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Turkey: Constitutionalized repression

By Rene Wadlow

Whom the gods would destroy, they first make mad”

Attributed to Prometheus, the bringer of fire to humanity

The Greek gods have been working overtime since  15 July 2016 and the failed military coup in Turkey. It must be admitted that the gods of Olympus have never fully admitted that areas once part of Greek civilization have been overrun by Turks. Thus the Greek gods are not fully objective evaluators of Turkish politics.  Nevertheless, the Turkish government led by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has made the task easy for the Greek gods by opening the door to irrational actions even before the gods stopped thinking of sexual pleasures and looked down on what mortals were doing in Turkey.

Since the days following the 15 July coup, the Turkish government has been arresting people, closing down newspapers and university faculties suspected in some way of being related to Fethullh Gulen, an Islamic leader who wants a return to some form of Islamic culture in Turkey. Gulen was once a supporter of Erdogan, but the two men fell out. Gulen has been living in exile in the USA.  For Erdogan, it does not take much to be considered as a “supporter” of Gulen – having lived in one of the student centers that Gulen built around Turkish universities is enough.

The first expression of the revenge of the Greek gods has been to urge Erdogan to arrest elected officials of the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) both municipal and members of the national parliament. The ability of persons elected to a parliament to exercise their responsibility by speaking out without fear of arrest is considered as a cornerstone of parliamentary government. One can have a vision of a broader definition of participatory democracy, but the ability of elected members of a parliament to defend their views is the strict minimum of parliamentary (even presidential) government.

The HDP is considered as a pro-Kurdish party. The party advocates a pluralistic Turkey, taking into consideration the different ethnic and religious groups in the country. The party has no known relation to the Gulen brotherhood. However, as the Kurds are the largest minority and there have been armed conflicts with the Kurds, the Turkish government claims that the HDP is related to the Kurdish militia – the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK). The HDP maintains that it is not a PKK “front” and it works for non-violence and negotiation in good faith to deal with Kurdish social and political aspirations.

The second idea of the Greek gods, slightly more subtle than mass arrests by police and military, was to have a referendum giving legal status to the powers that the President was already using.  Thus on Sunday, 16 April 2017, there was a referendum for changes in the constitution that include the abolition of the office of Prime Minister and the constitutional justification of measures that President Erdogan has  already put into practice.  The measures will become effective legally in 2018. The referendum received about 51% of ‘yes’ votes, the ‘no’ votes some 49%, hardly the massive support that Erdogan had hoped. The government-controlled media had stressed the need for a ‘yes’ vote to keep Turkey strong and free from foreign manipulation. The two opposition parties, the Republican People’s Party, authoritarian but secular in the Kemalist tradition, and the Peoples’ Democratic Party, considered as pro-Kurd, had no access to television or radio and had little print support.  The 49% of ‘no’ votes (even if we overlook some voting irregularities) shows a country deeply divided on both constitutional issues and current policy.

Policies concerning the Syrian armed conflict and the autonomy of Kurds in both Syria and Iraq play a role in Turkish government policy, but it is difficult to say what influence foreign policy had on the referendum results.

It is likely that the Greek gods have returned to their banquet table and the lovely maids who pour the wine. Madness has taken hold in Turkey.  The gods have only to glance down from time to time to see what is happening. Thus, it is up to us mortals to act. Prometheus is said to have brought fire to mortals, much to the anger of the gods.  Fire is also a symbol of intelligence and insight. We will have to watch closely as to how we mortals use it now. The additional powers of the Turkish President will change little in practice, but the referendum is a sign of growing narrow nationalism and authoritarian currents in Europe and the Middle East. To be watched closely.

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Rene Wadlow

Rene Wadlow is the President of the Association of World Citizens, an international peace organization with consultative status with ECOSOC, the United Nations organ facilitating international cooperation on and problem-solving in economic and social issues.

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