Three moments in Turkey’s long path to democracy

At least 700 Kurdish prisoners have been on collective hunger strike for more than 50 days as of November 1. Only two or three small websites reported the strike after its thirtieth day. Major media outlets ignored the strike until last week when BBC published a report making the whole international community aware of what was going on. On October 29 meanwhile, secularists gathered in Ankara to celebrate Turkey’s founding 89 years ago and to visit the tomb of Ataturk in Ankara. The governor of Ankara forbade mass celebrations and established barricades so that people could not access Ataturk’s tomb. That resulted in the Turkish police using tear gas against civilians. That same night, for the first time in Turkey’s history, the top military commander stood alongside Ms. Gul and Ms. Erdogan, wives of the president and prime minister respectively, both of whom wore headscarves in the official reception at the Presidency mansion.

One step forward, two steps back? No! It’s not that simple. In a recent article on civil-military relations in Turkey, Prof. Umit Cizre described the ruling AK Party as a status quoist, reformist party pursuing inconsistent demilitarization policies. Why? What is the relevance of the above three news items to this process?

First, the AK Party government did not embark on its demilitarization programme until the Turkish military published an online memorandum to remind the government who was the ultimate guardian of the nation, followed by the Ergenokon and Sledgehammer coup attempts. In other words, circumstances dragged the government into such a demilitarization process that would satisfy the electorate’s demands. The government seems to want to maintain a reformist profile while actually negotiating the continuation of the status quo with a suspicious military establishment and containing any civil disobedience. Still, on the surface and symbolically, two ladies with headscarves standing with the top military commander seems amazing to us.

Second, civil disobedience has translated itself into the current hunger strike of Kurdish inmates. The Kurdish prisoners launched the strike for two reasons; 1) to demand an end to the imprisonment of Abdullah Ocalan, the PKK leader and to move forward towards a peaceful settlement of the Kurdish question, and 2) to achieve the right to self-defence in Kurdish in Turkish courts. While Prime Minister Erdogan first denied the existence of the hunger strikes, the Minister of Justice has asserted his will to find a viable solution, contradicting his superior. Fortunately, the government has not attempted to suppress the protest on this occasion as the previous government did in 2000 in an operation called ‘Back to Life’ that resulted in killing 12 prisoners and injuring 29 at a prison in Istanbul. However, the AKP has to fulfil the role of guardian of conservative populist Turkish nationalism, it seems. So refusing to make any concessions can be popular.

Three, the conflict between secularists and conservatives has polarized Turkish society. Since November 3, 2002, the secularists have become obsessed with Kemalist rituals and symbols. Since they gradually lost their culturally superior status and the AKP rid Turkey of various undemocratic secular principles, the Kemalists have developed a nostalgia for the first decade of the republic, when Ataturk was still in power injecting laicite into the whole nation as if it was a religion.

However, why should the government be so heavy handed in its use of barricades and tear gas? Whatever you think of these particular stances, protest and freedom of expression are fundamentals in a democratic society. It seems that this is not the approach of Turkey’s right wing political parties. Let’s hope that these decisions will not return to haunt the AKP.