Erdoğan’s stance on capital punishment changes depending on situation
The ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Party) was against the death penalty at its foundation. However, during voting on a law to abolish the death penalty in 2002, AK Party members mostly abstained or rejected the motion, staying close to the line of the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP).
After this, when it came to power the same year, it completed a reform totally eliminating capital punishment from legislation within the framework of moving toward full membership in the European Union.
When the AK Party’s subsequent practices are reviewed, we see a zigzagging line between two poles.
One example of this is the argument starting with AK Party leader Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s sarcastic implication toward MHP leader Devlet Bahçeli during the 2007 election campaign that İmralı (island) was “refurbished” especially for outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) leader Abdullah Öcalan. Bahçeli, the next day, responded at an Erzurum rally, throwing a noose from the stand, saying, “Here is the rope for you; come on, hang him…”
In subsequent rallies, Erdoğan continued the discussion by replying to Bahçeli: “Capital punishment existed at that time [you were in a ruling coalition]; why didn’t you hang him?”
Besides, the prime minister is still remembered for a speech he made as he was seeking support for constitutional amendments in the 2010 referendum in which he described the deaths of rightist and leftist young people hanged after the Sept. 12 military coup while failing to hold back his tears. Later, while the 2011 elections were approaching, he spoke with thicker lines compared to the 2007 campaign. We saw an Erdoğan who was regretful and who expressed his discomfort both that capital punishment had been abolished and that Öcalan had not been hanged.
One of his harshest proclamations was an interview with Kral FM when he cited the three leaders of the MHP-Democratic Leftist Party (DSP)-Motherland Party (ANAP) in power at the time of Öcalan’s trial, saying: “If you had not delayed it [Öcalan’s death penalty] at that time, if you had not swept it under the rug, that business right now would have long been over. There would not be such a thing on our agenda.”
Asked what he would have in terms of Öcalan’s death sentence if he had been in the coalition, Erdoğan answered: “I would have implemented whatever punishment was needed to be implemented. Otherwise you withdraw from the coalition; it is that simple.”
In other words, Erdoğan is conveying the message, “If it were me, I would have hanged [him].”
On the ATV television channel the same evening, Erdoğan further strengthened his declaration, claiming that the expectations of the families of fallen soldiers had been sold cheaply with the delay in the implementation of Öcalan’s death sentence.
“If it had been implemented then, we would not be at this stage today,” he said. “The head of the terrorists was saved, but the nation is still not saved from him.”
In the same statement, it is striking – from the point of externalizing a thought internally nurtured – that he pointed out that there were still “countries that implement capital punishment” and that “this could be debated.” As a matter of fact, the stance he adopted during the 2011 election campaign is in parallel with his statements last week at Kızılcahamam that, based on opinion polls, society demanded that capital punishment be reinstated; in addition he also referred to the abolition of this punishment as “unfortunately.”
In conclusion, when the picture of the past 10 years is reviewed, we see that Erdoğan’s stance is close to the death sentence, while it also demonstrates versatility depending on the situation. At times when he is locked on the EU target and its related reform process, the prime minister places himself in a position opposing capital punishment. When he is distanced from the EU process and when he eyes nationalist votes from the grassroots of the MHP – and on a parallel level when he leans toward security policies on the Kurdish issue – Erdoğan adopts a classic rightist politician’s identity and openly defends the death penalty.