‘Traitors’ in the ruling party

‘Traitors’ in the ruling party

Turkey has lots of burning issues today, from the insurgency in the southeast, to the civil war in Syria, to the ever-increasing number of refugees. Yet in the past week, none of these have occupied political minds as much as a mere TV interview did: The two-hour long talk on CNN Türk with Bülent Arınç, the co-founder of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP).

The interview created shockwaves, and made Arınç an instant “traitor” among staunch supporters of President Tayyip Erdoğan. Why? Well, Arınç in fact said nothing openly against Erdoğan, but some things he said contradicted Erdoğan’s own narrative about the failure of the “peace process” with Kurdish separatists. He also criticized the hate-mongering by the pro-Erdoğan media and social media “trolls,” and opposed the effective witch-hunt in certain legal cases. In other words, he dared to criticize the ruling regime in Turkey, while still being a member of the ruling party. This was enough to make him a “traitor,” as he was declared by unmistakably pro-Erdoğan newspapers and political figures. 

You might wonder, if you are unfamiliar about the AKP’s past, why Arınç is so important. Well, he is so important because he is one of the three men who founded the AKP some 15 years ago: Himself, Abdullah Gül and Tayyip Erdoğan. That is why people spoke of the “founding trio” of the AKP for years. Recently, however, that trio has disappeared, as Erdoğan has come to dominate the whole party, and the two other names ultimately found themselves retired. Arınç retired last November; Gül retired in August 2014.

One should note that this is not the first time that Arınç opposed the latter-day authoritarianism and corruption in his party. He had taken clearly more moderate and principled stances on various issues over the years – such as his opposition to the imprisonment of journalists, the crackdown on peaceful protests, or the demonization of opposition circles. He had warned his party about causing “polarization” in society, and turning from “a party of we” to a “party of me,” in a thinly veiled reference to the cult of personality that now dominates the AKP.

Luckily, Arınç is not totally alone. Two important former AKP ministers, Sadullah Ergin and Hüseyin Çelik, supported him with their remarks on Twitter. A few writers on the milder side of the pro-AKP media also gave support to Arınç. But still, these are tiny voices in the face of the major empire of power built around Erdoğan. Therefore, one should not think that this is an intra-AKP revolution in the making. 

Yet, at the very least, the “rebellion” of Arınç, as some put, helps elucidate what the AKP has become. When it was founded 15 years ago, this was a modest, moderate, open-mined party, preaching only tolerance, pluralism and understanding. Now, it sees almost all its opponents as “traitors” to the nation. Moreover, it sees critical voices in itself as “traitors” to the party. It is now clearly a movement with an unquestionable leader, a rigid hierarchy, an intimidating language, and a never-ending zeal to dominate Turkish public life in every field, from the media to academia.

Thanks to Bülent Arınç for saying “no” to this doomed trajectory. He reminded us that there are still reasonable and principled people in the ruling party. And, alas, it reminds one that there was a time when reason and principle were more definitive than zealotry and lust.