By Sinem Adar
May 26 2017
“New Turkey” has become since 2014 a popular slogan employed by the Justice and Development Party (AKP) to express its political project of remaking the nation. However, it has been in a political abyss since the parliamentary elections on 7 June 2015, when the People’s Democratic Party (HDP) gained around thirteen percent of the votes, thereby becoming the first pro-Kurdish party to exceed the electoral threshold in the history of Turkey’s parliamentary democracy. One of the slogans that marked the HDP election campaign was: “We are not going to allow you to become President,” referring to the AKP’s oft-threatened plan to pass constitutional amendments that would grant sweeping powers to Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, the President-to-be of the country. Since then, both physical and symbolic violence have become normalized in the political scene, facilitating the consolidation of a party-state regime, controlled by the AKP government under the de facto leadership of President Erdoğan. The failed coup attempt on 15 July 2016 and the 16 April constitutional referendum of this year—where the YES vote won (with a 51.4 percent vote share) by a narrow margin over the NO vote, with serious concerns about the democratic pedigree of the referendum and under a cloud of accusations of fraud—constitute crucial turning points in the institutionalization of a party-state regime. Yet this consolidation has rather paradoxical implications.
In the rest of this essay, I will shed light on these paradoxical implications by focusing on what is new and what is not that new in today’s Turkey. I argue that the paradoxes of Turkey’s current political environment are deeply marked by continuities even in the midst of ruptures.
Physical and Symbolic Violence
Following the suicide bombing in Suruç on 20 July 2015 that killed thirty-three and injured 104 people, and the killing of two policemen in Șanlıurfa (which was at first claimed by the PKK, although the group then denied responsibility for it), the ceasefire between the Turkish army and the guerrilla movement came to an abrupt end. Extensive and intensive securitization policies in what are defined as “special security zones” were quickly put into effect in most of the cities and towns of the Kurdish southeast and east, directly targeting life itself by destroying Kurdish cities, homes, and bodies. According to a report published in March by the Union of Municipalities in Southeastern Anatolia, around 400,000 people were involuntarily displaced as a consequence of the violence and moved to other towns and cities in the Kurdish region. A recent Amnesty International report notes that 2,024 homes were damaged or destroyed in Sur—the historic central district of Diyarbakır—alone.
During this time, various cities in the Western part of the country were also hit by violent attacks, some of which were claimed by ISIS, such as the deadly attack which hit a popular night club in Istanbul on New Year’s Eve this year. Between 7 June 2015 and 1 January 2017, a total of 1,512 citizens were killed, and the death toll increases to 1,793 when those who died during the failed coup attempt and the soldiers who died during the recent Turkish military intervention in Syria, code-named by Turkey as Operation Euphrates Shield, are included in the count.
In today’s Turkey, death is not limited, however, to the actual termination of one’s life. It is more than physical. It is also symbolic. It seeks to capture minds. It attempts to silence all forms of dissidence. The whole civil sphere is threatened by symbolic death. Indeed, this symbolic death is in some ways continuous with the Turkish state’s efforts to throttle dissent and silence civil society in the aftermath of past coups. Yet the scale, scope, and reach of the current annihilating impulse is more extensive than these earlier episodes. Thousands of people within academia and the state bureaucracy have lost their jobs, with their status as civil servants revoked and their passports cancelled since the failed coup attempt on 15 July 2016. Since then, 231 journalists have been imprisoned. According to the 2017 World Press Freedom Index, Turkey ranks 155th out of a total of 180 countries on press freedoms. Moreover, 560 foundations, 1125 associations, and nineteen trade unions have been shuttered since July 2016.
What Is New?
While state violence has been a common practice in Turkey since the establishment of the republic in 1923 (and even preceding the founding of the republic) and the Turkish state has never been substantively democratic beyond holding relatively transparent elections, this historical moment is distinctively different for two reasons. The first concerns the changes made to the security apparatus of the state in the last couple of years. Among these are various legislative initiatives that passed in the parliament in 2014 that involved the reorganization of the National Intelligence Organization (MIT) under the Council of Ministers and the expansion of MIT’s access to personal and private information; the expansion of power given to government-appointed mayors over the deployment of security measures; and the reorganization of the police force. In addition to these national level changes to the security apparatus, two state of emergency decrees that were issued on 29 April of this year announced that 7,000 neighbourhood guard positions (bekçi) will be created. We do not yet know exactly what the responsibilities of these guards will be, but we can make an informed guess that these guards will be the cornerstones of Erdoğan's party-state totalitarian micro-politics.
The second novelty in the current political environment in Turkey has to do with the massive purge that has been taking place since the failed coup attempt in 2016. In terms of degree, this is the most expansive purge in Turkey, even exceeding the one that followed the 1980 coup. Given that a total of 135,610 people—including thousands within the military, police, and judiciary—have been purged, it is unclear how a state mechanism will continue to function, given the intense shortage of trained and experienced personnel. Moreover, the inner conflict and tensions within the AKP—which are becoming salient in the current efforts to restructure the party rank-and-file, upon Erdoğan’s re-election at a congress on 21 May as the actual leader of the party—contribute to the ambiguous future of institutions. The constant institutional weakening of the state in the aftermath of the failed coup attempt is likely to accelerate the tendency to use violence in an environment of increasing paranoia and suspicion at the upper echelons of the state.
What Is Not New?
Nevertheless, some things are also not that new in today’s Turkey. The main source of continuity is rooted in a strong nationalism that still serves a powerful unifying role among various political actors around the deeply entrenched political sensitivities and sensibilities strongly shaped by Turkey’s Kurdish question. The war in Syria, particularly following the Rojava Revolution, has further catalyzed these pre-existing sensitivities and sensibilities in Turkey. As such, it has been enabling the consolidation of a political front against Kurdish parliamentarians and the Kurdish question more generally, which has taken a strong regional and international character with the involvement of actors such as the US and Russia.
One very striking example of this is the unified position of the Republican People’s Party (CHP), the main opposition party, and the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) during the parliamentary vote in May 2016 for the removal of Kurdish parliamentarians’ political immunity. The co-leaders of the HDP, Selahattin Demirtaş and Figen Yüksekdağ, were first taken into custody on 4 November 2016 and have since remained imprisoned as a consequence of their loss of immunity. As of April 2017, fourteen of the fifty-nine HDP members of parliament are in prison.
The exclusion of the HDP leadership from attending what was called a “democracy vigil” organized by the AKP in Istanbul in August 2016 against the failed coup attempt is yet another example. The leaders of the CHP and MHP, Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu and Devlet Bahçeli, respectively, were both invited by the AKP to attend the vigil in solidarity. To be sure, the resistance against a coup attempt of ordinary citizens as a demonstration of democratic will deserves celebration. Moreover, the spectacle of solidarity performed at the vigil by the AKP, the CHP, and the MHP can perhaps be interpreted as a tactical effort to navigate the aftermath of the failed coup attempt.
Nevertheless, underlying such a tactical effort, which brings together these political actors despite the differences in their political orientations, is their aspiration to re-claim ownership over the state establishment. The silence of the CHP and MHP leaders in the face of the HDP’s exclusion from the vigil is the most obvious and rather expected indicator of such an aspiration. What is more striking, however, is their equally disturbing silence about the dissolution of the once-strong alliance between the AKP and Fethullah Gülen, who is alleged by the government to be behind the coup attempt in July 2016.
The CHP and MHP leaders’ struggle to partake in the ownership of the state establishment stands on fragile grounds, however, given the internal tensions within the rank-and-file of both parties. The split within the MHP became visible during the referendum campaign when a group led by Meral Akşener had decided to back the NO campaign, while the party leadership campaigned for a YES vote. As a result, Akşener was ejected from the party for challenging the leadership. Tensions within the CHP, on the other hand, became most salient in the aftermath of the referendum. The CHP’s leader Kılıçdaroğlu’s passivity in the face of the referendum fraud led some MPs in early May to resign their positions in protest. Around the same time, the party leadership sent one of its MPs to the party’s disciplinary board for a permanent dismissal because of an interview he gave to the daily Akşam where he overtly criticized the party leader for democratic deficits.
The paradoxes of Turkey’s current political environment are deeply marked by continuities even in the midst of ruptures. Institutionalization of a party-state regime is ironically facilitated by the CHP and MHP leadership, as nationalism and a strong commitment to the state establishment unify actors beyond their differences. Nevertheless, the political abyss that the “new Turkey” is currently in is crisis-laden for various reasons. First and foremost, with state institutions emptied of know-how and workforce, on one hand, and the increasing paranoia and suspicion especially in the upper echelons of the state, on the other, the country is likely to be mired in chaos until the planned presidential election in 2019. Second, internal splits within the AKP, CHP, and MHP deeply strain politics, thereby accelerating the already-existing top-down decision making processes within the political parties. Last, but not least, the near complete silencing of the HDP further contributes to the destabilization of the country in the midst of an utterly inadequate opposition by the CHP and MHP.
This is a Kafkaesque moment. Time flows fast without giving one the mental space and energy to reflect and understand. Maybe we had lost many chances in the past for reflection and understanding before we reached this moment. This is perhaps a form of divine justice for all the past and present injustices committed by the republic against all the undesired and unwanted minds and bodies. Who knows? The history of the Turkish Republic remains to be one of constant and systematic violence.