Turkey:Democracy Genie is out of Bottle

Saffet Akkaya, a retired Army Colonel and Phd Candidate in Middle East Technical University, the Department of International Relations, Member of IFIMES International Institute


The International Institute for Middle-East and Balkan Studies (IFIMES) in Ljubljana, Slovenia, regularly analyses events in the Middle East and the Balkans. Saffet Akkaya, Colonel (Retd), Phd Candidate at the International Relations Middle East Technical University, Ankara/Turkey and Member of IFIMES International Institute has analysed situation and the populist unrest in Turkey. His article entitled “Democracy genie is out of bottle in Turkey” is published below.

Democracy Genie is out of Bottle in Turkey


What is happening in Turkey in last ten days pulls the attention of global public opinion. Demonstrations for the support of “Gezi Park” take place not only across Turkey but also around the world from Paris to Sydney or New York where Turks live. Certainly, this is not a simple protest based on environmental concerns to stop the construction of a Shopping Mall (AVM) in the Center of Istanbul-Taksim, but the outbreak of a people’s reaction against the policies of an Islamist party (JDP-Justice and Development Party) and its leader PM Tayyip Erdoğan. To understand the background of this social movement, there is a need to look over JDP and its Islamist projects in Turkey in last ten years.

Rise of JDP to Power

November 2002 elections were a breaking point in Turkey. A political Islamist party, JDP has come to power only 18 months after it was established since the foundation of Turkish Republic in 1923. In fact, the Islamists have always been a political actor in Turkey since very early years of the republic, sometimes becoming the small partner of coalition governments but have never come to power with full majority. In this sense, the political victory of JDP has been fuelled by three reasons; (i)failures of previous governments in economic and social problems, (ii)their failure to find a solution to PKK terrorism since early 1980s and (iii)the effects of the rise of political Islam over the globe in the wake of Cold War era. In following 11 years, JDP has increased its votes in general and local elections up to 50 %, controlling 2/3rd of the parliament. After Abdullah Gül became the president in 2007, and with substantial changes in Constitutional Law and the structure of Supreme Board of Judges and Prosecutors (HSYK) in 2010, the control of JDP and Prime Minister Erdoğan has become clear upon Judicial, Legislative and Executive arms of the State.

In order to see the truth behind the success of JDP in Turkish political life, we should not miss the point how these “new” Islamists have adopted themselves to new political conditions of post-Cold War era. The classical Islamists of Turkey, led by Necmettin Erbakan, had followed a very rigid path with little flexibility in their rhetoric, since Turkey welcomed the multi-party system after Second World War. The political agenda of Milli Nizam Partisi/National Order Party (1969-1971), Milli Selamet Partisi/National Salvation Party (1972-1980) and their successors (Refah, Fazilet, Saadet) were based on the principles of anti-westernism, anti-capitalism and a soft anti-secularism. Their ideological flag was milli görüş-national idea and adil düzen-just order. They were nationalist. Milli Selamet Partisi and its leader Necmettin Erbakan was the partner of the government in 1974 when Turkey conducted the Peace Operation to protect the rights of Turkish community in Cyprus.

When “new” Islamists came to power in 2002, their leaders Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Abdullah Gul declared that they have taken out the “shirt of milli görüş-national idea”. The reason for breaking their ties with the past was based on the reality that they had to regulate their steps with new global order led by the West. JDP’s party program was welcoming the capitalist economy, liberal democracy, while pushing aside the nationalist rhetoric. They were well aware that, they could resume their political dominance only with a rhetoric based on democracy, human rights and economic prosperity.

As the flag of their democratic understanding, instead of promoting the democratic control of the Army in a peaceful way, they preferred to arrest the generals/admirals and high ranking officers of Turkish Armed Forces (around 400 including the Chief of General Staff) with the claim that they will make a coupe against the government. As the flag of their capitalist economic understanding, instead of realizing a productive economy interacting with global economy, they have privatized almost all of the economic institutions including the strategic ones such as the banks and Turk-Telecom. In Turkey, in every city the Shopping Malls are popping up like mushrooms, attracting the society to consume more than they produce. Annual export-import deficit is over 100 billion dollars, which is two third of the annual export value. And, as the flag of human rights, instead of encouraging a modern society sharing common values and moral virtues, JDP gave full freedom to the headscarf as the symbol of their religio-moral understanding.

Philosophy of JDP

But actually, the JDP and its leading cadre was unaware of the reality that they could become a “Muslim Democrat Party” similar to Christian Democrats in Europe. Instead of feeding the virtues of liberal democracy, they framed their political agenda with simple Islamist aims similar to the agenda of Middle Eastern movements, i.e. Muslim Brotherhood. When we analyze JDP and the implementations of the party program in last decade in Turkey, we realize that they are tracing the philosophy of political Islam in its historical path. As well known, the philosophy of Political Islam is based on anti-westernizm with three targets in short, medium and long terms.

In short term, it orders the transformation of secular constitutional institutions. In Turkey this has been achieved in last decade, with the transformation and full control of legislative, judicial and executive powers by JDP. The soul of democracy, which is the principle of the separation of power has been demolished. The legislative and judicial powers have lost their capabilities to control the government and its implementations. The lawyers and courts have come under the control of Ministry of Justice and Supreme Board of Judges and Prosecutors. The cases opened against the government or the party affiliations have been prevented by the decisions of HSYK or the Ministry of Justice. The state institutions, including the governors and the police have been politicized. Private life has been unrolled by phone listenings and private computer trackings. Twitter and facebook users have been under judiciary proceedings particularly since 2007.

In mid term, political Islam orders the creation of a new generation raised according to the virtues of Islam religion. This is called as the re-Islamization of the society. Use of religious symbols such as headscarf and beard by the youth in Turkey is parallel with the objectification of religion. In this regard, in parallel with the directive of PM Erdoğan “…to raise a religious generation”, the JDP has enacted several codes to regulate the educational system, enabling the primary school students to join Imam-hatip/vocational religious schools. In last 10 years it is estimated that more than 30 thousand mosques have been built. Use of alcohol has been strictly limited to certain locations and times. The right of abortion has been forbidden and the women are encouraged to give birth to 3+ children. It is estimated that 95 % of the media, particularly the TV channels are under the control of JDP. For example, in recent unrest, none of the TV channels, except for Halk TV and Ulusal TV has broadcasted about the demonstrations across the country, until recently. It is for sure, the aim of re-Islamisation project is to grant Islamist votes of masses. JDP cadres are aware that religion as the strongest dogma will surely create a society with no space in their conscious for other political thoughts or ideologies.

In long term, political Islam orders the establishment of global Caliphate and the formation of an international Islamic society connected to each others. Although this is an utopia in today’s world, the foreign policy implementations of JDP and Mr. Erdoğan in the Middle East and North Africa is in parallel with this aim. He is behaving like the leader of the Muslim World in a way similar to Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt in 1950s and 1960s. He does not hesitate to interfere with the domestic affairs of neighboring countries. He takes unilateral initiatives contrary to the principles of state-to-state relations or international relations. His and President Gul’s visits to the United States have exceeded 25 times in last decade, giving the society a perception as if Turkey is being used by the United States like a sub-contractor in the Middle East politics.

Genie out of Bottle

In fact, a park cannot become the main reason of such a massive movement, but only an igniter. Gezi Park, beside its being the only green area where people can take a breath in the center of Taksim square, has a link to late Ottoman history. Recently, the Government decided (surpassing the authority of Mayor of Istanbul, Mr. Kadir Topbas) to re-build the historical Topcu Kislasi/Artillary Barracks in Gezi Park which was demolished in 1909 in the wake of a fundamentalist uprising. The event of April 1909 uprising in Topcu Kislasi is important for several reasons. It was a fundamentalist religious movement started by the soldiers asking for sharia law. This uprising was crushed and the barracks were demolished by Harekat Ordusu/Operation Army located in Selanik/Thessaloniki. The leaders of rioters were sentenced to death and executed. The Chief of the Staff of this Army was Mustafa Kemal (Ataturk), the founder of secular and modern Turkish Republic. The Gezi Park demonstrations have been ignited mainly by the personal decision of PM Erdoğan, to build a Shopping Mall in the Park in the architecture of historical Topcu Kislasi and this movement spread all over Turkey in last ten days.

When demonstrations started, PM Erdoğan named the participants as “marginal groups” and insulted them by naming “capulcu/pillagers”. Next day, the demonstrations flew out to other cities such as Ankara, Izmir, Adana, Tunceli and turned into a chain of protests against the government and PM Erdoğan. This was a general stand up against the failures of JDP government in domestic and foreign politics. The Reyhanli car bombings of 4 weeks ago which caused 51 deaths and minimum two hundred injured has already prepared a psychological background for these demonstrations against the government. The third day of the demonstrations Erdoğan flew to North Africa for a round visit to Morocco, Tunisia and Algeria, aiming to slow down the protests. But, since he left, the protests turned into a more organized and demanding posture pushing the government to take certain steps concerning the Gezi Park project. After the Democracy meetings in 2007 before the Presidential elections, the democracy Genie in Turkey has come out the second time. The difference between these two sorts of meetings is that there is no political party or civil society organization guiding the current demonstrations. The majority of the protestors have no link to any political party or group; rather they are simply the people on the street and gather inherently.

Further Developments

It would be very easy to draw some conclusions about the coming days, if this movement was an environmental reaction to stop tree cutting and replacement of a park with a shopping mall. This movement inherits some particular specifications on current political situation in Turkey. PM Erdoğan, before his departure to Morocco said that, he is having hardships to stop the voters of JDP (50%) from walking out of their homes, in a manner threatening the society with a devastating domestic turmoil. Moreover, he makes statements during his visit to Morocco that he will construct higher buildings after he returns to country. This statement of the Turkish Prime Minister indicates the poor psychological situation of the government in front of a social unrest they did not expect. He behaves like the leader of a violent Non-State Actor, similar to their Middle Eastern samples, rather than a responsible statesman. On the other hand, the excessive use of power by the police is a rigid indicator of government’s approach to protestors.

Actually, the language used by Mr. Erdoğan is one handicap to overcome this social problem. If he keeps increasing the tension amongst several layers of the society with his one-man approach, Turkey may tumble into more serious social and political problems. The friction between the police and one wing of the society (let me say secular) may grow and invite not all but some of Erdoğan fans. In Turkey, a crack has already been created amongst the layers of the society by way of the concessions given to PKK and its leading cadres. In such a sensitive situation, Mr. Erdoğan is expected to make creative and constructivist steps in order to decrease the tension.

If Mr. Erdoğan and JDP forerunners can make a sound judgment and return from the failures they made in last couple years, and change the route of their political program from Islamist steps, they have a chance to lead the country to local elections in peace for coming autumn. Otherwise, Turkish streets will have bigger potential to give birth to much more serious events. Rise of violence across the country may force the JDP government to take strongest precautions to stop the demonstrations and this will fuel the societal unrest to larger scale. The degree of the tension and social unrest in Turkey in coming days will be depending upon the capability of PM Erdoğan and his government to normalize their steps in domestic and international relations. If, JDP keeps the same attitude in coming days, Turkey will face hardest days. A non-stable Turkey in the region will surely have some negative effects upon its near periphery.