Billboards of Turkish Presidential candidates Recep Tayyip Erdoğan (L) and Ekmeleddin İhsanoğlu (R), Istanbul, 2014.

In March 2015, the LSE Middle East Centre and LSE Contemporary Turkish Studies co-organised a full-day workshop on the timely topic of democratisation in Turkey focusing on current debates on domestic politics involving the Kurdish and Alevi rights, and Turkish foreign policy especially its EU membership process and its policy towards the Middle East. The workshop was preceded by a public panel discussion bringing together Deniz Kandiyoti (SOAS), Berna Turam (Northeastern University) and Ali Çarkoğlu (Koç University). Kandiyoti’s speech started with the powerful image of the nation-wide public protests triggered by Özgecan Aslan’s murder, which included men as well. In her talk, Kandiyoti focused primarily on women’s rights in Turkey but also touched upon the ‘hyper-politicisation’ in the country that hijacked even the most banal aspects of Turkish daily life. Access to resources and preferment is mediated by a populist discourse that pits a ‘virtuous, God-fearing Us’ (indicating governmental party supporters) versus an ‘immoral Them’ (minorities, anti-governmental protesters and anyone who does not lead a lifestyle advocated by the ruling party). This marginalises those who do not adopt the government’s worldview and who are seen as undeserving of protection or access to public resources. Kandiyoti also points out that welfare benefits targeting women create a new sense of ‘citizenship through entitlement’ that explains women’s support for the AKP. Around 55% of Turkish women voted in favour of the ruling party’s candidate during the Presidential elections. The main reasons behind this choice are twofold: They not only receive social welfare distributed through the ruling party channels and public funds, but they also find the patriarchal discourse of the party deeply familiar. In this context, women become primary targets of the government. Kandiyoti argues that the ruling party’s attitude towards women’s rights cannot be solely explained with reference to an Islamic culture or ideology, but also reflects a broader, more complex combination of populism and patriarchal elements. Accordingly, Kandiyoti suggests that Turkey is witnessing a shift from a rights-based regime to a conditional protection regime in the sense that ‘fortunes are increasingly linked to belonging’.

Berna Turam’s talk was based on a comparison between the 2007 Republican marches and the Gezi Park protests of 2013. Turam disagrees with those who see the two events as part of the same structure or continuity. Instead, by focusing on the urban space and the demands raised by the protesters, she distinguishes the Gezi Park protests for being a distinct movement reflecting a different spirit than previous Republican protests in Turkey. While the Republican marches divided the urban space into two antagonistic zones of ‘secular’ and ‘Islamist’, Gezi Park protests sought to unify those segments that had been previously fragmented by the ruling elite. While the Republican protesters were caught within a power struggle between the old Kemalist establishment and the new Islamist establishment, the Gezi Park protests reflected demands for democratic freedoms and a strong reaction against the patriarchal structure reinforced by both establishments. Apart from the split within the secular camp, Turam also explains the divisions between different ‘neighbourhoods’ (with secularists and Islamists clearly marking their boundaries) and the divisions within the Islamist groups (especially the difference of worldviews and the following ‘cat fight’ between the Gülen movement and the AKP elite). However, she disagrees with the claim that Turkish politics and society are bound to a secular vs Islamist conflict. She emphasises the internal divisions between the secular segments of the Turkish society: Those who cannot ‘tolerate’ the Islamist headscarf in their neighbourhood (giving the example of her case study in Teşvikiye, Istanbul) left and were replaced by those who have a different understanding of the social and the world of freedoms. She concludes by emphasising that democratisation is a conflictual process; it is not about the elimination of conflict. Accordingly, she finds that the urban space fills the gap by constituting a channel of expression for democratic demands against an increasingly authoritarian state.

The third speaker, Ali Çarkoğlu, is well-known for his leading research on Turkish political parties and voting preferences by the Turkish public. Çarkoğlu explains that democratic satisfaction surveys conducted in Turkey provide a paradoxical picture: those whose party is in rule report higher levels of satisfaction in spite of the weaknesses and problems in the democratic implementation. In addition to partisanship, those who are currently expressing high satisfaction with democracy in Turkey are those who support right-wing ideologies, who are religious, and most importantly, who are happy with the current state of economic affairs. Çarkoğlu explains that education is negatively correlated with democratic satisfaction in Turkey (as elsewhere). Larger households are also less satisfied with Turkish democracy than smaller ones. Finally, Çarkoğlu finds that those who see terrorism as the most important issue in Turkey report themselves as satisfied with Turkish democracy while those who advocate greater freedoms for Kurdish people and criticise corruption, bribery and wrongdoing in public affairs are not satisfied with the current level of democracy. Çarkoğlu warns against a general misunderstanding around the concept of democracy in Turkey. All parties involved seem to have a definition of democracy that does not tolerate the ‘Other’ (those who do not follow their worldviews, lifestyles, etc.). If there are two camps, the conservative and the other camp, Çarkoğlu still believes that both camps in Turkey are similarly intolerant at a high level towards those who do not belong to their camp. Still, Çarkoğlu notes that the conservative camp seems statistically more intolerant, given its outright rejection of LGBT rights and its attitude towards ethnic and religious minorities (especially Jews and Armenians).

The following day, the closed workshop included three panel sessions: (1) State Institutions and the Rule of Law; (2) Civil Society and Political Culture; (3) Democracy, the European Union and the Middle East. The main emphasis of the three panels was on the clash between societal segments demanding greater democratic freedoms (such as Kurds, Alevis, LGBT, etc.) and the Turkish state that either opposes or fails to respond to such demands.

State Institutions and the Rule of Law

Levent Korkut (Hacettepe University) stresses that the pro-reform activism and enthusiasm of the Turkish government have been abandoned after the 2007 closure case against the ruling AKP. Concomitantly, the constitutional amendments and security sector reforms have not lived up to their promise yet in terms of transforming a militarist state culture to a civilian, democratic and liberal culture. Ethno-nationalist and religious conflict remain unresolved and the ruling party’s increasing self-confidence about amending the Constitution in the absence of consensus reinforces a perception of the ruling elite as ‘bad imitators of early Republican leaders’. In addition, Levent Köker (Atılım University) argues that the Turkish judiciary that once reflected ‘Bonapartist’ tendencies in terms of considering itself as the ‘guardian’ of the Kemalist ideology, can now be considered an ‘Islamist Bonapartist’ judiciary, protecting the vested interests of the ruling AKP elite. Stressing the fact that there is a thin line between Bonapartism and Fascism, Köker claims that the AKP government aims to establish its own judiciary, which would seriously damage the rule of law in Turkey. Yaprak Gürsoy (İstanbul Bilgi University) also emphasised the damage that the conduct of Ergenekon and Sledgehammer trials inflicted upon the rule of law and democracy in Turkey. Despite the fact that the AKP government successfully weakened the influence of the Armed Forces in Turkish politics, its way of achieving such an outcome became highly counter-productive for the credibility of the rule of law in Turkey. According to Gürsoy, both the AKP government and the Gülen movement considered the military as a common enemy, and hence cooperated in pursuing trials against army officers. However, after the clash between the government and the Gülen movement, the AKP overturned court decisions hence facilitating the release of the convicted army officers. Events since the beginning of these legal cases show that politics were deeply entrenched in matters of law. Gürsoy argues that the ruling party has been trying to control state security institutions, not only the military, but also the intelligence and police services. Taking into consideration the new National Intelligence Unit (MIT) Law and the Internal Security Law, overall, Gürsoy claims that despite certain gains in the area of civil-military relations, the AKP government continues with undemocratic practices in the area of security sector.

Civil Society and Political Culture

Intervention of police to May Day event in Gezi Park. Copyright Sasha Maksymenko, 2014.

The focus of this panel was on minority rights in Turkey, criticising the government’s policies towards the Kurdish, LGBT and Alevi communities. Mucahit Bilici (City University of New York) states how authoritarianism shifted in the last decade. Accordingly, an oppressive ‘Kemalist Republic’ has been replaced by an oppressive ‘Islamist Republic’ in the eyes of the traditionally marginalised segments such as the Kurds and Alevis. Hence, the AKP government ignores the demands of Kurds and Alevis despite its promises to address them. S. Can Açıksöz (University of Arizona), adds that the new Turkey creates new marginalised groups such as ‘Gazi’/war veterans that represented different things in different eras. For instance, Gazi was once a prestigious title given to those who fought against the PKK, but its meaning and value in society have since been redefined, especially after the Gezi demonstrations. The deceased protesters have been praised as Gezi martyrs and the wounded protesters have been considered by many as the ‘Gazis’ of Gezi. Overall, Açıksöz argues that the perpetrator and victim subject positions that have been united in a single Gazi body during the Kurdish conflict now disintegrate into two separate bodies emblematic of new Turkey’s state sovereignty: the blinded protestor and the ‘machete guy’.

Democracy, the European Union and the Middle East

Catherine Ashton & then Foreign Minister of Turkey Ahmet Davutoğlu, 2013.

Examining the current situation in Turkey-EU relations, Meltem Müftüler-Baç (Sabancı University) claims that Turkey’s backsliding into authoritarianism perplexes its place in the EU’s enlargement process. She argues that the systemic deficiencies in Turkish politics, where effective checks and balances are missing, or have been eliminated in order to concentrate political powerat the hands of a single actor, not only prove counter-productive to Turkey’s democratic consolidation but also endanger its EU membership prospects. Denying assertions that depict Turkey as a sui generis case of European integration, Müftüler-Baç nevertheless stresses that Turkey is qualitatively different from other accession countries due to several reasons, including its large population. Emma Sinclair-Webb (Human Rights Watch) argues that the impact of external organisations (such as the Venice Commission, the European Union, the Council of Europe), which was assumed to deter Turkey’s fall back to authoritarianism, has remained limited. The leverage they may have once had in Turkey seems to have declined significantly in the last decade. Yet, Sinclair-Webb claims that civil society in Turkey has taken the form of social movements and campaigning alliances and has become more outward-looking. The recent developments including the Gezi protests and the nation-wide protests over the murder of Özgecan Aslan indicate the development of civil society activism against increasing authoritarianism in Turkey.

Overall, in addition to state-citizen and state-minority relations, the workshop successfully attracted attention to various important topics such as the repercussions of patriarchy, different ways of defining democracy, increasing intolerance and violence against the Other in Turkey, including women, LGBT, ethnic and religious minorities.