Democracy withers in Turkey

Democracy withers in Turkey

In great political moments there are certain images etched into the mass psyche. The man standing in front of a tank column at Tiananmen Square, the throngs at Tahrir Square as the Mubarak dictatorship fell, the fall of the Berlin Wall, Neda Agha Soltan’s face as she died in Tehran as the popular movement was put down and now the brave people of Turkey clambering upon tanks and facing down the bullets and bombs of the would-be junta will forever be remembered.

The coup attempt has left at least 290 dead and over 1400 injured. Some of the funerals were attended by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan himself and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) kept people on the streets in celebration but also to guard against any further moves by the military. AKP supporters have been whipped up and through the elation of seeing off the coup attempt have been left to run riot, attacking confused conscripts, opposition parties and civil society organisations. Already Kurdish and Alevi neighbourhoods have seen barricades go up to hold back mobs. A mass purge and detentions of the judiciary, the army, education, the civil service and media is under way. Everything from football clubs to record stores are in the cross hairs of the AKP and Islamist thugs.

The response by Turkey’s allies to the coup strained already frayed relations as the United States along with all NATO leaders seemed to wait to see how the chips would fall. For some in the Turkish media and AKP this was evidence of some sort of collusion between the plotters and US intelligence services. In the end the Turkish government got the backing of its NATO allies and others once it became clear the coup was poorly organised and would be opposed by the masses. The AKP have not looked favourably on the US hosting the cleric Fethullah Gulen who is blamed by the AKP for orchestrating the attempted coup from his compound in Pennsylvania. A diplomatic spat is now bubbling away as Turkey seeks Gulen’s extradition with the US wary of the evidence the Turkish state can provide and whether he would receive anything like a fair trial.

The Turkish army has frequently intervened in political life with coups in 1960, 1971, 1980 and a threatened coup in 1997. All have resulted in steps backwards for democratic and social advances and the would-be junta would have thrown Turkey back to its darkest days and possibly have opened a civil war. The coup was seen off by a number of different forces as all parties in the Turkish parliament opposed the coup with supporters of the Republican People’s Party (CHP), the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) and the left-wing People’s Democratic Party (HDP) all holding rallies and actions. The New York based film critic Bilge Ebiri summed up the situation when he tweeted:

“Think of the bravery of Turkish dissidents, journalists, politicians [and] citizens opposing a coup that’s trying to remove a [government] they despise.”

The Turkish state under the hand of Erdogan has been facing difficulties on a number fronts. The economy is faltering, tourism sharply declining, Islamist cells have taken root and most importantly its strategy to depose the regime of Bashar al-Assad has failed whilst Kurdistan Workers’ Party and its affiliates in Syria, Iran and Iraq have grown stronger.

Kobani and the Syrian blowback

Erdogan had grand designs for Syria seeing its civil war as an opportunity to remove the Ba’athist regime of Assad, to cripple the infrastructure of the PKK aligned forces in Rojava and to enhance Turkey’s position as the dominant regional player.

On the Syrian-Turkish border fighters, arms, equipment and logistical support for different rebel factions including the Al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra (JAN) and the Islamic State were facilitated by the Turkish state. This allowed rapid reinforcement and re-supply against regime forces and the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) and Women’s Protection Units (YPJ). As the Islamic State surrounded and inched ever closer to the centre of the border town of Kobani it looked as if the Kurdish resistance would fall. Erdogan celebrated and Turkey looked on with tanks and artillery pointed at Kurdish positions whilst cooperating with Islamic State units. Much to the ire of the Turkish state Kobani didn’t fall and thanks to heroic resistance and international pressure the US began carrying out airstrikes on Islamic State positions. The Kurdish Regional Government under the gangster Masoud Barzani was forced to allow a small contingent of Peshmerga to travel to Rojava to join the fight at Kobani. The Kurds had paid a terrible cost in lives but had inflicted the greatest blow to the Islamic State’s prestige to date.

The victory at Kobani by Kurdish forces backed up by some democratic Free Syrian Army (FSA) brigades began the process of rolling back the Islamic State in northern Syria and the eventual abandonment of Turkish backed rebels by the United States and other NATO countries. Turkey’s strategy further unravelled when they shot down a Russian jet in November 2015 which was carrying out raids on Islamist Turkmen militia in the border region. Diplomatic reprisals quickly ensued and the Russians also began flying bombing runs against Islamist forces that were engaged in battles with the Kurdish-led forces. In short Turkish ambitions were faltering and the position of the PKK aligned forces had been strengthened and enhanced. Erdogan’s grand strategy laid in ruins.

Democrats under siege

Inside Turkey things the political situation had been deteriorating for a while with widespread disorder, terror attacks and state violence. The situation went over the edge after the Islamic State bombed an HDP rally in Diyarbakir (Amed) in June 2015 and a gathering of humanitarian and reconstruction volunteers destined for Kobani from democratic, feminist and socialist organisations in Suruc (Pirsus) in July 2015. Later there were bombings in Ankara and Istanbul which finally forced the Turkish state to respond with a limited crackdown on Islamist cells and some airstrikes on Islamic State positions. Attempts by Erdogan to move from a parliamentary to presidential system were stymied by the rise of the HDP who entered the parliament in the June 2015 election denying the AKP the two thirds majority it needed. In response the AKP called a second election and unleashed thugs on the Kurds, democrats and civil society with the offices of the HDP fired and its members attacked. In the November 2015 election the HDP hamstrung by state, AKP and Islamist violence still managed to enter the parliament again helping to deny Erdogan his two-thirds majority.

More terror ensued and attacks on academics, journalists, artists and civil society activists increased apace. Those critical of Erdogan or the AKP had to be increasingly cautious whether it be teenagers within Turkey or comedians outside. Democratic norms were being eroded on a daily basis and the failed coup has poured fuel on the fire with widespread detentions, torture and a breakdown of the rule of law. Similar to the attacks unleashed by Abdel Fattah el-Sisi on the movement that defended democracy in Egypt. The co-leader of the HDP Selahattin Demirtas said in the aftermath of the coup that “[w]hat triggered the coup was the logic [of] abandoning the resolution to [the] Kurdish question to the military”. He is not wrong, the steps taken to support those massacring Kurds in Syria and the war unleashed on Kurdish towns and cities within Turkey has led to a spiral of violence. The self inflicted crisis opened the door for the military to try and topple the AKP.

Now that the Gulenists and army have been purged the AKP has re-focused on the HDP by trying to exclude the from the post-coup dialogue, raids on their offices and the bringing of charges against their leaders. They are accused being a front for the PKK. The HDP’s base is mostly in the Kurdish south east but they also have support in western Turkey where liberals, democrats, socialists and feminists flocked to their banner during the last two elections. The HDP has pushed for a peaceful and democratic settlement to Turkish oppression of the Kurds and if the Turkish state ends the peaceful voice of Kurds and democrats what other options will there be further war. The Turkish army is already suffering guerilla attacks that are killing a significant number of soldiers and destroying military assets. The demolition of democratic norms by Erdogan in the post-coup period risks civil war and tit for tat bombings that will hit Turkish cities and infrastructure.

No more heroes

Within the space of two weeks Erdogan and the AKP went from granting immunity to soldiers involved in war crimes against the Kurdish people to mass arrests, torture, rape, lynchings and threats of executions. At every level the AKP government has scant regard for human rights, the rule of law or democratic norms. It became clear as the coup faltered that many of the conscripts who were sent to hold strategic locations had little or no idea that they were involved in an actual coup attempt and many reported being told that they were taking part in a training exercise. The media in the West has picked up on pictures of hog-tied and abused soldiers and there has been widespread political disquiet from Turkey’s NATO allies about it. Yet, these same allies looked the other way as Turkish forces were murdering teenagers in basements and levelling parts of towns and cities to try and stamp out the democratic aspirations of the Kurds.

The Turkish army has suffered a number of losses against the PKK and allied forces since the ceasefire broke. Despite being the second largest army in NATO it has found it difficult to operate in the south east as the PKK has recovered and exceeded its military prowess from 1990s backed by a movement that is buoyed by the successes in Rojava. With the army being purged the loss of battlefield commanders will no doubt hamper military operations against the PKK and demoralise an army asked to commit war crimes whilst being demonised at home.

Between the AKP and the military the masses must find a third way that enshrines democratic norms, re-institutes the rule of law and brings a peaceful solution to the Kurdish question. As the HDP have said such an approach is the only way to guard against the anti-democratic forces who are jockeying for power now. All democrats in Turkey were right to face down the tanks of the would-be junta but now their bravery risks being utilised to demolish the last vestiges of democracy within Turkey. It will be the working class, especially those from minority ethnic and religious backgrounds, who will suffer the most in the coming weeks, the economy is in free fall, so many workers and conscript soldiers are in prison and hopes for a democratic breakthrough look to have been severely set back. Yet there is hope, Erdogan is wounded and increasingly distrusted by his allies. The masses who saw off the coup attempt can also see off Erdogan and bring peace, justice and democracy to all of those within Turkey.

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