Is Erdoğan as committed to reform as he is to his own political survival?

President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan declared this month that he wanted to begin a new reform process to bolster Turkey’s economy and democracy. 

“We are working on both strengthening our economic policies and raising the bar of democracy and freedoms while easing the daily life for our citizens,” he said at a trade expo on Nov. 20, according to Hurriyet newspaper.

Turkey’s government-affiliated newspaper Daily Sabah hailed the speech as the beginning of a new era, saying that reforms had taken a back seat because of security concerns caused by the 2007 e-memorandum, in which the Turkish armed forces’ most senior officials warned against the election of the ruling Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) Abdullah Gül as president; the 2013 Gezi Park protests; and the 2016 failed military coup. 

Since then, the party's reform agenda has been interrupted and stalled in the last several years due to security challenges in Turkey's neighbourhood, Daily Sabah said.

But now, despite the threats from the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) militant group and the Gülen movement, a religious network that Turkey blames for orchestrating the coup attempt, the AKP’s reform agenda is back on track apparently. It’s good to know that President Erdoğan and his supporters were only temporarily distracted, between 2007 and 2020, from the necessary reforms they will now implement.

The most significant change in the reform package will be the gradual abandoning of the security-dominated agenda of the post-coup political landscape, Daily Sabah said. Erdoğan and the AKP are promising more liberty and prosperity without abandoning the emphasis on security, it said.

The Turkish public, accustomed to the optimistic worldview of the state’s media supporters like Daily Sabah, will no doubt have their fears about the economy and democratic system calmed by these promises.

Yet despite the new reform process, Turkey continues to arrest and purge military staff considered to be disloyal and to keep hundreds of journalists and opposition politicians, particularly from the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), in prison.

Thirty-three people accused of links to the outlawed Gülen movement, or what the Turkish government calls the Fethullahist Terror Organisation (FETO), were arrested in the last week. Another 47 were arrested earlier this November.

Fifty-two people were arrested on charges of links to the PKK over the weekend. This wave of arrests includes Dindar Karataş, a reporter for Mezopotamya News Agency, who was arrested on Tuesday. 

Scores of journalists and hundreds of activists are currently imprisoned in Turkey, and another 167 journalists are either in exile or hiding.

On Tuesday, the European Court of Human Rights ruled that “Turkish authorities had no good reason in 2016 to arrest Ahmet Şık, who was at the time writing for the left-wing secular Cumhuriyet newspaper in Istanbul, and then keep him in pretrial detention for 13 months on charges that he was cooperating with enemies of the government”.

Şık has been sentenced to seven years in prison but remains free during the appeal process and has been a deputy in parliament since the June 2018 elections.

On Nov. 23, a court sentenced journalist Mehmet Baransu to 17 years in prison for publishing leaked documents while working for now-closed liberal newspaper Taraf.

Erdoğan ally Bulent Arınç tested the waters of reform last week by suggesting that prominent political prisoners Osman Kavala and Selahattin Demirtaş should be released from prison. Arınç later resigned from the presidential advisory board after Erdoğan rebuked him.

Arınç had suggested people read a book written by Demirtaş, a former HDP co-chair, in prison to understand the ‘Kurdish issue’.

“It offended me that he suggested everyone read the book written by a terrorist. There is no Kurdish issue in this country,” Erdoğan said, claiming that Demirtaş defended “terrorism” and had the “blood of thousands of Kurds on his hands”.

Human Rights Watch has called for the former HDP leader to be released, saying his continued detention went against a 2019 ECHR ruling and violated Article 18 of the European Convention, “meaning that the extension of Demirtaş’ detention had been pursued for ulterior purposes and as such was an abuse of power”.

On Wednesday, two lawyers from Demirtaş’s legal team, Cahit Kırkazak and Mehmet Deniz Büyük, were also detained in raids on their houses and charged with being active members of the PKK, like most detainees affiliated with the HDP.

Turkey is never going to be able to do anything about the obvious and ongoing ‘Kurdish issue’, which Erdoğan refuses to even recognise, unless it is able to encourage Kurds to achieve their aim of political reform and greater autonomy within the Turkish state if every Kurdish party not affiliated with the government is criminalised like this.

One of the AKP’s own Kurdish MPs, Mehmet İhsan Arslan, was recently referred to the party’s disciplinary committee for giving voice to the frustrations of Turkey’s Kurdish citizens.

“We destroyed (trust) because we got used to saying so many things we were unable to do. We gave hope but could not fulfil it,” Arslan said. “There were once hopes that (Erdoğan) could solve this problem, but these hopes do not exist anymore, because we also tried to solve the problem with violence.”

Erdoğan needs his Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) coalition ally to maintain a parliamentary majority and said last week he will involve them in his supposed reform process. 

The AKP has a big incentive to cripple the HDP as a political force before the next national elections, which are expected in 2023 but may be called for sooner. The HDP’s popularity in 2015 caused the AKP to lose their majority in parliament, which coerced them to rely on the MHP for support. If the HDP is banned before the next elections, it would become easier for the AKP to win an outright majority.

Erdoğan accused his opponents on Wednesday of violating Article 138 of Turkey’s constitution, which prohibits citizens from making orders to the judiciary, then subsequently ordered the judiciary to investigate those opponents.

Erdoğan said that a comprehensive judicial package to improve human rights in Turkey was in the pipeline, according to Middle East Eye.

Without any concrete evidence of the Turkish government’s desire for reform and democratisation, its statements on the matter are unlikely to be taken seriously by any critics within or outside Turkey. 

Turkey’s economic problems are closely linked to its political issues. Backtracking on democratic reforms has led to the stalling of Turkey’s accession process into the European Union, which Erdoğan maintains he is still committed to. And a lack of political freedom has made Turkey an uninviting place for international companies, NGOs and investors.

If it turns out, as many suspect, that Erdoğan’s desire for reform is insincere, Turkey’s economic problems will worsen and the popularity of the AKP – which has been in power for 18 years – will continue to fall.

Likewise, U.S. President-elect Joe Biden’s stated commitment to prioritise human rights will be tested by his ability to pressure Turkey to follow through on its promises.

Words are always going to be cheap, but real progress on human rights and democratic reforms must be paid for in political capital. Whether Biden or Erdoğan have any of that to spend should not take long to discover.

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