question “how did we find ourselves here in the first place”?

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