Is there no hope for Turkish democracy?

The results of Turkey's June elections prompted many to wonder if a new democratic era had begun. Dilek Kurban assesses the results and looks to the future.

But the result did not in reality give much cause for optimism since the four political parties in Parliament failed to form a coalition, enabling President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to call another election for November 1. There is certainly much to say about Erdoğan’s destructive, and indeed unconstitutional, role in this outcome. Ever since the results were announced, his intention to treat the election as null and void was evident. It wasn’t only the 13 years of his party’s sole rule that had come to an end that night, but also his prospects for single-handed rule over Turkey under a presidential system. Erdoğan thus did his utmost to call for repeat elections, including by refusing to give the main opposition party any chance to form a coalition after the AKP’s leader, Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu, failed to do so. On the other hand, the opposition parties’ own uncompromising hostility towards each other more than facilitated Erdoğan’s manoeuvers.

Whatever the outcome of the repeat elections, Turkey will remain in the ‘grey zone’ between autocracy and democracy if it continues without structural change. By virtue of its regular and free elections, representative institutions and competitive political parties, Turkey has for too long been mislabelled as a democracy despite its constitutional and legal authoritarianism. The regime Turkey’s military rulers crafted before they reluctantly passed the government to civilians in 1983 has not only been kept intact but enhanced by democratically-elected governments ever since. The introduction of a draconian anti-terror law, the declaration of a state of emergency regime, the establishment of a paramilitary force made up of Kurdish civilians to fight the PKK, and the establishment of state security courts are among the works of civilian governments.

Turkey’s EU negotiation process has been seen to have brought about a significant process of democratisation whereby the AKP and the preceding coalition government abolished some of these laws and policies. The state of emergency was abolished and the state security courts were dissolved, but only superficially. While the state of emergency rule in the Kurdish region was gradually brought to an end by November 2002, the state of exception regime is intact in the body of the 1982 Constitution and the State of Emergency Law of October 1983. State security courts have also continued in practice with their replacement by “heavy penal courts with special powers”. Many of the due process violations the European Court of Human Rights had detected in the 1990s – the “darkest years” of Turkey’s democracy – remain in both law and practice.

Even since the summer elections, the government has fashioned ‘special security zones’ around a number of towns and villages in the Kurdish region, restricting physical access and information flows. New curfews allowing no one, not even elected HDP officials, to enter urban areas have resulted in a high number of civilian deaths – over 20 in the case of Cizre – that to this day remain unacknowledged by the AKP leadership. The government recently declared that 5,000 additional village guards – the aforementioned paramilitary force, which committed gross human rights violations against Kurdish civilians in the 1990s – will be recruited to fight with the military against the PKK. All of this was legitimised in the name of counter-terrorism, just like the thousands of summary executions, enforced disappearances, forced village evictions, property destructions and uses of torture in the 1990s.

Democracy entails much more than free elections, checks and balances and representative institutions. No regime can be deemed democratic in the absence of the rule of law, individual justice and the accountability of state officials for the crimes they commit. Here, Turkey’s continued authoritarianism is most apparent. The rightful national and international attention given to the disproportionate use of police force against the Gezi Park protestors in 2013 tends to overshadow that unlawful civilian killings are a systematic state practice in Turkey. Since the March-April 2006 protests in the Kurdish provinces of Diyarbakir and Batman, hundreds of civilians, including children and the elderly, have been unlawfully killed by security forces in the Kurdish region. On all occasions, not a single police officer has been arrested, let alone convicted, despite the availability of strong evidence.

Perhaps the one sign for optimism is that Turkish society, at least some of it, has managed to change for the better over the past decade. Many more people are now aware of the kind of regime they are governed by. Despite all the pressure on the media and civil society, and despite the absence of basic protections of fundamental freedoms, political dissent is shared by a growing segment of society. Their voice, however, remains weak in the absence of a strong and institutionalised democratic opposition, a human rights-minded judiciary to protect them against government abuses and a strong independent media to tell the truth and ask the right questions.

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