By Mustafa Akyol
The other day, another political killing took place in Turkey. Uğur Kurt, 30, was shot dead by a stray bullet to the head while attending a funeral at a cemevi in Istanbul’s Okmeydanı neighborhood. It is probable that the bullet could have come from the gun of a policeman, because the police were responding with live ammunition at a group of protesters who were throwing fire bombs at police vehicles.
May Uğur Kurt, an innocent bystander, rest in peace. His death, however, is likely to be yet another step in Turkey’s deepening political polarization. The anti-government voices will condemn the “fascist police” of Tayyip Erdoğan. The pro-government voices will condemn the “vandals and terrorists,” to whom the police is only giving a much-deserved response, besides the imagined “foreign powers” behind these trouble-makers.
The fact that the killing took place in the courtyard of a cemevi, a place of worship for the Alevi minority, is particularly risky. It is no secret that Erdoğan is the supreme leader of Turkey’s Sunni Islamists, whereas the opposition has a strong Alevi component. When you add such sectarian bases to political tensions, things generally get worse.
In fact, how worse things will get is a question that many wonder these days. Despite the fact that Turkey was hailed all over the world as a success story until just a few years ago, we took a sudden downward spiral. Erdoğan wanted to maximize his power and thus provoked strident reactions. He then interpreted these reactions as conspiratorial “coup attempts,” and further flexed his muscles, only to provoke more reactions. It is a vicious circle par excellence.
The question is to what length this vicious circle will continue, and what dangers might be awaiting Turkey. Widespread unrest, civil war, or a fully authoritarian regime? These are the very bad scenarios some fear. However, I don’t think things can go that bad, and we will ultimately recover from the current madness and move forward without too much harm.
I might be a naive optimist, but it is notable that Kamer Daron Acemoğlu, a world-renowned Turkish-American economist, seems to agree. In his recent and notable article in Foreign Affairs, subtitled, “Despite Erdogan’s Ruthlessness, Turkey’s Democracy Is Still on Track,” he presents an analysis that offers some comfort. First, he notes that:
“Turkey is in the middle of a difficult process of institutional rebalancing, in which key political and social institutions have been shifting their allegiances away from the military and the large urban-based economic interests that have long dominated Turkish politics. In the absence of independent judicial organizations and an organized civil society, the risk has always been great that any politicians who took power during this turbulent time would abuse it. In other words, Erdogan’s drift from democracy is lamentable, but almost predictable.”
Then, argues Acemoğlu, this “drift from democracy” cannot be too extensive, because Turkey has a vibrant civil society, a liberal Constitutional Court, and, most importantly, a developed yet fragile economy that Erdoğan cannot risk sinking by making too many irrational decisions. In other words, Turkey is structurally evolved enough to rule out both violent internal conflict and dictatorial rule.
“Despite creeping authoritarianism and polarization in Turkish politics, one shouldn’t despair,” Acemoğlu concludes. One should rather try to bring back liberty and reason, because they are not too far away.