January 31, 2016

Democracy’s Turkey challenge

Sevgi Akarçeşme

As I sit down to write this column, a large number of Turkish intellectuals are working on a draft final declaration of the Abant Platform meeting. This traditional meeting is organized by the Journalists and Writers Foundation (GYV), which is considered the official representative of the Hizmet movement. Each year a hot topic is evaluated in the Abant meetings but this year's meeting is more significant because it is organized at a time that the government has been pursuing a relentless witch hunt and smear campaign against the movement.

The participation of well-known Turkish intellectuals in this year's meeting is additionally commendable since they have “dared” to attend a Hizmet movement event at the risk of being labeled “parallel” or a “traitor.” Needless to say, there is every reason to deny those allegations because all the participants did at the Abant Platform meeting was to express and exchange ideas freely, something that has been increasingly becoming a luxury in Turkey. Throughout the meeting, I sensed that people, especially intellectuals, are thirsty for avenues in which they can speak their mind without being subject to threats. However, the government-controlled media and its benefactors have been quick to criticize this meeting, a clear manifestation of their discomfort with critical ideas.

With a smart word-game, the topic of the meeting was announced to be “Democracy's challenge with Turkey,” instead of the other way around. Clearly, democracy does not have challenges just in Turkey. Even an EU member country such as Hungary has to battle with authoritarian aspirations. Characters that should only exist in comic books or comedy shows such as Donald Trump and Sarah Palin actually run for office in an established democracy such as the United States. However, the US has a strong safety net consisting of functioning institutions such as the Supreme Court, a culture of democracy and free media.

In Turkey, democracy's challenges are much deeper. Not only are journalists persecuted because of their critical reporting but even judges have been imprisoned because of their verdicts, which is beyond comprehension in any democracy. Consequently, the participants of the 34th Abant Platform over the weekend agreed on the grim impact of the one-man rule in Turkey. This country has moved beyond authoritarianism or the threat of one-man rule and is actually experiencing full-blown despotism, since I have to refrain from using the other “D” word. Under these conditions, for many it makes no sense to try to draft a new constitution while the existing one is constantly violated.

There was also consensus that institutions in Turkey have turned out to be weaker than they actually seemed, starting with the judiciary. Yet, the bottom line seems to be the lack of a political culture that feeds democracy in Turkey. Most of the participants complained about a lack of empathy toward different groups in society. I tend to call this being a conditional democrat since, with exceptions, many people only ask for democracy or rights only for their own class, ethnic or religious group while ignoring the suffering of others. As the state or the power-holders target a different group in each oppressive era, that targeted group learns the lesson and learns to demand democracy for all, but for a sizeable portion of society in Turkey at the moment, concerns over freedom of expression or a pluralist democracy are not on the radar. Bread-and-butter issues are still the top priority of the public in the absence of an education system that teaches the inalienability of fundamental rights.

The Abant Platform urged for an immediate return to democracy. That is a call that anyone would agree on. Yet, I am not sure anyone among us has any idea about how to do it as long as the simple majority does not see any problem with one-man rule. I do not know the cure in the short term, but in the long run, the remedy lies in an education model that instills the virtues of universal human rights in the mind of every child in this country.

Published on Sunday's Zaman, 31 January 2016, Sunday