Karl Marx, Wilhelm Hegel and Friedrich Engels would have been mesmerized, if only they could see the piece recently published in The Washington Post under the name of Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, an accidental head of Turkey’s Republican People’s Party (CHP) and the so-called main opposition leader.
Fathers of the dialectic materialism, the trio would be proud of Kılıçdaroğlu, as he looks as if he’s trying to discuss the contradictions of Turkey’s much-applauded democracy in the piece titled “Opposition being silenced in Turkey.” Swimming against the current, Kılıçdaroğlu challenges the commonly accepted view that the Justice and Development Party (AK Party) may present a workable example of conservative democracy for Middle Eastern societies as they try to transform their authoritarian political systems into more democratic and pluralistic ones. He argues the AK Party government has been silencing the opposition through its manipulation of the judiciary. Therefore, he concludes the AK Party model does not hold. However, the solid distortions of the facts and the deliberate omission of critical information regarding the ongoing investigation into the so-called Ergenekon terror network nested within the state apparatus warrants the opinion that the piece published under the name of the CHP leader fails to be anything beyond mediocre demagogy.
To begin with, the question has never been whether or not the AK Party could be a model for other Muslim-majority countries in the Middle East, but rather if they could mimic Turkey’s democratization experience. The widely held conclusion is that each country has its own socioeconomic and political character; as such, they have to figure out their own way to democracy; therefore, Turkey cannot be a model to these countries, but its quest for democracy and its progress in democratizing the country’s highly militarized and corrupt political system can be an inspiration to them. Besides, for an AK Party model to hold, clearly there is a need for an opposition like the CHP headed by Kılıçdaroğlu. Luckily, this appears not to be the case in any of Turkey’s neighbors seeking, as he puts it, to get rid of totalitarian regimes and become true democracies. It looks like Kılıçdaroğlu has remained “French,” as Turks would say when describing someone who is uninformed, to the “Arab Spring” debate.
A disciple’s attempt at dialectic
Speaking to the Western audience in general, and Americans in particular, Kılıçdaroğlu reports that “hundreds of journalists, publishers, military officers, academics and politicians are being held” on charges that an ultranationalist underground organization plotted to overthrow the government. He is right indeed. However, he falls short in, if not deliberately avoids, pointing out that they are being detained not because an ultranationalist underground organization plotted to overthrow the government, but because the independent prosecutors have enough reason to suspect that in their respective capacities as journalists, publishers, military officers, academics and politicians, these detainees partook in the illegal activities of an alleged terrorist organization named “Ergenekon,” the existence of which has been admitted by many of the detainees, including recently by one involved in the murder of Hrant Dink, a Turkish journalist of Armenian origin.
For instance, Ahmet Şık and Nedim Şener are two journalists who have been fashionably portrayed as victims of the restrictions on freedom of expression in Turkey. Allegedly, Şık and Şener were detained because they had been investigating, as the two put it, the diffusion and influence of the so-called Gülen community within the country’s police force in their respective books, titled “İmamın Ordusu” (The Imam’s Army) and “Dink Cinayeti ve İstihbarat Yalanları” (The Dink Murder and Intelligence Lies). Their arrests in March 2011 have been deliberately portrayed as evidence of the government’s stifling of freedom of expression. In and of itself, writing a book about anyone or any phenomenon is not, and should never be, a crime in Turkey. The presence and continuous proliferation of publications of a similar kind speak to the fact that it has not been, or at least is not, the case. It makes rather more sense that Şık and Şener may have been arrested not because they wrote these books, but because they attempted to obstruct justice and manipulate an ongoing investigation into the alleged Ergenekon terrorist network via such acts as disclosing classified information, attributing crime to innocent individuals and groups, and inciting hatred and violence against them on the basis of unfounded allegations. A similar example is that of New York Times journalist Judith Miller, who was jailed in 2005 for contempt of court when she refused to appear before the grand jury investigating the Valerie Plame case. Did she enjoy journalistic immunity before the law? Was what she did an exercise of freedom of expression? Or, was what federal judge Thomas Hogan did a restriction of freedom of expression? Not really.
One can certainly criticize the manner and procedure with which judicial investigations are carried out in Turkey. One can complain about the long durations of detainment without trial or conviction. After all, it is a common problem in many countries, including the United States, where individuals suspected of involvement in terrorism can be detained infinitely before hearing their indictment or standing trial. Yet, readily declaring the suspects, who happen to be journalists, innocent and all the rest, those who the suspects oppose, guilty neither serves justice nor is in line with journalistic impartiality. Especially in a country like contemporary Turkey, governed by a constitution that was made by the military with the CHP’s contribution and which the CHP refuses to reform. As Mehmet Baransu of the Taraf daily argues, manufactured news reports and publications have long been used as evidence to depose democratically elected governments, shut down political parties and sentence people to death or to life in Turkey. He reminds us that in 1998, prosecutor Vural Savaş used a book as evidence in a lawsuit that led to the closure of the Welfare Party (RP), which had earlier been forced to resign from the government by the army. It was later confirmed that Ergün Poyraz had been commissioned to write the book, titled “Refah’ın Gerçek Yüzü” (The Real Face of Refah), by JİTEM, an element of the alleged Ergenekon terrorist network, which is currently under investigation.
Similarly, the detained “politicians” who Kılıçdaroğlu mentions are not the politicians who campaigned, got elected and were jailed because of their opposition to the government, but individuals who had been detained before the 2011 elections for their alleged involvement in the plots to overthrow the government. In the run-up to the elections, CHP leader Kılıçdaroğlu nominated these individuals as deputies for his party, despite the opposition of his colleagues and voters of the CHP. Thanks to the screwed up political party laws, which give the authority to elect deputies not to the voters but to the head of the party, these individuals were elected to Parliament from the traditionally CHP-supportive districts, where it was certain they would be elected. Kılıçdaroğlu hoped that once elected, these suspects could enjoy parliamentary immunity; but apparently, this is not the case, and it causes further resentment against him.
At the apex of demagogy
Kılıçdaroğlu reaches the apex of demagogy and hypocrisy when he brags about the universal norm of the rule of law. He rightly says, “A universal norm of the rule of law is that one is innocent until proven guilty. Another is that evidence leads to the arrest of a suspect. In today’s Turkey, however, people are treated as guilty until proven innocent.” Considering these words only, one can hardly say Kılıçdaroğlu is heading the political party that is almost synonymous with everything he seems to despise and every crime that he attributes to his opponent.
A quick look into the history of the Turkish Republic reveals how the CHP has persistently hindered Turkey’s democratization, polarized society into different camps, deepened the ethno-religious fault lines and created the single most critical security problem the country has suffered from for decades. In 1925, the CHP first hastily adopted the Takrir-i Sükun Kanunu (Law on Ensuring Stability and Calm) in Parliament, when the majority of opposition party members were not present. This law initiated the establishment of the so-called İstiklal Mahkemeleri (Independence Courts), which were given the authority to hang anyone suspected of involvement in religious reactionaryism and schemes targeting the regime. So they exercised this authority with quite broad interpretation. In some cases, the court hanged the suspect and then asked the prosecutor to prepare the indictment. In others, the court had the corpse of a suspect excavated from his grave and hung him, just because he had died naturally before the court ruled for his hanging. The same CHP shut down its liberal opponent Terakkiperver Cumhuriyet Fırkası (Progressive Republican Party), in fact its only opponent, for some of its members’ alleged involvement in the dubious Sheikh Said uprising.
Moreover, it is the same CHP that committed the Dersim massacre in 1937-1938. It involved the aerial bombardment of the predominantly Alevi towns and villages in Tunceli province, poison-gassing of the innocent people hiding out in caves, and the mass murder of people either by shooting or throwing them into the Euphrates. According to official records, which are highly likely to reflect a lower number than what it actually is, the CHP government’s Dersim venture resulted in the deaths of 13,160 civilians and the relocation of 11,818. One of the Dersim Alevis who had to relocate to western Turkey, Kılıçdaroğlu did not even have the courage to condemn his party’s treatment of his own kinsmen. He in fact recently silenced a member of his party who actually dared to speak up.
Similarly, the CHP just stood by and cheered for the rogue members of the army as they disrupted Turkey’s democratization three-and-a-half times, respectively in 1960, 1971, 1980 and 1997. It remained silent all along as the perpetrators of the 1980 military coup turned the Diyarbakır Cezaevi (Diyarbakır Prison) into a breeding and training ground for Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) militants by exposing activist and non-activist Kurds to a level and kind of torture beyond human imagination. Finally, it is Kılıçdaroğlu’s very same CHP that enacted and implemented laws that for so many decades equally deprived Turkey’s Muslim majority and Christian minority of their rights to exercise their religion. For this reason, it is no surprise at all to see Kılıçdaroğlu and his CHP trying to have the Ergenekon suspects released, even though there is mounting evidence, both in voice recordings and signed documents, suggesting the suspects have plotted such diabolic schemes. Some of them included blowing up a museum during a children’s visit and mosques during crowded prayer times, shooting down a Turkish jet and blaming it on the Greeks, assassinating prominent minority figures and planting weapons in the apartments of college students who happen to be sympathizers of Fethullah Gülen so they can portray the ruling AK Party government as impotent to deal with the alleged rise of radicalization and terrorism.
Today, when he speaks of Turkey being “a country where people live in fear and are divided politically, economically and socially” and about Turkish democracy “regressing in terms of the separation of powers, basic human rights and freedoms and social development and justice,” he sounds like he is making a mockery of his own party’s legacy and himself. He also demonstrates that the real problem in Turkey is not that the governing party is silencing the opposition, but the opposition is so impotent or unsophisticated that it is incapable of meaningfully and effectively discharging its role as an opposition. Another emerging problem is that the ruling AK Party government is increasing becoming a status quo party, giving up its reformist character.
Kılıçdaroğlu deserved credit though for recognizing that “tactics such as oppression, preying on fear and restricting freedoms can help sustain a government’s rule for only so long. Never in history has a government succeeded in ruling permanently through authoritarian measures. Oppression does not endure; righteousness does. Turkey will be no exception.”
Certainly, Turkey is not an exception. After all, the CHP’s rule in Turkey lasted only for a quarter century from 1923 to 1948, and its probability of winning a parliamentary election in Turkey is next to none. Similarly, the so-called “dynamic forces,” which disrupted Turkish democracy three-and-a-half times, strangled the democratically elected governments and kept each in a straightjacket up until very recently, seem unable to utilize tactics such as oppression, preying on fear and restricting freedoms. As Kılıçdaroğlu rightly states, oppression does not endure; so too the obstructions of Turkish democracy. Righteousness does; so will Turkey’s march toward democracy.
*Mehmet Kalyoncu is an independent political analyst.