Turkey: is this what democracy looks like?

July 6, 2008 at 9:48 am (AK Party, dtp, elections, fascism, politics, turkey, voltairespriest)

An interesting turn of events has recently happened in Turkey, where for months now the Constitional Court has been processing a case driven by hard-line nationalists for the closure of the ruling AK Parti and the banning of its leaders (including President Gül and Prime Minister Erdoğan) from political participation for five years. For those who may not know, it bears repeating that the AK Parti is a nominally Islamist reincarnation of the old (actually Islamist) Refah Parti which was led by veteran Turkish political-religionist Necmettin Erbakan. More to the point, it is the twice democratically elected government of Turkey, the last time by an overwhelming margin of the sort that would make Gordon Brown weep with envy. Having failed to defeat AK at the polls, the nationalist movement has sought recourse via the courts, also threatening to close the Kurdish dominated, leftist Demokratik Toplum Parti which did unexpectedly well at the last general elections. Of course, if this was Robert Mugabe we all know what western political parties would be saying, but coincidentally they’re strangely silent when it comes to a NATO member and strategic ally.

So that gives the background to the court case. Basically if it can be “proven” that the AK Parti actually has a political-Islamist agenda which runs contrary to the country’s Kemalist constitution or the colloquial litmus test of “Turkishness”, then in all likelihood the governing party will be shut down. Which, ironically, would be the first case of the west falling silent whilst a liberal, pro-EU Islamist party was replaced in a coup by a pro-Syria, pro-Iran, hard-right wing secularist opposition. There again, by the same coin it wouldn’t be the first time the army had revoked an election whose results it disapproved of, but it just might be the first time that the people would publicly disagree en masse with the coup.

Yet it would seem there’s a fly in the nationalists’ ointment. For many years now, stories have periodically surfaced about a political-military “deep state”, a shadowy ultra-nationalist network trying to orchestrate the course of Turkish political history from behind the scenes. Notably this network hit the mainstream media for a time following the 1996 Susurluk incident when evidence recovered from a car crash revealed clear connections between the right wing of Turkish nationalism and organised crime. Now it raises its head again in the shape of “Ergenekon”, a network dedicated to creating the conditions whereby the AK government would be so undermined that the army could remove it from office on the back of a wave of popular support. This would be backed up by assassinations of key liberal figures and usher in a new era of right-wing “Grey Wolf” style nationalism, forever changing the face of Turkish politics and that of the Anatolian region as a whole.

However, Ergenekon hit a stumbling block when its plans came to light, and now a massive counter-terrorism operation is in the process of detaining its leading figures, including former generals, far-right politicians – and lawyers. The use of the courts to stamp out oppostion was part of Ergenekon’s strategy, and the current AK case is only the latest of these. The arrest and trial of prominent liberals such as Orhan Pamuk (for acknowledging the 1917 Armenian Genocide) are previous examples of operations run by the shadowy network’s legal arm.

As a consequence of the raids, the government suddenly finds itself far less beleagured. The mainstream Kemalist opposition CHP finds itself with questions to answer as to whether any of its own leaders were aware of Ergenekon, and the far-right MHP emerges looking like the shabby bunch of fascists that it always was. An additional preceived moral authority is thus imparted to the AK Parti, making it far more difficult for a “conviction” to be fabricated.

What is interesting, is that it is highly unlikely Ergenekon could have been blown up so spectacularly without the consent of at least a section of the military establishment. It is possible that officers supportive of the (historically) left-nationalist CHP, whilst hostile to Erdoğan, were not prepared to stomach a far-right led coup, and therefore tacitly agreed to the raids going ahead. If that is the case then it can only be good news for democracy in Turkey.

From the perspective of left wing, progressive politics it is clear that neither faction is composed of our political friends. The idea of supporting a far-right takeover is so obviously ludicrous as not to deserve discussion. Also, the AK Parti is not in an of itself a progressive force. Whilst it has liberalised laws in parts of the country – in particular during Erdoğan’s first government, towards the Kurds – it has also shown itself to have a neoliberal economic agenda coupled with social policies that do on occasion verge on political-religious. I personally am far from convinced that Gül, in particular, has broken with his past as completely as his public persona would suggest, and it would be worth remembering that even Erdoğan has a relatively recent conviction (1998, served 4 months in jail) for incitement to religious hatred. Nevertheless the AK government was legitimately elected, and as such the left in the UK should support the will of the Turkish people in opposing the closure of the ruling party in any way that we can. Aside from anything else, stopping the closure might well set a liberalising precedent in which a genuine, pluralist left could thrive.

Furthermore the unveiling of Ergenekon merely goes to show what it at stake in Turkey. The one thing that unites the left is opposition to fascism, and this is an attempted fascist coup at its most raw. Let us hope that progressives in Turkey and across the world see it that way and prepare to fight.


  1. Andrew Coates said,

    The main problem with describing Turkey as ‘secular’ , which is how it gets labelled in the media, is that the state controls appointments and the organisation of teh Mosques. These are Sunni – hence the discrimination against various minority ‘Muslim’ and heterodox groups.

    Distortions of secularism are common where there is great miltiary influence in the state (Egypt and the Maghreb are, after Turkey, exemplary cases, though of course there are plenty of others, Pakistan onwards).Again their ‘secularism’ is flawed. In Algeria last week the ‘secular’ state (which recognises Islam as a base of its Constitution) imprisoned two Arab converts to Christianity (this is a common trend btw, in Turkey Christian predicateurs are gaoled). In this context then ‘secular’ means, in the first instance: the subordination of the religious establishment to the state. And the identification of one version of Islam as the orthodox one in line with the foundations of their administration.

    However I would say, from what I have read anyway, that in Turkey there is certain advances contained in Kermalism. The reactionary oppression of the Shaira does not enter the law (repression is aimed at ‘anti-national’ divisions, under which category Christian missionaries fall, along with Kurds and others). The AKP party is ambivalent on their intentions in this. Let’s not forget they tried to outlaw adultery, promote the bigotry of the Veil to reduce women to chattels, and have colluded in repression of trade unionists and Kurdish forces, for all their ‘liberalism’ (which is primarily economic in any case). I seriously doubt if the Turkish left, unlike British Islamophiles, would have a good word for them.

  2. voltairespriest said,

    I think you’re over-stating the threat posed by the legalisation of the hijab in public buildings. It’s a fact that previous Kemalist administrations clearly hadn’t won majority support for the long-standing headscarf ban, which in any case was all that was revoked: there are no strictures to wear the hijab contained in the new law. In effect, Turkey has now got a legal situation as regards the hijab which is the same as the UK and USA.

    I have, however, made clear that there are aspects of AK’s programme which I find more disturbing, and the (briefly prominent) issue of adultery is a symptom of those aspects which give me concern.

    Nevertheless, for all that I think the key question here is the democratic one. If the left does not oppose the forced removal of a democratically elected government, then it loses all political credibility it may once have had. TheAKP may not be the government that you or I would have chosen, but they are the one that the Turkish people chose. In order to be able to convince those people to back different and better political forces, the left first needs to be seen to support the preservation of a democratic playing field where that debate can be held. That’s what is threatened by the Ergenekon organisation.

  3. Sue R said,

    It was reported yesterday that a woman was found guilty for wearing a skimpy dress in public while fishing. Now although this sounds comical, is it the thin end of the wedge? She was sentenced to six months but it was suspended. There was a small demonstration by Turkish feminists to protest it.

  4. modernityblog said,

    problems in Oz? special laws for the religious!

    “TONY EASTLEY: Draconian, repugnant and unnecessary – just a few of the criticisms of special regulations coming into force for the Catholic World Youth Day event.”


  5. Voltaire's Priest said,

    Found guilty of what, Sue? I’d be interested to know what law they said she’d transgressed.

  6. entdinglichung said,

    one should remember, that especially when the Anavatan Partisi (ANAP, incorporating many members of the banned islamist party MSP after the military coup of 1980) of the late Turgut Özal and the Doğru Yol Partisi (DYP, were the traditionalist islamic followers of Süleyman Hilmi Tunahan, the so called Süleymancılık were influential) of Süleyman Demirel were the dominating forces in government (1983-1996), the concept of the “Turkish-Islamic-Synthesis”, reconciliating kemalist nationalism and rightwing islamic currents was an influential ideology; also the “laicist” social democrats (SHP/CHP) had strong ties up to the 1990ies with the conservative islamic Nurculuk movement and in their fight against the Kurdish uprising in the 1980ies and 1990ies, kemalist nationalist used the Kurdish Hizbollah as auxiliary troop against the PKK

  7. Andrew Coates said,

    I don’t know if Voltaire’s Priest reads French but if he does (one would assume that Volly’s Confession would be en francais quand meme), but if he does there is an important article on secularism and state religion in the Algerian Francophone daily, le Matin, this morning. Shows up the natrue of ‘secularism’ in the country Islam is in fact the State Religion.

    Algérie-Débat : Le prosélytisme peut-il justifier l’intolérance religieuse ?

    Algérie-Débat : Le prosélytisme peut-il justifier l’intolérance religieuse ?
    le 05 Juillet, 2008 09:12:00 | 1120 lecture(s) | Voir Réactions
    Ajuster la taille du texte:
    On se souvient de l’exclamation de Gambetta : “Le cléricalisme, voilà l’ennemi !” C’est le prosélytisme désormais qui est l’ennemi. L’étonnant peut-être est qu’il est considéré à la fois comme l’ennemi de la laïcité en Occident et l’ennemi de la religion d’Etat dans des pays comme l’Algérie. Inutile de nier que le prosélytisme recouvre parfois de dangereuses dérives.

    Mais serait-ce du prosélytisme inacceptable que de “manifester sa religion”, au sens où l’entend la Déclaration universelle des droits de l’homme ? (article 18). Les Eglises évangéliques ont pour caractéristique de ne pas reculer devant cette manifestation publique, fût-ce dans des pays traditionnellement musulmans. Le propre du prosélytisme est de chercher à faire des adeptes. Dès lors le soupçon porte sur les méthodes. Aucune preuve, semble-t-il, n’a été apportée en Algérie sur des formes de manipulation attentatoires à la liberté des personnes. A côté de ce prosélytisme il existe bien d’autres expressions différentes du témoignage.

    The rest (too long to paste here) can be seen on the site (Google it, Le Matin – and it’s the Algerian not the Moroccan paper).

  8. Sue R said,

    Her crime was ‘exhibitionism’.

  9. paddy garcia said,

    And showing gross cultural insensitivity, just like western men and women like to do on holiday in some culturally sensitive places in southern Europe, Mid East and further afield.
    Somehow its cool and liberated to drop your pants and get your tits out no matter how inappropriate it may be.

  10. Voltaire's Priest said,

    Paddy – notwithstanding that my best guess is she was Turkish and not a European tourist, you clearly don’t fully understand what “cultural sensitivity” is. Turkey isn’t Saudi Arabia, wearing a short skirt is not the same as “getting your tits out”, and a fishing lake isn’t a mosque.

  11. Voltaire's Priest said,

    Sue, do you have a link to that story?

  12. modernityblog said,

  13. Mehmet Yanki Yonel said,

    Thanks for nice article.

  14. Istanbul bombings - was Ergenekon to blame? « Shiraz Socialist said,

    […] suggests that the shadowy ultra-nationalist Ergenekon network, which is currently involved in a fight to the death with the ruling Adalet ve Kalkinma Partisi, may have had a role in the bombings. He points out that […]

  15. anket said,

    Recep Tayyip Erdoğan looks like a Ottomans…

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