Why I support the NO vote in the Turkish referendum?
When I was touring Turkey with my family in 1996, I fell in love with the country. I had the feeling that it looks very much like Palestine would have been if it was not torn apart and stepped over by settlers.
Not that everything looked good. There was poverty almost everywhere, and the military presence was thick and frightening. The soldiers would look suspiciously at people in the streets and point their guns as if ready to shoot you. Going to the countryside we noticed that the government seemed absent while people were building mosques everywhere. The country was ripe for the rise of political Islam.
Following Turkish politics over the years was very instructive. Turkey is not just another big country in the Middle East. In the last decades the political developments in the region concentrated around the conflict between the powers of the old order, Imperialism, Zionism and entrenched local elites, and a mass movement mostly under Islamic orientation. In Iran there was a stormy revolution in 1979, followed by war, internal terror and upheavals. In Turkey the Islamists came to power by elections in 2002 as a reformist force. Also, Turkey’s Islam is mostly Sunni and the Justice and Development Party (AKP), the main Islamic party in Turkey, is regarded to be close to the Moslem Brotherhood – the biggest political party (even as it is persecuted in many places) in most Arab countries. So the Turkish experience was regarded as probing one alternative for developments in the wider region.
The AKP election victory in 2002 didn’t mean that the party could really lead the country, as Turkey’s democracy was a very limited and ultimate power laid with the army. Even after AKP was already long time in government there were attempts to “outlaw” it, as was done with a previous democratically elected Islamic government in 1997-98. The struggle about who really governs Turkey continued. By gradually neutralizing the grip of the army over the state, the AKP, led by Erdogan, made an essential service to democracy in Turkey. Only after the failed coup in July 2016 did the elected government achieve effective control over the army.
Many critics of Turkey in the Arab world like to speak about the danger of Erdogan’s attempts to revive the Ottoman Empire, much the same as others speak about the Iranian danger. I tend to be more conservative in my analysis and assume that the main hegemon (politically, militarily and economically) continues to be external imperialism. I look at the rise of local powers more as an opportunity. In its 15 years in government AKP changed the political and economic orientation of Turkey to be less dependent on Western powers and more oriented to its regional neighbours and other third world countries. It seemed to have a very positive effect for Turkey’s development.
The Kurdish Litmus
The most pressing internal contradiction in Turkey is its control over northern Kurdistan. The denial of the Kurdish nationality, language and culture kept alive the experiences of ethnic cleansing against minorities that accompanied the establishment of modern Turkey as a nation-state. The continued military effort to suppress the Kurdish aspirations for freedom and equality gave constant legitimacy to internal oppression and fascist nationalism. It is another example of Marx’s saying that people who oppress other people can’t be free. The position toward the Kurdish question is the most important litmus test for the democratic attitude of any party or government in Turkey.
In his first period in power it seemed that Erdogan is moving toward a more compromising position toward the Kurds. He relieved restrictions over the use of the Kurdish language and opened negotiations with the PKK and its jailed leader, Abdullah Ocalan. In 2013 they reached an agreement about ceasefire that was supposed to open the way for a peaceful solution.
But recent developments showed that Erdogan is turning Turkey away from the path toward democracy. Naturally it started with changing policy toward Kurdistan. You can set the turning point in the June 7, 2015, general elections. The partial democratization allowed the democratic forces in Turkey, led by Kurdish militants, to create The Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) and pass the restrictive 10% hurdle for representation in the parliament, gaining 13% of the popular vote. Erdogan’s party used to get much of the Kurdish vote before as the less-anti-Kurdish choice. It lost its majority in parliament and had to choose between forming a coalition government and new elections. It unleashed a wave of oppression in Kurdistan in order to beat its Kurdish opponents on one side and appease Turkish nationalist voters on the other. It won absolute majority in rerun of the elections in November 2015.
After the failed coup, in spite of the wise support of all political parties to the government against the coup plotters, Erdogan used his reasserted legitimacy not only to persecute supporters of the coup but also to raise the general level of political oppression. The main victims were, how not, the Kurds. Many HDP leaders were arrested and any pro-Kurdish political activity can (again) result with charges of terrorism.
On the most important “foreign affairs” front – the civil war in Syria – the choice for Turkey was most blunt. It could give a major boost to democracy in Syria by supporting and helping to unite all democratic forces. Instead the Turkish regimes indulgence with oppressing Kurds in Turkey dictated its enmity to the Kurdish forces and their Arab allies in Rojava, united under the umbrella of The Syrian Democratic Forces. This approach bears much of the responsibility for the resulting disaster in Aleppo and continued weakness of the Syrian opposition.
One reason why democracy in Turkey is so fragile is the hypocritical preaching by Western imperialists and their Turkish allies. You can start from the latest campaign for the referendum to change Turkey’s constitution, when European “democrats” were hunting Turkish ministers in aeroplanes and trains to prevent them from meeting Turkish voters in their “freedom-of–speech heavens”. I followed the news closely but till now I can’t even imagine on what legal grounds this was done. And you can go back to the root, where the Turkish-NATO army was regularly overthrowing democratically elected governments, razing to the ground hundreds of Kurdish villages and torturing thousands of political prisoners from all backgrounds – supposedly all in the name of freedom and Western values.
In between there is a whole encyclopaedia of double-talk and racist double-standards. Turkey should fight to defend the West against its Middle Eastern brothers but it and its citizens are refused access to the EU because they are too poor, too Islamic and not white enough. Every move by the Turkish regime is met with ridicule and patronizing disdain. Maybe the most hypocritical of all is the way that Humanistic Europe is paying the Turkish government (and Libya and others) to make the crossing of the Mediterranean so deadly for refugees, just because they can’t see the suffering on their own side.
Time to change course
All these contradictions return us to the methodology of political analysis. It is wrong to analyse a party or a regime according to its declared ideology. In every country there are concrete issues and everybody should be judged by their concrete answers and actions.
Some of my most secular friends tell me that they know what is the position of this or that Islamic movement, because they learned Islam and they know what is written in Islam’s holy books on that case. This will never explain why there are so many Islamic currents, with such different positions, some of them even fighting each other.
As much as I can see, the problem with Erdogan his not that Islam is contrary to democracy. The problem with him and his movement is that it started as a popular movement against oppressive regime, but now, after fifteen years in government, it entered a marriage of convenience with Turkish nationalism and the oppressive state apparatus. History can tell about many other movements, from all ideological hues, which went through similar transformations.
Even if Erdogan was a perfect leader, I wouldn’t recommend letting him concentrate more state powers or extend his spell at the head of government. Everybody can learn from this wise old Chinese, Deng Xiao Ping, who showed by personal example that the way to ensure your political agenda even after your death is to relay power in an orderly way to a new generation while you are still at your best.