The Justice and Development Party’s (AK Party) opponents suffer from a common condition: failing to understand the nature of power, no matter how hard they try. They cannot grasp the practice of seizing and preserving political power with an eye on internal and external factors. For a long time, I attributed that shortcoming to the opposition’s prolonged lack of proximity to power. I imagined that they simply had no experience with the difficulty of striking a healthy balance between the development and implementation of policy and the generation of legitimacy needed to maintain one’s power. I was obviously aware that their commitment to neo-nationalist, Kemalist and leftists ideologies effectively blinded them, perpetuating their weakness.
That members of newly formed political parties, including the Democracy and Progress Party (DEVA) and the Future Party (GP), who used to serve in the AK Party’s senior leadership, would reproduce that same ideological blindness is nothing short of surprising. There are two reasons behind the incurable problems, from which President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s long-time colleagues suffer. Primarily, they mislead themselves into thinking that they played an active role in what they perceive as moments of success in the AK Party’s ever-turbulent “quest for power” – as opposed to Erdoğan, who, they say, was passive. In other words, those politicians like to claim that they wrote a script that Erdoğan merely acted out. At the same time, they attribute the AK Party’s success to the policies and statements that the movement developed in the name of liberalism and democracy. In other words, they religiously believe that the various initiatives, negotiations and settlements were categorically successful.
The AK Party’s newest opponents recite certain principles and norms from the “liberal bible.” For example, they claim that democratization would end PKK terrorism and reverse the Kurdish nationalist movement’s separatist agenda. They also say that steps toward liberalization, including broader freedoms and opening the economy up to foreign investors, and a commitment to negotiated settlements would enable Turkey to write a new success story in peace with the international system. Likewise, they maintain that continuous reforms would eliminate guardianship regimes and generate a societywide consensus. They also argue that the demands for power by various groups of elites and their interests can be reconciled through negotiations.
When those assumptions, which admittedly look good on paper, clash with the realities of wielding political power in Turkey, they take an all-too-familiar detour to complain that Erdoğan (or his inner circle) went astray and distanced themselves from their own principles – that they surrendered to nationalism or Kemalism or the status quo or authoritarianism. In other words, they falsely believe that the government’s response to what happened, rather than what happened, has been the problem all along. In their opinion, the various crises that set Turkey on a turbulent course in 2013 could have been handled better if Erdoğan had been more liberal and conciliatory.
The reciters of the “liberal bible” suffer from a type of optimism that utterly fails to grasp the nature of political power. They cannot seem to understand how Turkey’s accumulation of power within the international system tends to cause turbulence. They conveniently ignore how those players, who have to settle for a smaller piece of the pie, would mobilize their strategic allies within Turkey. They also tend to forget that Turkey repeatedly tried to walk the path of reconciliation and negotiation before embracing tensions. They do not admit that one cannot wield power without engaging in power struggles and paying a price and that one cannot build a new order without wielding power first. Finally, they do not appreciate the inevitability of responding to the destructive agenda of the Gezi Park protestors or terrorist groups like the Gülenist Terror Group (FETÖ) and the PKK with power.
Whereas Turkey implemented democratic reforms as part of the European Union accession process to weaken the Kemalist guardianship regime, no part of that regime, whether in politics and among the people, ever gave up – starting with the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP). That party even supported FETÖ, which attempted to create a new guardianship regime, between 2013 and 2016. In the July 15, 2016 coup attempt’s immediate aftermath, CHP leaders even labeled efforts to hold the coup plotters accountable as a “civilian coup.”
Nor is it possible to compel the PKK – which derailed negotiations in 2009 and 2013 to plot with the United States to form an independent statelet in Syria – to disarm through democratization alone. That group won’t just stop serving their overlords. Although Turkey implemented the broadest possible reforms within democratic limits to address Kurdish demands, some Kurdish nationalists could not end their dependence on violence.
In a world where norms lose their power and everything revolves around the struggle for power, one cannot defend one’s interests in the Eastern Mediterranean, Libya, Syria and Iraq by urging reconciliation. Turkey’s neighborhood and the rest of the world are going through this turbulence. A quick look back at how the United States and other Western democracies responded to crises, which paled in comparison to Turkey’s own challenges, would reveal just how romantic the “liberal bible” really is.
[Daily Sabah, 29 June 2020]