Former ambassador, MP and European Court of Human Rights judge Rıza Türmen wrote about a need to build a true democratic alternative in the face of the regime Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) has built over two decades.
The veteran human rights defender believes a new movement for democracy must emerge from a vibrant civil society to unite demands by all oppressed factions of society.
A translation of the article, originally published on news website T24, follows.
Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was elected president for the third time in Sunday’s vote. Twenty seven million voters chose Erdoğan, while another 25 million did not. Those voted for change and democracy. In any country governed via democracy, the voice of 25 million citizens would be heeded, but we know that they will not be, under the government of the Justice and Development Party (AKP), which rules the country based on separating friends and enemies. The 25 million voters will not be considered one half of the will of the nation. The will of the nation consists solely of those who vote for Erdoğan. This will is incarnate in Erdoğan’s person. The other 25 million are a mere obstacle on the path of “the cause”, and enemies who betrayed the fatherland.
Foreign observers say Turkey’s elections were not fair. On 15 May, the day after the first round of elections, Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe’s (OSCE) committee of observers said Turkey “does not fulfil the basic principles for holding a democratic election”. This conclusion comes from prominent politicians remaining behind bars despite European Court of Human Rights rulings, the second largest opposition party facing a lawsuit to shut it down, restrictions on press freedom, the use of public resources for political advantage, state officials campaigning under the guise of opening ceremonies for infrastructure projects, the blurring of the line between party and state, the president conducting an election campaign while executing his official duties, and most television networks -including the state television- broadcasting in the government’s favour. The OSCE statement did not mention the publishing of doctored videos about one of the candidates, or the prevention of that candidate using text messages to campaign.
The elections were held under such circumstances, and the People’s Alliance and Erdoğan won. However, the fact that elections do take place does not mean that Turkey is ruled by democracy. Elections are a prerequisite for democracy, but the concept cannot be reduced to the ballot box. The AKP and Erdoğan have an understanding of democracy that is precisely limited to that, but elections determine who will govern, not how. History is full of dictators who came to power via election, the most infamous being Adolf Hitler himself. Many populist authoritarian leaders today were elected into their positions. Democracy is a political regime, and to see if a regime can be called democracy one must look at whether the country is governed according to the universal rules of democracy.
In this sense, democracy is a regime based on a set of values such as the separation of powers, an independent judiciary, human rights, pluralism and participation. These values are at the core of democracy, and if the country lacks a government that embodies these, there can be no democracy to speak of. These are all elements that limit governmental power. So, the fundamental criteria for democracy is whether a government respects values that limit the reach of its authority? Does it rule over the country via arbitrary decisions, abandoning them? This distinction between democracy and autocracy is also closely related to the legitimacy of a given government.
In 21 years of AKP rule in Turkey, the presidential system has eliminated the separation of powers. The parliament was robbed of its function. All power was gathered at the hands of a single person. The government took control of the judiciary. Rulings by the Constitutional Court and the European Court of Human Rights were ignored. Rule of law was ended. Freedom of speech, press freedom, right to free protest and other fundamental rights and freedoms were recklessly trampled. The opposition was suppressed, and disagreeing with the government was made into a security issue. The education system honed in on creating a single type of person. The principle of secularism has long been forgotten. Institutions were emptied out, the state turned into the party. Can one speak of democracy in a country where all this has happened? Alas, no one in or outside Turkey calls the regime in the country a democracy, except for the AKP government.
The AKP launched its New Turkey project in 2011. Today it has been renamed to Great Turkey, but it is the same project. One that includes the restructuring of society, on top of the state. One cannot implement such a project via pressure by state power alone, it requires the acceptance of a certain world view by the governed. The AKP sought this acceptance via religion, as the election results also show, turning a definition of national identity based on Islam into the state’s ideology and getting masses to accept it. The significance of the 14 and 28 May elections laid in whether the implementation of this Sunni Islamic project, at 180 degree odds with Turkey’s founder Mustafa Kemal Atatürk’s project of the republic, could be stopped.
There was a very good chance to establish a new Turkey governed by democracy, to replace the AKP’s new and great Turkey. The COVID-19 pandemic, economic crises, injustices, corruption, the earthquake… Hope was growing that the government’s performance on these issues would lead to a change. That hope has since been proven false. The government played its most important card: Identities, and nationalism that builds them.
Nationalism produces the rift between friend and foe, and disallows the legitimisation of divergent viewpoints, even their negotiation. This would be the very foundation of a democratic society. Nationalism also enables the hegemony of security politics and prevents a peaceful solution to the Kurdish issue.
The opposition should have refused to play the game by the nationalist deck, and to refuse to take part in the government’s game. “There is no survival problem in Turkey, security politics and nationalism are used to smother democracy,” is what they should have been able to say. They were not brave enough, on the contrary, ahead of the run-off the opposition fell into a well of nationalism, made its play over “more nationalist than thou”. This way, the government and opposition became two parts of the same system.
Now after the defeat, a new movement for democracy must emerge independent of elections or political parties, led by civil society, uniting the demands of workers, the women’s and Kurdish movements, ecologists, LGBTI+ people, and all of the oppressed.
This movement must reach the masses impoverished by the AKP’s policies, and the unemployed youth. It must object to all dominance relations. It must put forth a new alternative for Turkey. Then a true democratic alternative can emerge against the AKP government’s authoritarian new and great Turkey. The time is right, conditions ripe.
There is a need for a civil society movement that could organise this. A need to dust it off, a need for resurrection. Could we possibly draw new light, new hope from the dark despair of the election aftermath?