The Troublesome Drift of Democracy in Turkey

By BARIN KAYAOĞLU

January 17, 2011

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The recent behavior of Turkey’s two main parties and the course of democracy in Turkey have been extremely alarming.

Two weeks ago, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan went to the eastern town of Kars to dedicate the “Humanity Monument,” a statue representing reconciliation between Turks and Armenians after the events of 1915 (never mind that that reconciliation hasn’t occurred yet). Upon seeing the unfinished statue, Mr. Erdoğan reportedly called it a “freak” and ordered it to be torn down. Members of Mr. Erdoğan’s AKP (Justice and Development Party) and the pro-AKP press towed the line without even seeing the monument.

The unfinished statue in Kars.

Simultaneously, the Tobacco and Alcohol Market Regulatory Authority unveiled its new measures to curtail young people’s access to alcohol. Although the plan is not the comprehensive ban claimed by those against the AKP, it served as a powerful image of a government of political Islamists banning alcohol. Add to that Prime Minister’s hostile remark about how people “indulge in alcohol until they sneeze,” people are rightly concerned with Mr. Erdoğan’s and AKP’s increasingly authoritarian posture.

The main opposition party, CHP (Republican People’s Party), is not doing any better. A few weeks ago, a comic book came out, depicting the early life of the founder of modern Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. Called “Genç Mustafa” (Young Mustafa) and based on real events (Yalın Alpay, a young historian who studied history at Boğaziçi University in İstanbul, leads the project), parts of the comic strip show the young Mustafa Kemal, freshly out of the Ottoman Army Staff Academy in 1905, being beaten by the sultan’s secret police for anti-monarchical activities.

In response, Şahin Mengü, a member of parliament for CHP, decided to press charges against the cartoonist Barış Keşoğlu and Yalın Alpay for “insulting” Atatürk. Mr. Mengü said he was “offended” by the image of Mustafa Kemal bleeding after getting punched in the face (it’s highly unlikely that the young army officer would not have been roughed up at the time). On a political talk show, Mr. Mengü defended himself – on extremely weak grounds – that it was his mission to “protect” the founder of his party and the Republic of Turkey from “systematic attacks.”

This depiction of Atatürk's youth offended Şahin Mengü, a CHP deputy.

Add to that the vicious reactions to the new TV show, “Muhteşem Yüzyıl” (the Magnificent Century) about the life and times of Ottoman Sultan Süleyman the Magnificent (r. 1520-1566): The Radio and Television Supreme Council (RTÜK), after receiving over 60,000 calls from viewers complaining about “suggestive” content, asked the show’s producers to present “a factual interpretation” of the personal life of a revered historical figure. The RTÜK decision appeared more like a subtle censor.

These cases show that the failure to tolerate opposing views and lifestyles is becoming a serious problem in Turkey. At this point, the country is in an extremely difficult dilemma: it needs a genuinely liberal party – one that not only refrains from intervening in people’s personal lives (whether they are religious or not) but one that also lifts the restraints on the free market and focuses on improving healthcare, public education, and the legal system (the recent release and eventual disappearance of murder suspects linked to the Turkish Hizbullah has destroyed whatever trust people had in courts). The problem is that, people in Turkey – whether they are Turkish, Kurdish, Islamist, secular, conservative, social democratic, or nationalist – have become too intolerant of “the other.” To be sure, in a country where supporting the government’s “we’re going to so and so no matter what” attitude qualifies as being a “liberal intellectual,” it would be very hard for a genuinely liberal party to convince ordinary citizens to embrace diversity.

Current parties make the situation worse; not better. Instead of reducing social tensions, AKP and CHP perpetuate intolerance in Turkey. They agree on little except for their mutual hatred and their defense of taboos (religion in AKP’s case, Atatürk and secularism in CHP’s case). These days, you hear more about what AKP and CHP say about each other than how they’re going to solve the country’s problems.

Turkey can gain global prominence only if the two parties and their supporters understand that they need to change their irrational and intolerant style. Otherwise, democracy in Turkey is heading for trouble.

Barın Kayaoğlu is a Ph.D. candidate in history at The University of Virginia. He welcomes all comments, questions, and exchanges. To contact him, click here.

You can also follow him on Twitter (@barinkayaoglu) and Facebook (BarınKayaoğlu.com).

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