Yavuz Baydar
Sep 25 2018

Ahval-CEFTUS Debate: How Turkey's systemic decline affects the region and the rise of global populism

''As in Tolstoy’s maxim about unhappy families, there are a lot of problems that are specific to Turkey that make it an unhappy country in its own unique way ... But we also have to place Turkey in a broader global context of the crisis within the West and the hype of rising powers and the attendant distortions caused by that hype. In that sense, what has happened in Turkey is not unique at all and yet another tragic consequence of the grave political mistakes and the economic crises of the first decade of the 21st century.''

These words by Ayşe Zarakol, the distinguished academic from Cambridge University, set the tone of the panel discussion of experts on Turkey, which was held on the sidelines of the opposition Labour Party congress in Liverpool on Monday.

The title of the event, co-organised by Ahval News Online and the Centre for Turkey Studies (CEFTUS), a London-based think tank, was timely, and attracted the keen attention of those attending the congress: 

“The End of Democracy? The 'New Turkey' and a Region in Flux”. 

The speakers were all top experts on their fields. Along with Zarakol, a scholar on international relations known for her study entitled ''Hierarchies in World Politics'', there was Cengiz Çandar, a distinguished visiting scholar at the Institute for Turkish Studies at Stockholm University (SUITS) and senior associate fellow at the Swedish Institute for International Affairs (UI); Arzu Yılmaz, an expert on intra-Kurdish relations currently active as a fellow of the IPC-Mercator Foundation in Berlin and the author of a recent book on Kurdish refugees in Iraq. Another speaker was Nurcan Baysal, a renowned Kurdish columnist from Diyarbakır, and laureate of the 2018 Freedom Fighters Award.

The panel was launched by with remarks by British members of parliament who had shared concerns about the course taken by the Turkish government in the past five years. 

Fabian Hamilton, shadow Foreign Office minister, talked of the increasing dictatorship in Turkey, emphasising the Kurdish opposition as the most powerful and dynamic opponents of the government, a view shared also by Afzal Khan MP said Turkey's juncture was critical for the entire region. Angela Eagle MP pointed to the dangers of rising populism and autocracies, which she said threatened civil society in many countries. She said Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, “by reshaping the state in his own image undermined the rule of law, launched an enormous purge against the dissidents and NGOs”.

After my brief introduction on how rapidly the region - with Syria, Iraq and Iran - is drawn into an ever more powerful vortex of uncertainties, turning diplomatic and military exercises into a 3-D chess game, the panel opened and closed by assessments and conclusions by Zarakol and Çandar. Zarakol talked extensively about what she called the erratic judgments of Turkey’s Western allies in the early years of the millennium, placing Turkey in the middle of the global context and explaining the root causes of the profound disillusionment in the West as the Turkish experiment failed to pair political Islam and democracy.

In between the other two speakers plunged into the depths of the Kurdish dynamic - a major issue affecting policy in Turkey and a driving component defining the future of the Syrian conflict. 

Yılmaz's analysis was equally as gloomy as others'. Asking, “has democracy ever mattered in Turkey?”, Yılmaz focused on explaining why and how Turkish official policies always - and deliberately as she suggested - lagged behind when responding to Kurds' demands for rights. “When Turkey's Kurds were talking about human rights, Turkish state denied their ethnic existence, and when later they demanded collective rights the state then talked about that they maybe existed, so it went on and on, in denial and dragging,” she said.

Baysal drew attention to the realities of Kurdish geography of Turkey, since the declaration of emergency rule after the attempted coup in July 2016. 

In the two years, until the state of emergency was lifted in July 2018, the government issued 36 decrees. At least 126,000 people were fired from their jobs and at least 220,000 were arrested. All of the institutions, especially the judiciary, armed forces, universities and media are no longer independent, Baysal said. “With amendments made in many law articles including those within the Turkish anti-terror law, the law on meetings and demonstrations, and the law for provincial administration, the state of emergency effectively continues in Turkey. (It) has not ended in Turkey, it has continued as a permanent situation now,” she said.

“Despair dominates the Kurds in Turkey,” she said. “Kurds have no longer any expectations from the Turkish state.”

Çandar said Turkey's ever-fragile, barely functioning democratic order before Erdoğan came to power had been punctured blow by blow, leaving a failed state that confirmed only the end of democracy.

'”There is not even a rubber stamp parliament in Turkey anymore,” said Çandar. “The constitutional amendments amount to a regime change, that equipped the president also with such legislative powers besides his/her executive powers that it renders parliament a useless body.”

He concluded the debate:

“To keep the parliament necessary only to hold elections, to give a semblance of democracy in Turkey; the one-man rule is addicted to holding elections. Elections are designed to look as if there is a pluralistic democracy with competing candidates running for power. It is designed in such a way that Tayyip Erdoğan never loses and will always win with around 51, 52 percent of the votes. The system does not require like in Russia that Putin wins with 70 percent or like in Egypt where Sisi wins with over 90 percent. Fifty plus percent that will always be an unfair election, which would guarantee an electoral victory to Erdoğan is enough, and this is the ingenious contribution of Turkish autocracy to the democracy debate globally.”

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