It is over! Or is it not?
The election is over. Now we know which direction Turkey is heading in, along with the construction of a new regime.
Indeed, Turkey has long needed a regime change. We have long suffered from the authoritarian military constitution and institutions of the 1980 coup. Moreover, since the beginning of the multi-party period in the 1950s, the republican regime itself suffered from a lack of democratic legitimacy in the face of demands from Kurds and conservative Muslims.
Nevertheless, the hope of democrats was for a transition to a more democratic regime, and since the end of Cold War years there have been many efforts in this direction. However, the dirty war with the Kurdish guerilla movement in the mid-1990s and the secularist coup of 1997 poisoned these hopes. EU membership was subsequently seen as a savior, but to no avail. Finally, the Islamists who reinvented themselves as “conservative democrats” were thought to be a democratic opportunity when they first won an election victory in 2002.
Now, all that is over! The “conservative democrats” decided that they do not need democracy anymore, once they had defeated their secularist rivals - either in the military and other institutions that defined themselves as guardians of the secularist state, or in the secularist segments of society.
Now, we are on the verge of a regime change in the opposite direction. The problem with the republican regime was its authoritarian modernism and the resulting rigid secularist politics. Now, the problem is the authoritarian conservative/Islamist/nationalists politics, which aims to establish a new order with a strong state that legitimizes itself on an official religious and nationalist ideology.
The recent election was not an ordinary election in this respect, but a referendum on the “New Turkey,” as they call it. The aimed-for political system of the New Turkey is a “Turkish-style presidency,” while the aimed-for constitution is said to be “national and native.” (In fact, regardless of presidentialism, the New Turkey already has a natural/historic leader: President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.) New Turkey is not only defined in domestic terms; on the contrary, its legitimacy stems from its mission to lead global orthodox Islam. The friends and enemies of this new regime are defined accordingly.
Under the circumstances, Turkey’s problem is not simply one of a democratic deficit anymore. The concept of democracy is being redefined in terms of “native values” and the so-called national interest. We had once hoped to improve the quality of the republican regime in the name of democratic values, but we are going to end up with a new regime that distances itself from the universal values of democracy altogether. Now, it is over! The Islamist governing party has decided that “democracy” itself is a Western product and that democrats are nothing but a fifth column.
But it is not only the mischievous politics of conservatives or Islamists that should be blamed. The secularists of Turkey have been no more democratic, and it took them a long time to adjust to the expanded religious rights and freedoms under AKP rule. As late as 2008, the republic chief public prosecutor was opening a closure case against the ruling AKP, accusing it of “reactionaryism.” What’s more, there are sociological/demographic limits to the political representation of secularists. Their numbers are limited to a combination of Alevis and the ever diminishing secular-Westernized urban population.
Finally, there are the Kurds. It could be a good idea to fight for democracy alongside the Kurds’ struggle for freedoms and rights. However, their political space has become overloaded with their own concerns, divisions, and challenges. The Kurds’ biggest challenge remains transforming from armed struggle to democratic politics. They have failed at this. The outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) mysteriously opted to go back to fighting despite the Kurdish party’s biggest democratic win in the June election. This played into the hands of the security-stability discourse and the AKP’s eventual victory on Nov. 1. I do not know if that decision was somehow related to a deal between the jailed PKK head Abdullah Öcalan and the AKP over the presidential system, but it does open the way for such a deal.
Politics as we know it is over. If we continue to think that not everything is over - and it does not have to be so - we should now find different ways to continue the democratic struggle.