This week started with the Turkish government announcing plans to reintroduce the death penalty at the urging of the country’s strongman, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, in order to garner the support of ultra-nationalists in his bid to expand the powers of his presidency. Later in the week came the arrests of the editor-in-chief and columnists of Cumhuriyet, Turkey’s oldest paper and a symbol of its fast-eroding secularism, on trumped-up charges of terrorism. And finally, Thursday night brought the detentions of Selahattin Demirtas, the charismatic leader of the country’s pro-Kurdish party, and Figen Yuksekdag, the co-leader of the party. Ten other elected Kurdish deputies were also arrested.
As I write these lines, citizens cannot communicate to organize demonstrations — Twitter is down in Turkey, Facebook is unreachable, and social media applications such as WhatsApp remain blocked. The social media crackdown is an entirely unnecessary measure; who would go out and risk arrest when there is an emergency rule and a formal ban on protests? Protests happen in free and semi-free societies — or when people have the feeling that they have a chance to make an impact. There was a time when mass urban protests shook the country and pushed the government to announce a series of reforms. Today’s Turkey is a shell of itself. No such optimism remains.
The story of Turkey is fast becoming a heartbreaking saga of a budding Muslim democracy tossing out a historic chance at progress, only to settle for a familiar pattern of Middle East despotism by succumbing to a retro personality cult. A decade ago, Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) was applauded by the world for the pace of its reforms and advances toward European Union membership. I myself was writing in praise of the ruling party AKP’s brand of “Muslim democrats,” which at the time seemed like a hopeful alternative to both the hard-line secularism of Kemalism and Islamic radicalism. A decade later, Turkey is barely able to hold civilized relations with its western allies, experiencing a rapid decline as rule of law, and has become a thorn in Europe’s side.
In this gradual decline, Demirtas was a breath of fresh air and one of the best things that happened in Turkish politics over the past few years. The 43-year-old former human rights lawyer commands only a small coalition of Kurds, leftists and minorities— with barely enough votes to pass the 10 percent national threshold. But Demirtas was effective with his powerful rhetoric on pluralism and democracy and able to project a power beyond his party’s base. This was a tale of David and Goliath. With his famous “We will not let you become an executive president” speech in March last year, and HDP’s electoral victory in June 2015 elections, Demirtas denied Erdogan the type of constitutional change and sweeping authority he wanted. With Demirtas’s detention, there are no more hurdles to Erdogan’s rise to absolute power.
I met with Demirtas for a morning tea a few weeks ago in Istanbul. He was exceptionally jubilant even though there were rumors of his possible detention. I asked him why. “We need to be strong. We are strong. We just need to know that. I have come to understand that the world only cares about us Kurds if they think we are strong.”
It’s increasingly hard to say how much Turkey’s Western allies care about Turkish democracy anymore. I was in Brussels a few weeks ago for a series of meetings, and there was a Turkey fatigue. Once seeing Turkey as an aspiring candidate for membership, Europeans have thrown up their hands about the country. The debate is whether to keep a dead accession process as it is or swap it for some type of a trade deal. Had Europeans been more willing to accept Turkey during our years of reform a decade ago, maybe we would never have gotten here. But who knows? It’s painful to think about the road not taken.
And this is why the current period in Turkey is so hard on all of us –writers, journalists, mothers, fathers and just ordinary citizens. It’s not as though Turkey has never had a taste of democracy. No, we had something that resembled a free and open society. We had institutions with checks and balances, we had endless hours of television debates, a multi-party system that was not micromanaged by a higher authority, a semi-functioning rule of law (despite problems), demonstrations, rallies, hopes, and along the way, possibility of change.
All that is gone for now. With the detention of Demirtas and other elected officials, Turkey is propelled back in time and beamed into the darker days of the 1990s – wrought with terrorism, internal conflicts, a struggling economy and hopelessness. In 1994, a bunch of Kurdish deputies were arrested from the parliament, ushering in a period of violent escalation and repression.
No one I know is happy with the decline in Turkey — not even Erdogan supporters. You don’t want history to repeat itself and you don’t want to be further dragged into the Middle Eastern vortex of authoritarianism, militias, and sectarian and ethnic conflicts. But who will stop the tides and stand up for democracy? Turkish leaders are too selfish to change course, the opposition is too weak, the citizens too scared. There is no candidate yet. This is the stuff history is made of. Sometimes the only thing you can do is to watch a country ruin itself — and that’s the real tragedy of it all.