LettersLiberal Democracy in Question

Turkey’s State of Emergency

An Open Letter

Dear friends and colleagues,

We are going through very, very hard times all over the world. The rate of catastrophe is perhaps higher in Turkey, due to the State of Emergency that accelerates the already present state of exception. This past year in Turkey, it dawned on me that I was witnessing what Hannah Arendt described as the law of perpetual motion activated by terror in a totalitarian regime. Not a day passes without new outbreaks of violence, without a public personality being declared a traitor, without purges, without changes in the objectives of the government, in short, without practices of intimidation and repression that prevent an everyday temporality to sink in. This is indeed how the public sphere is destroyed: there is too much commotion for anyone to think, discuss, judge or act. The borders established by law and ordinary channels of communication between individuals collapse and are replaced by an iron band that shifts society to and fro as if it were a single body. Everything becomes possible; the most far-fetched scenarios come to life. Fear ceases to be a viable rule of thumb since it is impossible to predict the next move of the regime.

For those who have doubts that this is actually the case in Turkey, here is how one single week looked like last fall:

On Saturday, Oct. 29, the government issued two new Emergency Law decrees. 15 media outlets (mainly Kurdish) were banned, more than 10.000 civil servants were expelled, among them 1267 academics. Among the expelled academics were renowned leftists, union members and peace petition signatories. The government also abolished the law that allowed academics to choose their own university presidents. Bogazici University was the only institution to stand up against this decree. Gülay Barbarosoglu, our actual president, was re-elected with 84% of all votes in July, but another academic was nominated on Nov. 4 by Erdogan to serve as rector.

On Sunday, Oct. 30, police detained the co-mayors of Diyarbakir, the biggest Kurdish city in Turkey, on charges that they aided militants, part of a government crackdown after more than a year of violence in the region. Trustees were appointed in their place.

On Monday, Oct. 31, police arrested 18 journalists, among them the editor-in-chief, of one of the leading opposition newspapers, Cumhuriyet. This marked a fatal blow on the Turkish public’s chances of obtaining reliable news on the situation in Turkey.

On Thursday, Nov. 3, arrest warrants were issued for all 59 of HDP’s deputies.

On Friday, Nov. 4, police rounded up 15 Kurdish deputies, all of them senior politicians, in a post-midnight police raid. HDP leaders Selahattin Demirtas and Figen Yüksekdag are among the detained. Internet slowed down, and social media was inaccessible throughout Turkey.

This was the last nail in the coffin for any hope of political and societal peace with the Kurds. These senior politicians are the last generation of Kurds willing to make peace with the Turkish establishment. I cannot refrain from adding that instead of burning down the Reichstag, Erdogan has chosen to use Emergency Law as a pretext to empty out the parliament.

We are moving closer to fascism than I would have ever dared imagine.

This past month in January, Parliament passed an amendment to the Constitution that turns Presidency into an all-powerful executive office and drastically weakens the system of checks and balances. The President is to be given the right to appoint ministers, issue decrees, have broad authority over the high council of judges and prosecutors, and nominate university rectors. Parliament will lose its right to interpellate or audit the executive. In short, the President will take control of both the executive and the legislative branches, and will have enormous leverage over the judiciary. The majority of independent media outlets has already been closed by decree or silenced, so the so-called “fourth power” is no longer in the way either.

If approved in a nationwide referendum to take place under Emergency Law conditions this coming April, the constitutional amendment will turn the de facto situation into a de jure one. Parliament was largely ineffective owing to the majoritarian electoral system. The constitutional amendment was passed in the absence of 11 legislators from the HDP (they are imprisoned at present), and without any public scrutiny. The governing party pressed for late-night marathon sessions to vote for the provisions and banned live broadcast of parliamentary debates.

All these are making it infinitely more difficult for democratic forces in Turkish society to defend themselves against gross rights violations, arbitrary punishment and arrest, inaccessibility of reliable news, and the closing of spaces of dissent. There is no reason to believe that the intimidation of critical voices will cease in the near future, since the ruling party systematically disregards calls from European and US institutions and numerous human rights organizations.

So when the New York Times asks “Can Turkey’s democracy survive President Erdogan?” my answer is “no,” I’m afraid.

In despair, but also in solidarity, as always.

Zeynep Gambetti

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