A scary scenario in the Ankara political backstage
Reinstating the death penalty was imposed on the political agenda by the Turkish leadership after the bloody coup attempt of July 15.
The slogan “We want executions back” was first chanted by a group among the people who rushed to the Istanbul airport on that night to welcome and defend President Tayyip Erdoğan, following his call via the private broadcaster CNN Türk.
Erdoğan channeled the feelings of the furious masses with that slogan. Later, using the justification that “my people want it so,” he vowed that if parliament voted for it, he would approve it. His Justice and Development Party (AK Parti) dominates in parliament, and it is not only the AK Parti, but also its partner in the new constitution, the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), that is in favor of bringing back capital punishment.
The death penalty was abolished in 2000 as part of the framework of harmonizing Turkish legislation with that of the EU after the arrest of Abdullah Öcalan, the leader of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), in 1999, who was later sentenced to death. Ironically, the MHP and its leader, Devlet Bahçeli, were part of the ruling coalition back when it was abolished. But the abolition of the death penalty became official in 2004 under AK Parti rule after Erdoğan became the prime minister.
Reinstating the death penalty has always been a popular issue for Turkish politicians of both Islamist and nationalist roots, as it is seen as both a deterrent method of punishment and exists in the Quran.
Bringing it back would not be something difficult for the AK Parti-MHP collaboration in parliament now, but its political and economic consequences could make life difficult for Turkey and Turkish citizens.
The first consequence could be the cutting of all ties with Brussels, which could be followed by the possible freezing of the Customs Union between the two sides. With or without economic sanctions, it is possible that economic relations between the pair (half of all Turkish exports go to EU countries) could be expected to decline.
But the consequences would not be limited to that. If the psychological barrier of bringing back the death penalty is broken, it is possible that the state of human rights and democratic freedoms in Turkey in other areas would experience a further decline. Considered along with the executive presidential system that is currently being prepared, the same thing could be speculated for judicial independence, which could also have an impact on foreign investments.
This might seem a pessimistic picture for many. But for a few people in Ankara, this is the game plan that President Erdoğan should follow.
According to some unconfirmed information doing the rounds, a group of people with close access to Erdoğan have been promoting the following elaborate plan to him: Bring back the death penalty, get rid of the limits of EU legislation when the EU cuts all relations, let the stock exchange collapse (i.e., get rid of the pressure from big companies and foreign capital, which are not “from us” anyway), meet the military needs of NATO in a bargain with “our own needs” to get rid of the excessive political pressure from the West, press for and get the executive presidency, start to give back some rights according to “our needs” (including on the Kurdish issue, out of democratic generosity), and then witness the recovery of a more “native” economy.
It may sound scary, but a handful of people have been trying to make variations of this scenario the official line of President Erdoğan.
There is no preparation yet - either in the presidential compound in Beştepe in Ankara or in the Justice Ministry - to reinstate the death penalty. There is strong rhetoric but little legal action so far, which indicates that Erdoğan has not yet adopted this scenario as his final policy.
That is good, because such a scenario might not only cause Turkey to drift away from the democratic and economic values of the modern world, but could lead to unexpected new fault lines in Turkish society.
Regarding the “my people want it so” rhetoric, Erdoğan is experienced enough to know that the best leaders do not follow the masses, but themselves lead through steps forward. The path for a better future for Turkey certainly does not pass through the reinstitution of the death penalty, which has become the most crucial of all debates in the country after the July 15 coup attempt.