The two faces of the AKP
This Monday, Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdoğan is expected to announce a big “democratization package.” Some of the expected reforms are the introduction of education in the Kurdish language (as opposed to mere “Kurdish language classes” in Turkish language schools), the recognition of the Alevi houses of worship, and the re-opening of the Halki Seminary of the Ecumenical Patriarchate.
These are, undoubtedly, great steps. They are among the big reforms that Turkey’s liberals have been dreaming of for decades. They will, certainly, be big gains for Turkey, and the AKP will deserve to be praised for that.
But does this mean that the AKP, after 10 years in power, is still a liberalizing force? If you focus on the upcoming “democratization package,” and similar reforms that the government has realized in the past 10 years, you can safely say yes. That is why the AKP indeed still gets support from some of Turkey’s liberals, who see the party as a liberator from decades of a quasi-military regime which imposed a strict nationalism and oppressed the minorities. They stress that no other political party in Turkish history made more reforms for the Kurds or the Christians, and they are really right.
Other liberals, however, point to counter-facts. The AKP is intolerant towards criticism, and journalists in mainstream media who oppose the prime minister somehow magically lose their jobs one by one.
The government’s response to the Gezi Park protests were also not terribly democratic, but rather in the style of authoritarian regimes: paranoid and heavy-handed. Such facts have led this second group of Turkish liberals to denounce the AKP as an authoritarian (if not “fascist”) government that curbs freedoms and lowers democratic standards.
So, which of these views is true? Is the AKP a liberalizing or an authoritarian force?
My answer is that, well, both of these views are true at the same time. In other words, the AKP still advances Turkish democracy in some aspects, but curbs it in some other aspects.
Here is my explanation for this confusing picture: The AKP is happy to heal the troubles created by the
old elite (the Kemalists), but it cannot show the same fair-mindedness when it comes to the troubles created by its own hands. For example, Prime Minister Erdoğan publicly apologized for the massacre of Kurdish tribes in 1937-38 in the face of the Dersim Rebellion. Because it was the Kemalist elite who was responsible for those atrocities. But, to date, he has not apologized the killing of 35 Kurdish civilians in an accidental bombing near Uludere, a town near the Iraqi border, in December 2011.
Apparently, apologizing on behalf of your predecessors is much easier than apologizing for your own actions.
Similarly, when the AKP makes reforms for minorities, they take pride in correcting the mistakes of “old Turkey.” But when it comes to dealing with the Gezi Park movement, a trouble within “new Turkey,” the AKP can well show the same conspiratorial and authoritarian mindset employed by the Kemalist against their own opponents.
What this means, ultimately, is that the AKP has been a great contribution to Turkey, as it defeated the old regime and has helped heal some of the scars that old regime opened. But it is opening new scars, the healing of which will demand yet another great leap forward in Turkish democracy.