Orhan Kemal Cengiz
Will democracy come when Erdogan leaves?
Let me preface by saying that this title does not indicate a belief that Erdogan will lose the upcoming election. On the contrary, I feel that the circumstances are once again in his favor and that his win is all but certain if the opposition cannot present a strong candidate.
But let us assume for a second that he loses the election and that there is a peaceful transition of power. In that case, would there be an automatic return to democracy and to the rule of law? I know that many people and the elites of “old Turkey” are of this opinion. According to them, Turkey’s problems started with Erdogan. As a human rights lawyer, however, I have different views on this. While it is true that we are now experiencing unique problems brought on by this government — such as the unprecedented direct control over the judiciary and the media — Turkey before Erdogan was still rife with issues.
I remember clearly the destruction of Kurdish villages in the nineties, the routine use of torture, the epidemic of extra-judicial killings in the Southeast, and most notably, the mainstream media turning a blind eye to these atrocities.
I remember very well the serious psychological terror exerted on the Christian minority in the 2000s with the Santoro and Dink assassinations, the Malatya massacre, and so forth. I also remember the years afterward during which this government was in power, but was unable to control the system and was still fighting military tutelage.
Today, criticizing Erdogan may be met with criminal prosecution and punishment, but I also remember how so many intellectuals and writers in the past were put on trial for expressing their peaceful views on the Kurdish question or on the Armenian genocide, or for simply criticizing the military and its human rights violations.
Evidently, and contrary to the general consensus, Turkey’s problems started neither with this government nor with Erdogan. As such, there will be no automatic return to normalcy when they are gone. A cursory glance at the opposition’s reactions to cross-border operations, to the presence of Kurdish deputies in parliament, and to the Armenian genocide is enough to evaluate just how democratic they are. They do not demonstrate an exemplary stance in these topics or in any other matters concerning pluralism and democracy.
A survey of Turkish history as a whole reveals that democracy and an atmosphere of freedom constitute only temporary periods, while repression and tutelage of one group over the system is an almost constant occurrence. This has been the pattern for over a century. In 1908, people thought that constitutional rights would bring them freedom, but it was followed by the Armenian Genocide in 1915. In 1950, people thought that democracy would finally exist in Turkey with the Democrat Party’s election, but Adnan Menderes turned autocratic after consolidating power and started to repress the opposition and the media. He was toppled as a result of the bloody 1960 coup which introduced a so-called liberal constitution but was in fact a persistent military tutelage. Coups and interferences with democracy followed one after the other.
When the AKP (Justice and Development Party) and Erdogan came to power, many people thought that democracy had finally come to this country. Indeed, there were serious reforms in the name of democracy and rapprochement with the European Union at least while this administration was trying to rid the government of military tutelage. However, when the AKP became sure that it had freed itself from the guardianship of the military, it too initiated an autocratic regime.
In the present moment, there are two strong political currents in Turkey, none of which promises a democracy. The first is the nationalistic bloc and the other is the Islamists. It is sure that there will be a temporary relief when this government and Erdogan are gone, but if any of the hegemonic groups start to consolidate power, democracy will be weakened once again.
No matter who prevails in the upcoming elections, they will face an economic crisis. If the new administration cannot decisively solve this problem, the masses will start to seek shortcuts. Unfortunately, politicians who tout populist solutions, such as expelling immigrants, will gain momentum.
After Islamists leave, a new nationalistic wave might sweep Turkey. We do not know in which direction this country will go, but one thing is for sure: the defeat of Erdogan’s regime does not automatically promise a first rank democracy.