EssaysLiberal Democracy in Question

Reflections on the Recent Elections in Turkey

The disintegration of majoritarianism through elections and social protest

During the summer of 2010, as I was strolling in Lower Manhattan with my 75-year-old mother, we came upon Professor Andrew Arato at a café. At the time, he was gaining quite a bit of notoriety in my home country of Turkey with his substantive and significant support to the old-guard elites in their battle against constitutional amendments proposed by the moderately Islamist, procapitalist ruling party, AKP (Justice and Development Party).

In friendly banter, I told this constitutional scholar, who was closely involved in the reconstruction of post-Soviet regimes in Eastern Europe and whose work continues to inspire all who care about democracy, to stop providing support to the non-democratic elites of Turkey. He told me I was actually being deceived and fooled by an AKP that had no democratic intentions whatsoever. My mother, a faithful member of the old, secularist elite who saw the military as its safeguard, sincerely pleaded with Arato to come to Turkey and lead her beloved nationalist party, CHP (The Republican People’s Party). Her ilk was losing ground in the country; the society they knew and cherished and the European modernity they aspired to were being destroyed by fundamentalist country bumpkins. Moreover, in the name of some weird understanding of democracy (of sans cullotes) her Marxian daughter, who was jailed in military barracks in 1980, was inexplicably supporting these religious nuts. Arato playfully urged me to listen to my mother. I did not.

That fall I voted for the constitutional amendments proposed by then Prime Minister, now Head of the Republic, R.T. Erdoğan. The military had forced the existing Constitution upon Turkey in the early 1980s following a coup. Erdoğan’s proposed changes, while too limited from my point of view, included giving more power to the executive and legislative branches over the judiciary, expanding certain economic and political rights and individual freedoms, and abolishing the protection of the 1980 military coup leaders from prosecution. To the dismay of the elitist, nationalist, and modernist old guard and some from the hardcore Marxist left — and my mother — I was part of a small yet vocal group of secular intellectuals who arguably played an influential role in yet another electoral victory of AKP and its ambitious leader, despite our limited voting power.

But a vote in a single referendum does not signal support for a ruling party. Three years later, I was supporting the Taksim/Gezi uprising against the increasingly authoritarian administration of the same party, and throughout May 2015 I took active part in the election campaign of the pro-Kurdish liberation Party, HDP (the People’s Democratic Party), which has become the key political force challenging the 12-year-reign of AKP. In the June 7th general elections, HDP successfully won the minimum 10% of the vote needed to be seated in Parliament (indeed it surpassed this anti-democratic threshold), effectively ending Erdoğan’s ambitions to amass even greater Presidential power for himself. While AKP still won a majority (40.9%), the center-left nationalist CHP (my mother’s party) and ultra-nationalist MHP respectively received 25% and 16% of the votes. HDP’s 82 representatives in the Grand National Assembly of Turkey have now become critical players in the formation of a new coalition government.

These two popular mobilizations — Taksim/Gezi and support for the HDP — have dramatically changed the dynamics of Turkish politics, which has been stuck for too long in a deadlock between the laicist, nationalist old-guard and the corrupt neo-liberalism parading as moderate Islamism of Erdoğan’s AKP. And even though Kurdish political leadership was conspicuously hesitant in supporting the 2013 Taksim/Gezi protests, that didn’t stop the diverse constituencies represented in the streets from supporting them in the 2015 vote. It needs to be said that the Kurdish liberation movement constitutes a major (if not the only) democratization force in Turkey today.

The party, which I had vehemently defended against the nationalist old-guard in 2013 in the name of democracy, has now been losing ground due to its leader’s unashamedly authoritarian and manifestly corrupt rule. AKP, a former US ally in the Middle East, is rapidly discarding its regional credibility, mostly due to the government’s not-so-tacit support for ISIS. HDP is emerging as a domestic and regional force of peace and stability, since the party is deeply responsive to the very same local and regional multitudes that constitute the popular base of an armed Kurdish group (PKK). PKK has been violently clashing with the Turkish security forces for more than 30 years and is now fiercely resisting the onslaught of ISIS in the region.

R.T. Erdoğan and his AKP first emerged as the leading political party riding on a wave of freedoms and rights gained against the authoritarian policies and politics of the old regime safe-guarded by the Turkish military. The guards of the old regime were notoriously belligerent toward the Marxist left, Islamists, and Kurds. Despite its rapid deterioration into its own brand of authoritarianism and brutality, it needs to be noted that AKP’s political tenure inevitably expanded political participation through including previously excluded groups into political processes. While pro-capitalist moderate Islamists were broadening democratic participation for themselves, they inadvertently and paradoxically created opportunities for others such as Kurds, LGBT groups, and women to become more engaged. It is the very nature of democratization that it more closely resembles a lake, rather than a rare oilfield or a cultivated garden, as it creates these paradoxes and contingencies — as Charles Tilly had written when he was mentoring us in the classrooms of the New School. In other words, my conviction that democracy is not a top-down design of some refined and powerful elites, but rather an accumulated history, had compelled me both to defend the moderate Islamist robber barons in 2010 and to join the ranks of the mobilization for peace led by the pro-Kurdish democratic forces.

From the perspective of liberal political philosophy, any limitations on the democratic ascent of Erdoğan and his moderate Islamist party AKP were unacceptable, especially when such limitations came from the elitist old guard, the defenders of a repressive nationalist military guardianship and their extensions. Founded in 2001 by members of several conservative parties, AKP had fashioned itself as a pro-democracy, pro-Western, and pro-American political party with a neo-liberal economic agenda, a touch of cultural conservativism, and a steadfast challenge to the military tutelage. Soon after its founding, the designated guardians of the Turkish Republic, including the Constitutional Court, the military establishment, and the center-left nationalist-cum-social democrat a la turca party, CHP (founded by M.K. Ataturk in 1923) were rallying against Erdoğan and his party. Their main accusation was that AKP had a “hidden agenda” aiming to destroy one of the foundational elements of the Republic, i.e. laicism.

Misleadingly translated as secularism, this foundational principle was never understood or practiced as separation of state and religion. Rather the Turkish version of laicité endorsed and asserted the State’s control over all faith-related activities and expression. Parallel to the history and politics of French-type secularism, the laicisist (laik in Turkish) establishment has always been fearful of any religious expression outside the designated and manipulated symbols of Islam. Turkey banned women in Muslim headscarves and garbs from entering public spaces such as universities and court rooms as students and professionals. Mostly coming from the modernist elites’ repressive culture of nation-building through imitating what they perceive as European modernity, this pathological horror was at its peak in 2007 when millions of urban middle-class demonstrators, led by pro-military allies, took to the streets to prevent AKP’s parliamentary majority from appointing the Head of the Republic, a symbolic office. The same year, one of the founders of AKP, A. Gul, became the first head of the Republic with a wife wearing a Muslim headscarf. To the shame and horror of the old-guard elite, this was nothing short of an expression of reactionary, Islamic fundamentalism. The desires and expectations of the old-guard were undemocratic and indefensible, as they still are today.

Culturally, neither AKP nor its leader were the kind of Islamists the irrational laicists pictured them to be. Rather than pursuing an agenda of Islamization, it soon became clear that they were interested in replacing the traditional urban elite and displacing their prestige and power into the hands of a newly emerging “conservative bourgeoisie.” They represented an emerging capitalist class who wanted to be able to be as visible and as consumerist as the former elites. However, this did not prevent the party from initiating gestures to their more pious electoral base such as legislating limitations on abortion (which is not necessary by any religious measure whatsoever) and alcohol (in a country where alcoholism is not a social problem). Such attempts were championed by only a small group of religious constituency and angered many.

The consolidation of the AKP’s power inadvertently created its own cultural, political and economic inconsistencies and contradictions. AKP established a corrupt neoliberal regime successfully collaborating with international, regional, and domestic capital flows. The financial liberation and privatization it spearheaded have been accompanied by glaring abuse of clientalist networks and nepotism. Erdoğan emerged as the leader of the modern Turkish capitalist economy with widespread support in excess of 50% of the population. Abuse of power oozed from economic nepotism into the violation of other freedoms when the administration prosecuted representatives of yesteryears’ military-wanna-be-coup d’etat leaders and civilian elites from 2009 to 2012. These expansive trials started as acts of resentment and revenge towards the old-guard, yet soon turned into political circus to punish and/or intimidate all forms of opposition. The administration arrested and detained journalists and academics expressing any type of critique of the AKP regime, not just those allied with the old militarists. While there were indeed some shady characters who were indicted and prosecuted, many others were detained for months as Erdoğan and his allies were attempting to score points against an emerging opposition. In 2010, these trials still had some credibility in terms of prosecuting unlawful attempts at a possible coup against a democratically elected party. That’s when the referendum for the constitutional amendments brought further confidence to the AKP regime, whose officials soon thereafter moved to act as leaders of a majoritarian rule, ignoring the rights and freedoms of the growing opposition that was now more diverse than the elitist old guard. By 2011, Turkey became a leading country in the world for jailing journalists, alongside Iran and China.

AKP’s intolerance to opposition was glaringly visible in the police brutality against the Taksim/Gezi protesters in 2013. In May and June of that year, their encampment protesting the privatization of a historic public space in a commercially vibrant square of Istanbul began as a typical urban social movement for individual rights and freedoms in defense of public space. The protest had no particular political affiliation. Thanks to the police brutality and then Prime Minister Erdoğan’s brazen reaction, the mobilization soon snowballed into massive opposition to the regime and whatever it is representing by citizens from different walks of Turkish society and culture. This seemingly environmental protest soon turned into a nationwide anti-government mobilization and crafted a coalition of the urban, educated middle classes with varying social and cultural concerns about perceived and actual social encroachments and economic policies initiated by the ruling AKP party.

This moderately Islamist party had now been in power more than a decade, reorganizing wealth within the capitalist classes while shifting political and social hierarchies of urban populations through rearranging (i.e. simultaneously expanding and limiting) rights and freedoms. It has liberalized the display of religious symbols like headscarves in public facilities like Parliament and universities, shaking the secular elites’ sense of cultural dominance. Yet, many observed that the Taksim/Gezi mobilization was in defense of the middle class life style — values and “sensibilities” that were endangered by the AKP’s social policies, such as occasional bans on the social media — rather than economic ones. The uprisings and riots of summer 2013 were no longer marked by a reactionary old guard but were the response of diverse social groups to the increased monopolization of political, economic, and cultural resources for power.

The Taksim/Gezi protests shook the foundations of the AKP regime and revealed its oppressive and authoritarian undercurrents. (See the forthcoming volume edited by Isabel David and Kumru Toktamis, Everywhere Taksim). It was a major popular challenge to a regime that justified itself ideologically and politically by claiming to have the support of the national majority. Yet, groups from all walks of life, as diverse as soccer fans, anti-capitalist Muslims, housewives, and LGBT groups, were expressing their discomfort, mistrust and frustrations in a festive manner. Unlike the prevailing and traditional methods of power and protest in politics, Gezi demonstrators used methods of occupation and humor, displaying a Bakhtinian sense of carnival and laughter. The humor, or as Bakhtin calls it, “Rabelaisian laughter,” was employed to undermine the stiffness of the authority, parodying the encroachment on everyday life by members of the governing party — its limitation of alcohol consumption, medicalizing homosexuality, dictating family sizes, restricting freedom of expression, and justifying police brutality. This discursive creativity and humor may be seen as the one commonality between the protestors who otherwise had highly diverse political goals and expectations. Ensuing police violence enlarged the already massive support for the protesters.

Even though Erdoğan had lost his claim to being the promoter of democracy for many, he still managed to become the first popularly elected Head of the Republic in 2014 with almost 52% of the votes. He enjoys unwavering support among the conservative voters who continue to fear the backlash of the old-guard. But by coupling that with the adoption of traditional statist approaches and policies that had marked the regimes of the Turkish Republic, such as denial of the Armenian Genocide and uncompromising actions against the Kurds, Erdoğan and AKP have become an extension and promoter of the previously prevailing authoritarianism in Turkey.

In the meantime, the massive Kurdish liberation movement that emerged from 30 years of violent clashes between the PKK (Kurdistan Workers Party) and Turkish security forces has become a major, if not the only, democratizing force in Turkey. AKP’s political pragmatism was also revealed to be crucial in instrumentalizing Kurdish aspirations, as its peace process with the Kurdish rebels became a political trump card to try to hijack Kurdish support for Erdoğan’s ambitions to enlarge his power by replacing the largely symbolic office of the Head of the Republic with a Presidency. AKP was the first party to express any willingness to negotiate with the PKK and its imprisoned leader Ocalan, despite Ocalan’s repeated and strategic calls for a cease fire and as the popular support for the movement was secured in Kurdish speaking regions. AKP has also enjoyed the support of Kurdish religious conservatives in the southeastern Turkey, bordering Iraq and Syria.

BDP (the Peace and Democracy Party), the Kurdish political party that preceded HDP, for all intention and purposes was responding to the same popular base that supported PKK. It remained politically hesitant and strategically elusive during the Taksim/Gezi protests with two major concerns: (a) the vocal visibility of the old guard in the process that clearly boosted the legitimacy of the protests and (b) the possible erosion of opportunities for negotiation with the AKP government. Otherwise police brutality, including violently targeting demonstrators, has always been prevalent in the Kurdish-speaking regions, and members of the BDP were actively present at Gezi despite the party’s strategic concerns.

The Kurdish liberation movement in Turkey has a significantly different history than the Kurdish mobilizations in Iraq, Syria, and Iran. Despite its violent roots and the presence of an armed force autonomously positioned in Northern Iraq, this movement today needs to be considered a positive force for democratization in domestic and regional politics. This is especially the case in the absence of any other popular movement and political party that can clearly challenge the AKP regime without evoking repressive nationalist policies of the past. Soon after the Gezi protests, BDP managed to transform itself to HDP incorporating the minuscule yet vocal Turkish radical left, and aimed to expand its constituency by tapping into the votes of the so-called social-democratic nationalists and hopefully the conservative Kurds who continue to support AKP. The formidable alliance HDP built successfully narrowed the political opportunities for AKP, effectively ending Erdoğan’s desire to turn the regime into a Presidential one.

The problem now is to explain the curious fact that while Kurds were hesitant and elusive in their support for the Gezi protests in 2013, within two years the very same pro-Kurdish liberation party managed to incorporate many activists and organizations from that mobilization into its political campaigning. For one, Kurds have been engaged in Gezi-like protests with massive participation of civilians for decades in their region. Similarly, they are more intimately familiar with encroachment upon their rights by government forces and police brutality. Being engaged in a peace process with the ruling party makes Kurdish politicians more vibrant and decisive in their claim-making processes. Rather than being involved in a power struggle that resembles the changing of guards among the mainstream parties who compete to have access to government resources to feed their brands of authoritarianism and monopolization, Kurdish politicians are now regional players who are responsive to activist crowds. Unlike the mainstream tension between the nationalists and the Islamists, Kurds are not evoking a glorified past, but invoking a lively future similar to the protesters at the Taksim/Gezi uprisings. The manifestation of these strategic past-, present-, and future-orientations solidified HDP as the party progeny of the Gezi protests.

More importantly HDP is responding to a historical and regional political predicament that involves a quest to end violent clashes within the borders of Turkey, amidst increasing viciousness posed by ISIS in and around Kurdish territories. For any effective regional defense against ISIS, Kurds need a series of regional and even global alliances, which are predicated on the peaceful resolution of conflicts towards participatory coexistences. In this political climate, HDP carefully stays away from political maneuverings that implicate narrow interests of individuals, pettiness, and corruption. Interestingly, during the recent election campaign, HDP officials often resorted to humor and Rabelesque laughter parodying and undermining these dangers, displaying themselves as true descendants of the Gezi protestors.

The messy process of expanding political participation in Turkey with effective outcomes must respond to both Islamists’ resentments and Kurdish aspirations. These formerly excluded groups themselves need not be the champion promoters of democracy; their simple engagements with the regime have created forums and opportunities that may lead to democratization. The pro-Islamic party, still supported by 40% of the electorate, failed in negotiating with its opposition and containing their contentions, and thus become a force of de-democratization. The pro-Kurdish liberation movement with its expressive eagerness to negotiate significant limits to destructive contentions in the region is now playing the critical and crucial role of the promoters of democracy.

On June 7, 2015, a significant percentage of left-nationalist CHP voters, if not my mother herself, strategically voted for pro-Kurdish liberation HDP alongside religious Kurds who were previously voting for the Islamist AKP, in order to limit the unbridled ambitions of a modern-day authoritarian leader. While these “strategic votes” may have helped HDP to cross over the undemocratic 10% threshold, they actually generated opportunities for CHP to lead a coalition government. To me, defending (yet not supporting) AKP against the military guardians in 2010 was crucial, as is supporting HDP in the name of domestic and regional peace today. That is because democratization is a fragile process of constantly expanding and contracting popular alliances among negotiating parties, and not so much a product of neatly packaged prescriptions of powerful elites and refined intellectuals.

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Kumru Toktamis

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