By Serhun Al
Roadblocks to a Democratic Transition
Almost a century ago, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founding father of modern Turkey, abolished the Ottoman caliphate and monarchy declaring a secular Republic with a European outlook. A century later, President Erdoğan has established a sultanistic regime over his twenty-year rule where many of his supporters embrace him as a caliphate-like figure despite an inflation rate near 80% and a significantly depreciated Turkish lira. Although a deepening economic crisis and fading civil liberties did reduce Erdoğan’s popularity from around 50% to 30% in recent years, the opposition parties continue to struggle to devise a strategy to beat Erdoğan despite all the odds in their favor in the upcoming elections next year. But why? After 20 years of Erdoğan’s rule, why is the opposition still far away from disseminating a heart-felt hope?
Perhaps part of the reason is while the main opposition parties agree on ending Erdoğan’s twenty-year rule in Turkey, they have failed to construct a clear agenda for a post-Erdoğan era. In 2018, four political parties created a unified coalition (called the Nation Alliance) against Erdoğan led by the secular Republican People’s Party (CHP) and the nationalist Good Party (IYI). Later in 2021, two new splinter parties from Erdoğan’s AKP joined the Nation Alliance as well. Still, the major pro-Kurdish political party, Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), was not invited due to Turkish nationalist concerns. While the CHP is more receptive, the Good Party remains a hard-liner against pro-Kurdish politics. Such reckless and banal Turkish nationalism against Kurdish political and cultural rights jeopardizes the potential democratic transition in the post-Erdoğan era.
The Kurdish Minority
For years, Erdoğan politically thrived with the support of both the pious Muslims and the Kurdish minority. Governing parties hand long neglected both groups ever since the establishment of Ataturk’s Republic. Indeed, a domineering secular Turkish nationalism was the grandeur sine qua non of the regime. Ultimately, Erdoğan also found the support of Turkish nationalists necessary to consolidate his power and build his a la Turca autocracy. He crushed the Kurds after the breakdown of the PKK-Turkey peace process in 2015. Tragically, it was a missed opportunity to end the 40-year armed conflict with the Kurdish insurgents. Since then, thousands of Kurdish activists and politicians have been jailed. Moreover, Erdoğan’s government forcefully removed nearly all the democratically elected Kurdish mayors from their offices. Unfortunately, the anti-Erdoğan opposition has also tacitly agreed to crackdowns on pro-Kurdish politics.
But today the opposition desperately needs the support of the Kurds to defeat Erdoğan. So while many Kurds are critical of Erdoğan, they are also cautious about openly and unconditionally supporting the Nation Alliance. If one delves into the modern history of Turkey, it is obvious that respect for the Kurdish cultural and linguistic rights; respect for religious minorities and respect for refugees and immigrants have proven to be the exception rather than the rule. Indeed, the Kurdish experience teaches us democracy is nothing more than the tyranny of the majority when it fails to treat minority groups as equal citizens of the society with respect, empathy and compassion. So, a mere transition from one tyranny of majority to another is not enough to genuinely democratize the Republic.
Democratization Demands Inclusion
Recently, the Turkish far-right has gained significant ground among opposition circles. Umit Ozdag, leader of the Victory Party, makes headlines every day with his unapologetic racism against Syrian refugees and immigrants. Tanju Ozcan, a mayor of Bolu from the Republican People’s Party, earns fame with his xenophobic rhetoric against Syrian refugees. One can be sure that these people are definitely not fond of Kurds either. Meral Aksener, leader of the Good Party, proudly keeps ruling out any possibility of cooperation with the pro-Kurdish HDP, yet at the same time calls for a democratic transition in the post-Erdoğan era. Such crude and exclusionary Turkish nationalist discourses in the anti-Erdoğan political circles definitely slashes the hopes for genuine democracy after Erdoğan.
Any political agenda based on xenophobic Turkish nationalism will not cure Turkey’s ongoing economic and political tragedy. But reconciliation with its marginalized communities including Kurds, Alevis, refugees, religious minorities, LGBTQ communities could begin to build a new society where everyone feels home and treated with dignity and respect. Turkey has always been a multicultural, multi-religious and multi-linguistic country. Any post-Erdoğan democratization attempts without sincerely considering these communities are doomed to fail.
A Litmus Test for Democratization
Erdoğan’s conservative and pious rule has culturally marginalized many, particularly those who aspire to live a non-religious and secular lifestyle. Moreover, Turkey’s economic crisis, corruption, autocracy, and judicial injustices are common problems for all. Many bright young professionals including doctors, engineers, and academics have already left the country for a more prosperous and free life, yet unless the historical marginalization of cultural minorities is addressed, tyranny of the majority will certainly continue.
The 40-year Kurdish conflict has intoxicated every political institution, traumatized all segments of society, and cost the lives of more than 50,000 people. It awaits an imminent peaceful resolution. Once Erdoğan was bold enough to initiate peace talks with the Kurdish insurgents. The opposition should be ready too. Beyond important institutional and judicial reconfigurations (such as going back to the parliamentary system) after Erdoğan, the opposition should also prepare to lead a conflict-resolution process and establish a long-lasting peace. This is the first litmus test for a genuine process of democratization in the post-Erdoğan era.
Serhun Al is currently a visiting political scientist at Ohio State University focusing on modern Turkey and the Kurdish Middle East.
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