Erdoğan can forge a true democratic legacy out of Ergenekon verdicts

Erdoğan can forge a true democratic legacy out of Ergenekon verdicts

With the Ergenekon verdicts now in, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has the chance to use this convoluted and controversial case as a springboard to rise above the discord in Turkey and take steps toward a more pluralistic democracy. I hope he takes it.

There is much evidence to support the conventional wisdom that the stringent sentences imposed on 275 Ergenekon defendants on Aug. 5 will further cement the deep polarization that has been on wide display since the Gezi Park protests began in late May. To be sure, most Justice and Development Party (AKP) opponents will interpret the verdict as another example of an authoritarian prime minister seeking to achieve his ends at all costs. Meanwhile, most AKP supporters will interpret such criticisms as a desire to return to the old, nondemocratic order. But it needn’t be this way.

The Ergenekon verdicts affirmed the AKP’s control of both the government and the state. As recently as 2007, the military had attempted to subvert the democratic order through a military memorandum. Today, the armed forces are effectively neutered as a political force. Make no mistake: This was a clear victory for the AKP, and the AKP sees it as such, despite the party’s protestations that it was neutral in the trial, most recently in the form of Deputy Prime Minister Bülent Arınç’s post-verdict remarks that the government “could not have an opinion on the rulings.” After all, it was Erdoğan who once called himself “the prosecutor of Ergenekon.”

At the same time, even some AKP leaders and supporters understand and have acknowledged that the Ergenekon trial became an out-of-control prosecutorial dragnet that swept up a few innocents. Arınç arrived at this point in his post-verdict remarks when he said, “It might be said that some rulings against suspects are too heavy... We are not at a point to like or dislike the ruling. Even if we like it or not, we are obliged to conform to it.”

With these verdicts having re-affirmed the AKP’s consolidation of power and effectively fused the government and the state into one, the prime minister can no longer credibly attribute domestic problems to the machinations of nebulous deep state forces. Blaming the Gezi Park protesters for trying to stage an Egypt-like coup will no longer suffice. Instead, Erdoğan should acknowledge, as Arınç seems to have done when they pointed to probable flaws in the Ergenekon trial, that dissenters can and do have credible grievances. They are not always dissenting just to oppose the prime minister or the existence of his party.

To be sure, Erdoğan – a fiercely political animal – is extremely unlikely to take such a step. But before he dismisses the idea, he should consider the good he could do, and the history he could make, if he were not to just close this contentious chapter in the country’s history without reflection, but instead use its lessons to help write a new, more harmonious chapter. One that starts on page one with him reaching out to heal wounds and steer Turkey away from a spiral of protests, counter-protests and police crackdowns. One that continues with a narrative about how he leads Turkey toward a more robust democracy that fully embraces the pluralistic nature of the population, and that has a more effective system of checks and balances. And one that closes with him realizing that criticism is not a threat, but an opportunity to help improve governance. It is Erdoğan’s legacy to write.

*Jeffrey S. Collins served as the White House National Security staff director for Turkish affairs 2010 to 2011. He currently works as an international policy lawyer at a global energy firm.