Turkey's shaky democracy receives another serious blow

Presumably, wise old heads within the AKP have little chance of prevailing over diktats issued by an omnipotent president.

By Arnab Neil Sengupta

Published: Thu 22 Aug 2019, 8:45 PM

Last updated: Thu 22 Aug 2019, 10:47 PM

The ousting of three pro-Kurdish mayors by the government is merely the latest in Turkey's long line of self-inflicted wounds. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has evidently taken a calculated risk on the assumption that no amount of persecution of Kurds by Middle East regimes will trigger off angry demonstrations in London, much less a flurry of furious opeds in America's elite liberal media.

Marginalised socially and economically and demonised politically, Turkey's Kurds have been able to stage isolated street protests against the sackings. For the Erdogan government, the scenes of riot police using water cannon, tear gas and batons against Kurdish demonstrators have the added bonus of acting as a warning to all opposition politicians.

Just five months after reposing their faith in Turkish democracy, Kurds are now discovering that the ruling AKP's unspoken credo - "If you don't vote for us, you don't deserve democracy" - remains unchanged despite the stinging losses it suffered in the March mayoral elections.

Sensible Turks, including possibly some of the AKP's now estranged founders, surely know deep down that the harm being done to their country's social fabric and global reputation by the continued persecution of HDP legislators and supporters is incalculable.

Since 2016 nearly 100 mayors and thousands of HDP members, including members of parliament, have been jailed on flimsy charges. The party's two former co-chairs, Selahattin Demirtas and Figen Yuksekdag, have been in prison for several years now. Against this backdrop, the removal of the mayors of Diyarbakir, Van and Mardin has dealt a fresh blow to Kurdish efforts to join the political mainstream.

Presumably, wise old heads within the AKP have little chance of prevailing over diktats issued by an omnipotent president. In any case, the toxic legacy of Erdogan's Kurdish policy is something that will have to be tackled by future generations of Turkish politicians.

In the immediate term, the apparent beneficiaries of the dismissal of the mayors are the PKK and its splinter organisations, which have been waging a low-intensity insurgency from their bases along the border with Iraq.

Although they probably can differentiate between the mentality of the Turkish leader and that of the country's enlightened elites towards Kurds, the Kurdish rebels are unlikely to declare another ceasefire in the near future.

A potential surge of recruits from an increasingly alienated Kurdish population may well be a temporary gain for PKK commanders, but it will be greatly outweighed by the pain felt by Turkey's 12 million Kurds, most of whom live in the country's impoverished southeast.

At a national level, the replacement of the pro-Kurdish mayors by government officials serves notice on opposition CHP politicians who stand a good chance of gaining power in the next general elections.

Given that the accusations against the sacked HDP mayors include "membership of a terrorist organisation and spreading terrorist group propaganda," CHP politicians and AKP dissidents could very well become the next target of the government's ire.

Unconfirmed reports say the crackdown against the HDP will extend to include opposition CHP mayors, including those of Istanbul and Ankara. Pro-government voices have done their bit to fuel such speculation by claiming that 34 CHP mayors with alleged links to terrorism could be removed from office at any time.

Still, it was impossible for a leader of the stature of Istanbul Mayor Ekrem Imamoglu to stay silent in the face of the government's latest move. His remark "There may be people who act as though they (have unlimited authority), but they will cause this country to suffer losses" - succinctly described the gravity of the situation.

Before Erdogan became prime minister in 2002, it was the secularist establishment which exacerbated Turkey's Kurdish problem by looking for a purely military solution.

The ease with which Ankara was able to convince its NATO allies to designate the PKK a terrorist group left it with little incentive to foster a more inclusive environment that granted Kurds greater cultural and political rights.

Since 2015, it has been turn of the AKP government to compound the mistakes of its predecessors with its hounding of the HDP. More broadly, Turkey has not experienced such a long spell of turbulence in its domestic, foreign and economic affairs since the 1970s, a decade that remains etched into memory by political factionalism, street battles between rightists and leftists, and runaway inflation.

For good or ill, the polarisation of Turkish society along ideological lines under AKP rule has somewhat blurred the distinction between pro-secularist and pro-Kurdish positions. Indeed, the fearless stance of the HDP leadership in the face of Erdogan's authoritarian turn may have indirectly strengthened Turkish democracy during a particularly dark time.

But on the downside, the Erdogan government's obsessive enmity towards the pro-Kurdish HDP at home and the Kurdish-led SDF in neighbouring Syria has forced Turkey's Kurds to lower their expectations of being treated as equal citizens. From their perspective, the removal of the three mayors amounts to a humiliating rejection of their basic right of political participation.

Arnab Neil Sengupta is an independent journalist and commentator on Middle East

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