Can capital punishment pave Erdoğan’s road to the presidency?
Actually, there have been rumors of a political scenario whispered in Ankara since the spring months about a constitution for a powerful presidential system forced to a referendum with a promise of bringing back the death penalty, but these rumors were never confirmed by ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Parti) officials.
That was the reason why the issue never came onto the political agenda, or onto the agenda of the media. However, when Prime Minister Tayyip Erdoğan brought the subject up in a fairly bold manner in an AK Parti convention on Nov. 3, it was not possible to ignore it anymore. He surfed onto this critical subject while he was criticizing the ongoing hunger strikes over the prison conditions of the imprisoned-for-life leader of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), saying that the majority of Turkish people were in favor of bringing back the death penalty. This was in reference to the fact that capital punishment in Turkey was lifted by Parliament in 2002, three years after the capture and sentencing to death of Öcalan in 1999.
Erdoğan repeated his words on Nov. 10, on his way back from a visit to Indonesia and Brunei. He even dragged them out further by saying that the death penalty existed in countries like the United States, Russia, China and Japan. He also gave the example of the 21 years’ sentence for Anders Breivik, the killer of 77 civilians in Norway, asking whether that was a fair judgment. He was clearly aiming to keep the subject warm in public attention.
In the meantime, a series of interesting developments took place. On Nov. 5, Deputy Prime Minister Bülent Arınç denied that Öcalan was isolated, as is claimed, and said that Öcalan’s relatives (if not his attorneys) could visit him. In addition, Arınç said a law change would be possible to allow for defense in courtrooms in languages other then Turkish (including Kurdish). These were among the demands of the strikers. Meanwhile, European Union Commissioner Stefan Füle said in reply to Leyla Zana - a prominent Kurdish deputy in the Turkish Parliament – that the government’s promise to enable defense in Kurdish should be waited for. Justice Minister Sadullah Ergin also said that such a law change would be possible as soon as Erdoğan returned to Ankara from his trip.
When it was understood that Erdoğan had extended his trip to Brunei – and thus not return to his office until Monday - some deputies of the Kurdish problem-focused Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) started a hunger strike in solidarity with those in prison. When Erdoğan went to his home town of Rize to receive an honorary doctorate degree from a new university carrying his own name, rather than convening the Cabinet, the BDP declared a boycott of the Constitutional Conciliation Commission in Parliament.
Hopes are fading for a reconciliatory new constitution. Can Erdoğan use the death penalty card to enforce a strong-President system in a possible referendum in Turkey? Why not? Will that decrease the quality of democracy in Turkey, considering the EU’s Copenhagen Criteria? Yes, but the number one problem now for Turkey is the PKK issue. What will the EU say? Will it cut ties? Does the EU look likely to accept Turkey nowadays anyway? Perhaps that could be a bargaining chip in the reset Turkey-EU relations after a period of dealing with the Kurdish and the PKK problems with the sword of Alexander in hand.
The hunger strikes in Turkey, risking the lives of hundreds of prisoners for Öcalan, seem to open up Pandora’s Box.