Renewed PKK conflict put Turkey on road to oblivion

Five years ago this week the Turkish state began to accelerate its shift away from democracy, justice and the rule of law with the resumption of violence between its armed forces and Kurdish militants in the country’s southeast.

That, more than the failed coup that came a year later, was the moment the government of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan turned down a dark road, according to Şebnem Korur Fincancı, head of the Human Rights Foundation of Turkey. She saw the June 2015 vote, when the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) lost its parliamentary majority, thanks to the emergence of the pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP), as the initial spark.

“When they lost the majority, we knew that particularly the violence would escalate,” Fincancı told Ahval in a podcast, recalling the deadly Islamic State (ISIS) attack on a pro-Kurdish youth gathering in the Turkish border city of Suruç a few weeks later, on July 20.

A lawyers’ report released on Saturday found that Turkish officials knew of ISIS’ Suruç bomb plot but did nothing to stop it, possibly hoping it would lead to violence against Kurdish militants the government could then link to the HDP, undermining its voter support. 

“This was the start of the deterioration in Turkey,” said Fincancı. “It was already then a scary period.”

Among the early signs she recalled was a security law passed in April 2015 that gave police officers broad authority to shoot protesters and allowed the police to detain protesters for 48-hours without outside contact and to jail them for up to five years for wearing face coverings meant to protect against tear gas.

Just seven protesters were shot in the first three months of 2015, according to Fincancı, while more than 215 were shot in the nine months after the law’s passage. “The main right, the right to live, was totally ignored by this law,” she said.

This was just the tip of the iceberg. The state’s renewed conflict with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has led an insurgency in the southeast for decades and is viewed as a terrorist group by Turkey, the United States and the European Union, has since late 2015 killed more than 5,000 people, including 519 civilians, according to a Crisis Group report out this week. It also included government-mandated curfews that locked residents of many southeastern cities in their homes from late 2015 to early 2016.

“These were 24-7 curfews for days, for weeks, and even for months,” said Fincancı, pointing to the curfew on Cizre that lasted 79 days, and recalling that the injured and sick were unable to go to the hospital for life-saving treatment.

The government linked the HDP to the PKK and labelled its members terrorists. Starting in late 2015, the state began removing HDP mayors from their posts and replacing them with government appointees. As of this month, some 130 HDP mayors have been unlawfully dismissed, while the party’s most prominent figures, such as former co-chair and presidential candidate Selahattin Demirtaş, have been thrown in jail on questionable charges and about a third of all party members have been detained - including 33 more last week.

“The removal of so many elected mayors - representing the will of millions of voters - has been a singularly stark illustration of the dangers facing the country’s democracy,” the Washington Post said in an article published on Monday.

Berk Esen, international relations professor at Ankara’s Bilkent University, and co-author Şebnem Gümüşçü of Middlebury College argued in a late 2015 journal article that Turkey had already become an authoritarian regime that, even then, no longer satisfied even the minimal requirements of democracy.

Today he still views Turkey as an authoritarian regime, yet acknowledged that the government’s treatment of politicians and citizens in mainly Kurdish areas might call for an even harsher label.

“Turkey may be even described as an autocracy in the southeast,” he told Ahval in a podcast. “In the southeastern provinces you have a much stronger autocratic regime against the opposition.”

The other significant shift Esen saw since 2015 was Erdoğan’s consolidation of power. Sinan Ciddi, adjunct professor at Georgetown University and head of its Institute of Turkish Studies, echoed this view, arguing that Turkey’s president had since the failed 2016 coup created a fully personalised regime.

“The coup attempt provided him the opportunity to really mould a regime and a government that essentially transitioned Turkey from being the Republic of Turkey to what I and some others refer to as the Republic of Tayyip Erdoğan,” he told Ahval in a podcast.

A key part of this is the state’s linking of any and all critical voices to either the PKK or to the movement led by exiled imam Fethullah Gülen, which the government blames for orchestrating the coup attempt.

“Everybody is allegedly a terrorist so that they can be detained, taken into police custody or imprisoned,” said Fincancı.

She mentioned philanthropist and activist Osman Kavala, who has been in prison for nearly three years, and Taner Kılıç, the former head of rights watchdog Amnesty Turkey who earlier this month was sentenced to more than six years in jail. Fincancı herself has faced several charges, and was acquitted earlier this month for signing a declaration of peace for Turkey’s southeast.

“In Turkey it has never been very easy to be a human rights advocate, but nowadays it is much more difficult,” she said. “We are all accused of being terrorists while we try to protect human rights and combat torture.”

Turkey has built 94 new prisons in the past five years, vastly expanding its prison population and placing the country second among Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development states in terms of incarceration rate. The country’s leading expert on torture, Fincancı said that the number of torture cases in Turkey had doubled in the past five years, expanding far beyond the traditional regions of police aggression in southeast Turkey.

“There are severe torture methods practiced during detention,” she said. “Nearly from all of the prisons, there are allegations of torture...Torture is a common practice, unfortunately, and the convention against torture is totally ignored.”

The state’s latest affront to democracy is a new amendment to the legislation on lawyers, which became law last week. Now any group of at least 2,000 lawyers in provinces with more than 5,000 lawyers are able to establish their own bar association. 

Watchdog group Amnesty International said the new law would split the legal profession along political lines and weaken the influence of existing bar associations, which have been increasingly critical of the government in recent years. The AKP has said the new law will create a more democratic and pluralistic legal system. Fincancı wondered how the existing bar associations, which are chosen via elections, could be undemocratic.

“Everything that doesn’t fit with the government or the opinion of the government can easily be amended through some legal regulations,” she said.

Ciddi thought back to Turkey’s first multi-party elections, in 1950, when President İsmet İnönü, the successor to Turkey’s founder Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, was widely expected to lose to Adnan Menderes of the Democrat Party. Military leaders told İnönü that he could cancel the vote because they would back his claim to continued power. İnönü responded that his defeat at the polls - which soon came to pass - would be the country’s greatest victory.

Fast forward 70 years, and for Ciddi, the sum total of Erdoğan’s anti-democratic moves in recent years has left Turkish citizens unable to even grasp the damage done to their country.

“We can’t keep track any more in an effective way of how much human rights or rule of law or democratic governance has been assaulted,” he said. “It is so substantial that it is difficult to see how much has been lost.”

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.