World In View: The crisis of Turkish democracy

May 3, 2017

From the May-June 2017 issue of News & Letters

by Gerry Emmett

Women demonstrate in Gezi Park, June 16, 2013. Many wore headscarves despite lies spread by pro-AKP media that they would be attacked by secular protestors. Mstyslav Chernov,

Women demonstrate in Gezi Park, June 16, 2013. Many wore headscarves despite lies spread by pro-AKP media that they would be attacked by secular protestors. Photo: Mstyslav Chernov,

Protests erupted across Turkey in response to the close, and more than dubious, constitutional referendum which granted President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan greater executive power. Erdoğan has used his existing powers to jail scores of journalists—Turkey imprisons more than any other country—as well as opposition politicians like Selahattin Demirtaş of the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP). Military campaigns in Turkish Kurdistan have conducted brutal attacks on cities like Cizre and Diyarbakir, where hundreds of civilians have been killed, and hundreds of thousands displaced.

Erdoğan has encouraged the growth of a personality cult that shows a lack of respect for democracy. Protests are crushed. He attacks women’s and workers’ rights and dignity. This is a crisis for Turkish society that has deep roots. To understand them it’s necessary to look at Erdoğan’s career.


Erdoğan began his rise as a representative of an increasingly secular Muslim bourgeoisie which was interested in European Union membership and participation in global trade. His Justice and Development Party (AKP) distanced itself from outlawed fundamentalists like the Iran-influenced Welfare Party. The Constitution was amended in 2003 to allow him to become Prime Minister—not as a power grab but because he had been banned from politics for reading a poem that said, “We will put a final end to ethnic segregation.”

His goal of modernizing Turkish capitalism included the creation of a “European” bourgeois democracy. Previously, thousands had been jailed and killed in military coups, and generals held a veto power. Turkey, like other modern states, began by creating “Others,” whether Muslims against whom laws were passed, Kurds whose language and culture were suppressed, or Armenian victims of genocide. The state often dealt with the ensuing contradictions with brute force.

In his early days Erdoğan was given numerous awards for improving relationships between cultures.

But no bourgeois ruler can erase the absolute contradiction between capitalism’s logic and human freedom. Especially after the economic crisis of 2008, Erdoğan’s efforts at capitalist development met a justified mass resistance, as in the 2013 Gezi Park occupation.


Erdoğan fell back on promoting sectarian religious policies harking back to the Welfare Party at a moment when genocide was becoming the central issue in world politics. He expressed support for the Syrian Revolution, but only after former ally Syrian President Bashar Assad killed tens of thousands. More recently he sacrificed Free Aleppo in return for a free hand against the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). Because Erdoğan opposes the only possible resolution of social contradictions—a revolutionary one—he falls back on capitalist counterrevolution.

The opposite of this was seen in the massive demonstrations around Gezi Park in 2013. Multi-ethnic protesters created “a miniature city within a city that reflects the dream of Martin Luther King Jr.” (see “Turkey, Syria and Iran at crossroads of world revolt,” N&L, July-Aug. 2013). It developed further in the HDP, which brought Kurds together with women’s rights, environmentalist, LGBTQ, and leftist groups. These new relationships can be a revolutionary new beginning. Because they still contain all of Turkey’s contradictions, it is a beginning that calls for a philosophic consciousness to further develop itself.

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