By BARIN KAYAOĞLU
September 11, 2010
Actually, the answer’s very simple: I voted for the Justice and Development Party (AKP in Turkish) in 2007 in order to defend democracy. But for the last three years, the AKP has taken a very insincere stance on democracy and has disappointed many people. That is the most important reason why I will cast a ‘no’ to the constitutional amendments on September 12.
After winning 46.5% of the vote in July 2007, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan pledged to ‘also represent the 50% who did not vote for us.’ But Mr. Erdoğanhas failed to uphold that promise. For the last three years, he has frequently clashed with that 50% and their representatives in the Grand National Assembly; he has reacted to all criticisms like a furious dictator; and he has created tensions by starting new polemics in an irresponsible fashion.
Mr. Erdoğan’s ‘Hitler’ label for İsmet İnönü, a hero of Turkey’s War of Independence and, as leader of the single-party that ruled Turkey from 1923 until 1950, deserves much credit for Turkey’s transition to multi-party democracy, is a case in point.
Quite a few of AKP’s 2007 voters must have felt that disappointment because the party’s votes fell to 39% in last year’s local elections.
The truth is – and despite the AKP government’s claims to the contrary – the constitutional amendments to be voted on September 12 do not advance democracy in Turkey in any serious way.
In spring 2009, the Prime Minister called for a ‘Kurdish overture’ to address the problems of Turkey’s 10 to 15 million Kurdish citizens. Fearing a reprisal from his conservative base, Mr. Erdoğan re-labelled his initiative as ‘The Project for National Unity and Solidarity.’
It is remarkable that not a single amendment addresses the Kurdish question – one of Turkey’s most pressing problems. Limiting party closures to racism and advocacy of violence; or expanding the boundaries of free speech (also excluding racism and advocacy of violence); or even just mentioning ‘citizens’ ethnic, religious, linguistic, and cultural rights’ could have served as a bold step toward realizing the ‘Kurdish overture.’ But the AKP has chosen not to take that step.
The anti-democratic propaganda that the government and groups close to the government pursue againt those who don’t join their ‘yes’ campaign increases the suspicion that the AKP’s real intentions have nothing to do with democracy. Two weeks ago, Prime Minister Erdoğan warned TOBB and TÜSİAD (respectively, ‘The Union of Chambers and Commodity Exchanges’ and ‘The Turkish Industrialists’ and Businessmen’s Associaton’) that their refusal to endorse the amendment package was tentamount to ‘coup-mongering’ and that ‘those who do not pick sides shall vanquish.’ Those who genuinely want Turkey to democratize have interpreted Mr. Erdoğan’s words as an open threat.
It is unclear whether Prime Minister Eroğan, who can’t act in a democratic fashion at such an important juncture, could countenance any criticism once he gains the upper hand vis-a-vis the legislative and the judicial branches of the government through the referendum.
Another important matter casts a shadow on the AKP’s sincereness about democratization. The party is trying to portray the referendum of September 12 as a showdown with the military’s dominant role in Turkish politics in general and the military coup of September 12, 1980 in particular.
From a legal standpoint, it is not certain that the leaders of the September 12 coup – including General Kenan Evren, leader of that coup – can actually be tried. Despite the constitutional amendments, it is very unlikely that the coup-makers will be tried because of statute of limitations. It is interesting to note that the AKP ignored the two opposition parties – CHP and MHP (respectively, ‘Republican People’s Party’ and ‘Nationalist Action Party’) – when they suggested adding additional provisions to ensure that the coup-makers could be tried.
We cannot change history but there are ways of stopping future coups in Turkey. Strengthening civilian authority over the military is a realistic and obvious way of ensuring that. Subordinating the Chief of General Staff to the Ministry of National Defense – rather than the Prime Minister as it is the case today – is one way. Another measure would be to change the wording of Article 35 of the Internal Service Code of the Turkish Armed Forces (‘The duty of the Armed Forces is to protect and defend the Turkish homeland and the Republic of Turkey as defined in the constitution’), which has served as the legal pillar for past coups. These changes merely require the passage of a few laws from the Grand National Assembly. But the AKP, which has held a parliamentary majority for the past 8 years, has done nothing to that end and mocked those who called on them to deliver on their promises. And that begs the question whether the AKP is really sincere about addressing military coups.
My vote is ‘no.’ But everyone living in Turkey – regardless of whether a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ comes out of the polls – has to respect the outcome if the country is to develop and democratize. And, on the morning of September 13, political parties and civil society groups have to start working on a new constitution.
Turkey deserves that.
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.