The abolition of capital punishment in 2002 - just prior to the Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) first election victory - was one of the greatest steps taken by Turkey in its efforts to reach European judicial standards. The fact that it was abolished after the head of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party
(PKK), Abdullah Öcalan, was captured and brought to Turkey, where he was tried and sentenced to death, added to the significance of this development.
Needless to say, a significant portion of the population clamored for Öcalan to be executed in the name of what the Americans clinically call “closure.” While its grass roots demanded Öcalan be hanged, even the ultranationalist National Movement Party (MHP) - a coalition partner of the Ecevit government at the time - accepted the abolition of the death penalty because Turkey’s EU perspective demanded this. Many ultranationalists still hold this against the party.
However, no capital punishment had been carried out in Turkey since 1984 anyway. Among the reasons for this was the fact that while many death sentences were handed out after the 1980 military coup, executing someone from the left or the right - the two factions whose bloody struggle had precipitated the coup in the first place - would have laid the seeds for future political unrest.
Sentences prior to 1984 under civilian rule were carried out with the endorsement of Parliament, and such an endorsement was simply not forthcoming after the return of civilian rule to the country in 1983. In the end, capital punishment was officially abolished in Turkey, even in times of war.
This was indeed a step in the direction of the “advanced democracy” that Prime Minister Erdoğan had claimed to be carrying this country towards. Now, however, we see the same Erdoğan, whose democratic credentials are increasingly under scrutiny, becoming a key advocate for a return of the death penalty.
During a recent party retreat he told AKP members that opinion polls indicated overwhelming support for capital punishment. He was not referring to demands for the death sentence every time a young girl is killed in an “honor killing,” or when deadly violence is meted out against women by men in this country.
With the government’s failure to solve the Kurdish question, and the related increase in PKK
terrorism, the question of whether Öcalan’s death sentence should be carried out is what is driving Erdoğan’s populist quest today. He repeated the need for the death sentence again last week, during a visit to the Sultanate of Brunei. Asked about this issue during a press conference, he did not refrain from demagoguery by pointing to the case of Anders Breivik in Norway.
Erdoğan expressed his amazement that a killer of 77 people only received 21 years in prison, giving short shrift of any suggestion that Anders Breivik would be kept behind bars one way or another for the rest of his life.
Responding to that suggestion, Erdoğan said the following: “How am I to believe this? Today the death penalty has been abolished in Europe. But has it been abolished in America, in Japan, in China? This means that there are times when the death penalty is justified.”
I recall Margaret Thatcher, during my university years in Ireland, saying much the same, at a time when IRA terrorism was at its peak. Whatever the case may be in the U.S. or Japan, the British valued their advanced democracy in the end and even Thatcher’s husband Denis came out against the death penalty.
The real test of whether Turkey is truly becoming a country of “advance democracy” will be whether it
can resist the regression that Erdoğan in increasingly representing on a host of issues, starting from freedom of expression and now covering the question of capital punishment.
What increasingly appears to be in the ascendant, as far as he is concerned, is not a commitment to “advanced democracy,” but a vindictive intolerance to opposition and a reactionary “eye for an eye” outlook. It is worth noting that this is happening just as Erdoğan shows more and more that he wants to become an unchecked president with exceptional powers.