Turkey's protests and Erdogan's authoritarianism: The view from the southeast
By Ali Ezzatyar
Ali Ezzatyar is a lawyer and executive director of the Berkeley Program on Entrepreneurship and Democracy in the Middle East. He is a frequent contributor to The Reaction.
The dust does not seem to be settling at all on protests in Turkey this week. All the while, talk of an "increasingly authoritarian government" and the erosion of democracy has had a particularly ironic resonance for one portion of Turkey’s population: the Kurds. Making up 25 percent of the country and historically estranged from Turkish society, the view from the southeast is one that could benefit outside observers as they try to make sense of transpirings in Istanbul and beyond.
The notion that Turkey is becoming increasingly authoritarian under Erdogan only makes sense if your chronology is a few years long. It is true that, using his democratic mandate, Erdogan has been aggressive in the implementation of his agenda over the last few years with very little effort in the way of consensus building. But in the context of 50 years of Turkish history, the rule of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) represents a step forward both economically and democratically as the rest of the world defines those terms.
The line between a brand of "Kemalist" secularism and democracy is blurred by a large part of last week's bona fide protesters, who likened their Turkish government to that of other deposed dictatorships in the Middle East. The importance of that form of secularism is espoused especially by supporters of Ataturk's Republican People’s Party (CHP), which held a monopoly on power and information in Turkey for most of its history. It is an ultra-secularism that is better described as the separation of church and society, not the separation of church and state, in addition to extreme Turkish nationalism. While the protests do target legitimate shortcomings in the Erdogan government, such as curbs on personal freedom, they are not defined by them. Rather, they are defined by the shift away from a traditional Turkish way of existence, which is uncomfortable for many. The allegations being lobbed against the AKP and Erdogan existed the day they took power.
The Kurdish example helps contextualize the protesters' allegations a bit. Since the founding of the Turkish Republic 90 years ago, Turkey has ceremonially excluded the participation of its openly Kurdish citizens from any aspect of civil society. Dozens of Kurdish parties have been banned from the "democratic" process and elected members of parliament have been jailed for treason for merely speaking Kurdish in parliament. Thousands of Kurdish journalists have been jailed and tortured by successive Turkish governments for writing in Kurdish or on Kurdish issues, with more Kurdish journalists in jail today in Turkey than journalists imprisoned in all of China or Iran. The list of injustices like this against Kurds is long.
Religious Muslims in Turkey have also had reason to believe that their values were not at home in the modern Turkish Republic, which meanwhile marketed itself to the outside world as a progressive Muslim country that bridged the European-Asian divide. As exhibited by events such as a military coup that destroyed a democratically elected Islamist leaning government in the '90s, or policies such as the banning of the headscarf, Turkey failed to incorporate the majority of its population into civil society or the democratic process before the AKP, while the country struggled economically. These are important factors in evaluating Turkey's trajectory and the allegations against Erdogan today.
Enter the AKP and Turkey's new "Islamist" government at the turn of the century on the heels of decades of economic setbacks, interference with the democratic system, and ethnic strife. In addition to successfully nationalizing Turkey's ailing public industries and augmenting nearly all economic indicators during a global downturn, Turkey has finally taken important steps to strengthen its lukewarm democracy. It has ostensibly taken political power out of the hands of the military, an essential first step for any real democracy.
Erdogan is also busy working on a new constitution that may once and for all view all of Turkey's citizens equally under the eyes of the law, regardless of language or cultural distinction. This is the main demand of Turkey's Kurds, and while many practical issues remain with respect to the so-called "Kurdish Question," no government has sought to deal with it in as direct a manner as the current one. For a majority of Turkey's population -- the new entrants to the middle class who are not part of Ankara’s traditional elite, businessmen and students in Istanbul, and Turkey’s massive Kurdish population -- things are not worse, they are better. Whatever the merits of Kemalism for a post-war Turkey, Ataturk's Anatolia belongs in the past, not the present.
In this lies both an opportunity and a real danger. Erdogan is up against an entrenched, passionate, and genuine opposition that resents his arrogance and view of the Republic. For all of his accomplishments, he is far from perfect, and to continue his project he needs to do more than dismiss the protesters' grievances while characterizing their activities as hooliganism. He needs to be a better democratic leader -- by negotiating with the opposition, seeking compromise on his more controversial reforms, and eliminating any semblance of censorship of the media or his foes. As a popular member of the CHP recently stated, "Sadly, I don't see any way for Erdogan to lose an election." While he may not lose an election, he may very easily lose all control of his Republic, with dire consequences for Turks and the region as a whole.