How Turkey’s conservatives failed
The political war going on in Turkey these days is full of incredible details and drama. However, it only underlines a simple truth: Turkey’s religious conservatives, whether they are in the ranks of the government or the judiciary, have failed to realize their promise of turning Turkey into an “advanced” democracy. At the end of a decade in power, they, rather, created a deeply polarized society and one of the most acute political crises of the state.
Alas, it did not begin like this. The conservative decade, if you will, in fact began with very good years of democratic progress. The AKP (Justice and Development Party) came to power in 2002 with a solid agenda of economic development and political reform. Their top goal was to join the European Union and realize all the necessary transformations. Wonderful changes took place in just a few years: police torture became history, minorities such as Kurds gained new rights and women enjoyed a much more liberal civil code. The economy boomed while the quality of life improved.
During these formative years, the AKP and the new conservative class around it were constantly threatened by the old guard — the ultra-secular Kemalists. This threat was certainly unjustified, but it also had the good effect of pushing the conservatives towards a liberal agenda. They became critical of the state’s long-time authoritarianism and took steps to correct it. When Erdoğan “apologized on behalf state” for the massacre of Kurds in Dersim in 1937-38, he was taming a Leviathan that used to be utterly arrogant and self-righteous.
However, in the second term of the AKP (2007-2011) a big problem emerged: Their political war with the old guard led the conservatives to manipulate the legal system for their own good. The “coup cases” opened during the AKP’s second term (2007-2011) were motivated not only by a sense of justice, but also a sense of victory. Soon, most of these cases devolved into witch hunts that put many innocent dissidents in jail. Justice, arguably the core value of the conservatives, was compromised by their battle for power. Moreover, the biased element within the judiciary who fought (and won) this battle remained as an instrument of new battles to come.
In the AKP’s third term (2011 to date) things got worse. The decisive defeat of the old guard did not give the AKP more room for democratization, as some hoped. Quite the contrary, it made democratization unnecessary. The AKP was now in full control of the Leviathan, so it did not see any need to further tame it. Old habits emerged, such as explaining societal opposition with conspiracy theories and forcing the press to obey official guidelines.
Meanwhile, the conservatives in power began to dispute and soon fight among themselves. The biased element within the judiciary, which is responsible for the excess of the “coup cases,” now turned its focus on the government, which showed every sign of being intoxicated with power. (That is why it is hard to judge who is right and wrong in the current legal battles.) This war among the new owners of the state led us to the state’s current crisis, which is simply shameful.
Historians will judge all this better. Yet, it seems clear now that during their eleven years in power, Turkey’s conservatives made a historic mistake by disregarding a key principle of politics: As Lord Acton put it, power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.