The Death Of Democracy In Turkey?

When the Turkish People’s Democratic Party (HDP) won 80 of the 550 seats in Turkey’s parliament this June, almost everyone was surprised, including the HDP themselves. Co-Chairman Selahattin Demirtaş celebrated how “we, the oppressed of Turkey, have beaten a government who used all the state’s facilities against us, to attack us… This is the victory of the oppressed and alienated in Turkey.” The small democratic socialist party had gone from not participating in the 2011 elections to winning 13.12% of the vote in 2015.

This victory was enormously significant in two ways. First, it illustrated the political power of Turkey’s Kurdish minority. The Kurds are a group of people spread throughout the Middle East with a long history of oppression by the governments that they lived under. The HDP became the first party to gain representation in Turkish parliament while running openly in support of Turkey’s Kurds. They did so by securing the votes not only of the leftist Kurds, but also of conservative Kurds who traditionally supported the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP). This resulted in the second major event: the AKP failed to secure a legislative majority for the first time since 2002.

The AKP was founded in 2001 by Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who is currently Turkey’s President. Based around Islamic-rooted social conservatism, limited government intervention in the economy, and internationalism, the Party is comparable to a Middle Eastern version of the Republican Party. Erdoğan himself is often criticized for being both corrupt and authoritarian, traits that resulted in the outbreak of national protests in 2013. To make matters worse, Turkey’s Kurdish population united against him shortly afterwords. It was the combination of these forces that resulted in his party securing only 46.9% of the seats in parliament in 2015, a far fall from the 66% he got in 2002. It appeared that the people had spoken. But then, things got interesting.

On June 20th, in the district of Suruç, a deadly suicide bombing was committed by ISIS terrorists against Turkish socialists who were planning to give assistance to Kurds in Syria. The attack killed 33. The “unusual” absence of the police at the gathering, followed by a number of glaring failures on the part of the police during their response, led some of the participants who survived to the conclusion that the police knew about it beforehand and had failed to warn them. This is likely just conspiracy talk, but the fact that it is indeed plausible is disturbing. It’s worth noting that, in Turkey, most police forces are controlled by the Minister of the Interior, who is appointed by President Erdoğan. Thus, he has indirect control of the nation’s police forces.

After the bombing, the Turkish AKP-led government grabbed hold of the incident and almost immediately used it to their political advantage. Turkey stated that they would throw their support behind the fight against ISIS in Iraq and their neighbor, Syria, in the form of airstrikes. But in practice the target of the airstrikes and other attacks seemed not to be ISIS, but rather the very Kurdish militias who are actively fighting ISIS, such as the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). The leftist Kurds of the PKK, which is designated as a terrorist organization by both Turkey and the United States, had previously been in peace talks with the government, but tension between the two were growing more as time passed. The new bombing campaign was understood by both sides to be the death of the talks. Michael J. Koplow, an expert on Turkish politics, argues that:

The government’s current military campaign against the PKK must be seen within the context of June’s election, and its timing is no coincidence. The strikes ostensibly focused on rolling back ISIS, but are being primarily directed at the PKK and come hand-in-hand with a political effort to roll back the HDP.

One often hears the claim “this is war” when a conflict escalates, but in Turkish politics, this now literally is war. If the Kurds are losing in their battle against ISIS, then the type of Kurdish nationalism that HDP draws much of their strength from will diminish. There’s a debate over whether or not the HDP and the PKK are in any sort of formal alliance, but even if they aren’t, harder times for the PKK weakens the HDP. Furthermore, the spike in violence between the PKK and the government that resulted from the airstrikes gives Erdoğan a chance to campaign on what he’s best known for: ensuring stability. Thus, like Putin in Russia, Erdoğan is hoping to use the campaign against ISIS as a cover to strengthen his position in domestic politics.

This isn’t the only dirty trick up Erdoğan’s sleeve. In coordination with the airstrikes, Turkey launched a series of counter terrorism raids that targeted both ISIS and the PKK. It is true that the PKK is designated as a terrorist organization by both the United States and Turkey, and that they attacked Turkish soldiers and policemen in public a number of times in response to the bombing campaign. However, because the PKK is an enemy of ISIS, going after the PKK actually only serves to strengthen ISIS.

Claire Keating, an American who was present at the Suruç bombing, described the strangeness of the scenario when she expressed bewilderment at “how this could possibly be the response of the government to an ISIS attack, to go in and treat the Kurdish community, which itself had been the target of this attack, as the criminals.” And yet, this is exactly what they did. Following the Suruç attack by ISIS against allies of the Kurds, Turkey responded by attacking the Kurds themselves while claiming that they’re actually attacking ISIS.

Normally, when no one party has the majority in a parliamentary system, the parties would come together after an election and negotiate, eventually forming coalitions. The coalition that has the majority of parliament in it would lead the government.

This would have been the AKP’s first ever time forming a coalition, as it had always won the majority before. Forming a coalition instead of just having their party rule on its own would have diluted the AKP’s power. Possibly because of their reluctance to do this, the AKP failed to create a coalition to lead the government in late August, resulting in a “hung parliament.” In response, Erdoğan (who remained in office since no new coalition government was formed yet) called for new “snap” elections to take place on November 1st, as a “re-do” of sorts. Following this announcement, he continued his solidification of power within the country by going after the media.

In late October, police raided the offices of the large and influential Koza-İpek Group, which owns two TV channels, two newspapers, and a radio station. The police shut down the TV channels and placed the organization into temporary government ownership due to its alleged ties to Fethullah Gülen, one of Erdoğan’s largest political opponents with an outstanding warrant for his arrest. Several days later, two British journalists and their Turkish assistant from Vice News were charged with “aiding a terrorist organization,” an accusation denied by their employer and condemned by the Committee to Protect Journalists.

When the center-left Hürriyet, one of Turkey’s most popular newspapers, published articles critical of Erdoğan, they were attacked by rioters. Abdurrahim Boynukalın, President of the AKP’s youth wing, was one of the attackers. The next day, he issued a warning that he plans to continue: “the AK party youth branches will continue to stage protests in front of the headquarters of the outlets. I suggest they get used to this.” The day after that, the newspaper was attacked again. Even though this was the second attack in three days, and that it was directly preceded by public threats, the newspaper’s editor-in-chief said that the “police response remained insufficient for the second time.”

Almost constant police failures to protect Erdoğan’s political opponents lent major credibility to conspiracies about the government having foreknowledge about attacks and refusing to do anything. At the least, it seemed more than likely that their failures were intentional as more and more attacks were met with unusually weak and useless police responses.

The attacks continued. The day after the second attack on Hürriyet, Turkish nationalists attacked a headquarters building of the HDP. This was the third attack in four days, all with attackers that shared similar ideological roots, all in the same city. And, yet, the HDP reported during the attack that “the police is not performing its duties.” Erdoğan condemned this attack, but then used it as an excuse to further attack the party, repeating allegations that they’re affiliated with PKK terrorists. When HDP co-chair Demirtaş responded to the attack, he was charged with “openly insulting the Turkish nation” and “defaming the president.” He was also charged with “openly instigating to commit crime” and “producing propaganda of a terror organization,” even though he specifically stated that “we never advise war and violence to young Kurds” and that “there is no need for guns.” His party was attacked, and he was criminally charged for speaking out against it.

The last straw appeared to be when police once again failed to appear at a well-attended peace rally that featured a number of leftists and Kurdish sympathizers, even though the rally was in the middle of the country’s capital of Ankara. The rally was bombed by suspects who are believed to be connected to ISIS. 102 died.

In a shocking decision made five days after the bombing, a Turkish court issued a temporary ban preventing media from reporting on the attack in any way. Özgür Özel, a politician with Turkey’s main opposition party, noted that the ban was only put into place after “it was revealed that the [government] intelligence and bureaucrats did not do their duties to stop [the terrorists],” and claimed that the ban was a “political decision.”

People as high up as HDP co-chairman Selahattin Demirtaş went so far as to directly allege “cooperation” between the AKP and ISIS to weaken the chances of the HDP ahead of the election. “If there [were] even just a one-in-a-million possibility of the PKK being behind this attack,” Demirtaş pointed out, “then they would make it obligatory for the media to report on the incident.”

There’s no evidence to suggest that Erdoğan or the government knew about any of these attacks beforehand. But what is certain is that, for one reason or another, the government failed at their job of providing security for political dissidents even when it was well known that they were a target for violence, and that such a failure directly benefited Erdoğan. With violence breaking out and Turkish leftists and Kurds being attacked on all fronts, Erdoğan was able to put campaigning for his party front and center, promising that giving the AKP their majority power back would return stability to Turkey. His message was clear: “my party lost power, and now the nation is falling into chaos- vote for my party to put an end to this.” Never mind that the chaos was either directly or indirectly his fault, or that it was to his benefit- the chaos was there, and that’s all he needed to convince the Turkish people that they need a strong leader like him again.

In Turkey, voters returned to the polls for the second time this year on November 1st. The results were once again unexpected, but for the opposite reason as last time. The AKP captured 57.6 percent of the votes, while HDP’s share dropped back to 10.7 percent. “The final decisive actor in our political world is the national will, and yesterday on 1 November, the national will favored stability,” said Erdoğan. His party was back in the majority all by itself, his presidency was secure, and his 13-year reign would continue.

Of course, the national will did not actually manifest itself on November 1st. The Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, who monitors elections for fairness, wrote in their report that though the election itself was competitive and conducted fairly, the “challenging security environment,” “high number of violent incidents,” and “restrictions on media freedom” threw the legitimacy of its outcome into question. In particular:

The last two weeks of the campaign were marked by an increased number of attacks against and arrests of members and activists, who were predominantly from the People’s Democratic Party (HDP)…

Investigations against journalists and media outlets for supporting terrorism or defamation of the president, the blocking of websites, the forcible seizure of prominent media outlets and the removal of several television stations from digital service providers reduced voters’ access to a plurality of views and information… Media monitoring revealed that three out of the five monitored national television stations, including the public broadcaster, clearly favoured the governing party in their programming.

The outcome of the election seems to confirm the earlier words of Fulya Dagli, a young Turkish supporter of the HDP: “We were very excited following the June elections. But then they tried to build a dictatorship.” Erdoğan won the election, but he won it through both direct government suppression and what many claim to be strategic failures to enforce the law.

Looking at these recent events, Turkey seems to be becoming what Journalist Fareed Zakaria famously called an “illiberal democracy”: “democratically elected regimes… [that] routinely ignor[e] constitutional limits on their power and depriv[e] their citizens of basic rights and freedoms.” In such a society, the elections themselves may be squeaky clean, with no corruption at all. However, the outcome can still be manipulated through violations or manipulations of the freedom of speech, the press, assembly, and more. Instead of stuffing ballot boxes, the government just represses its opposition.

Many within Turkey have had worried reactions to this, and not everyone is taking it sitting down: Radio France Internationale reported before the election that “former president and Erdogan ally Abdullah Gul” is “reportedly thinking of forming their own party because of what [he] see[s] as the president’s autocratic and aggressive tendencies.”

But, for now, the rule of Erdoğan remains, and it appears that his assault is only intensifying even after emerging the victor. Attacks on Kurds in Syria and Iraq have grown stronger, arrests of journalists and political opponents have continued, and Erdoğan is renewing his push to rewrite the Turkish constitution so as to strengthen his role as President. Turkey, say hello to your new king.

Originally published at on November 10, 2015.

Writer on politics, public policy, and current events. All opinions here are mine alone and do not necessarily reflect the views of employers past or present.

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