An expert's point of view on a current event.

The Historical Blindness of Turkey’s Detractors

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is not destroying the country's democracy -- he's building it up after an era of military repression that was far worse.

Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images
Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images

Thirty years ago this month, Ilhan Erdost, a leftist Turkish publisher, was beaten to death by soldiers in Ankara’s Mamak military prison. He had been detained by the military regime, which had just taken power in a coup d’état. His crime was publishing a book by communist theorist Friedrich Engels. He was 35 years old.

Erdost’s widow, Gul Erdost, marked the anniversary by announcing that she planned to file a lawsuit against those she holds accountable for the killing: the generals who staged the Sept. 12, 1980, coup.

Gul Erdost has Turkey’s prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, to thank for the chance to finally challenge the military. Thirty years to the day that tanks rolled through Turkish cities, giving rise to arguably the most brutal and anti-democratic period in the country’s history, voters approved a package of amendments to the constitution drawn up by the former military rulers. These changes included removing the article that granted the military rulers perpetual immunity from prosecution.  

Yet to hear many U.S.-based analysts tell it, Erdogan is tearing down Turkey’s democracy, not building it up. These critics — out of either willful disregard or sheer ignorance — misrepresent what Erdogan has accomplished and why voters continue to support him. They depict Erdogan’s government as an ominous departure from Turkey’s past — ignoring the abuses that occurred under the country’s previous governments.

The constitutional reforms are only one of many ways that Erdogan’s government, now in its eighth year of power, has worked to strengthen respect for human rights and the rule of law. The prime minister has successfully implemented legal and economic reforms needed to join the European Union. He has approved changes, however limited, giving Turkey’s Kurdish population greater cultural rights. He has also done away with state security courts, whose mix of civilian and military judges ruled on alleged offenses against the state. (Full disclosure: In 1995, as a Reuters correspondent, I was tried before such a court for an article I wrote detailing military attacks on Kurdish villages.)

Turks, clearly, are pleased with Erdogan’s efforts. In 2007, they returned Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) to office, five years after the party first swept to power. And with Erdogan’s support, the recent referendum on the constitutional amendments passed by more than 15 percentage points.

Anti-AKP critics are not convinced. They portray Erdogan as a power-hungry Islamic radical intent on turning Turkey into an authoritarian, fundamentalist state. They claim that the government has concocted an "elaborate political fiction" that the Turkish armed forces planned a coup in a plot dubbed "Ergenekon." The arrest of some 60 military officers and civilian supporters for allegedly planning this coup, they say, was done solely to harass and stifle their opponents. Allegedly, the evidence against the military officers and civilian backers has been fabricated, creating a "climate of fear" for secular Turks.

In this false narrative being peddled by the AKP’s critics, human rights abuses are rampant and Turkey’s courts have been turned into pawns of the government’s repressive policies. U.S. policymakers, desperate for a moderate Islamic state, are oblivious to the prime minister’s true agenda, according to these analysts. Few people are aware of what is really going on because the Turkish media, the story goes, are too blinded by their hatred of the military to investigate Erdogan’s abuses, thoroughly cowed by threats of legal action, or under the control of Islamists.

But, in fact, Turkey is more democratic and more respectful of human rights today than it has ever been. Progress is slow and imperfect — and there are still abuses of power, some quite serious — but things are much, much better.  

After the 1980 military coup, the junta suspended all civil liberties and then severely curtailed them when it drew up a new constitution that enshrined the military as the ultimate arbiter in Turkish politics. Upwards of 650,000 people were arrested during the period of military rule, many of whom were tortured and killed. Kurds had it the worst: In Diyarbakir Prison, then run by the military, detainees were sodomized with batons, forced to eat their own excrement, left in rat-infested cells, and given water mixed with detergent to drink.

The 1990s were marginally better for the average Turk — but not for Kurds. More than a dozen Kurdish journalists, at least 62 officials from the Kurdish political party, and hundreds of Kurdish activists were mysteriously murdered from 1990 to 1995. The culprits, in many cases, are credibly alleged to be members of the security forces or allied groups. Thousands of court cases were filed against journalists who wrote about the Kurdish issue, the military’s brutal tactics against suspected rebel sympathizers, or human right abuses in general.

The mainstream Turkish media were generally compliant, if not outwardly supportive, of the repression. During my trial, one well-known Turkish columnist, Oktay Eksi, complained that the government should never have allowed the trial to go ahead because it made me famous. Others wrote about my possible hidden agenda or simply claimed I must have been tricked by Kurdish activists. Still, I was lucky: I was acquitted, though forced to leave the country. Turkish and Kurdish reporters fared much worse.

But the current wave of anti-AKP commentators avoid looking back, which is why they get Turkey’s present so wrong. Take the so-called mass trial under way in Turkey against 152 Kurdish politicians accused of working for the PKK rebels, as well as the Ergenekon trial. Supposedly, such mass trials are "becoming the norm" — yet another sign of creeping authoritarianism in Turkey.

But these are modest affairs compared with the trials against leftists, Kurds, trade unionists, and others following the 1980 coup. One case against members of the leftist Dev-Yol group opened in 1982 with 700 defendants. Eighteen years later, the trial is still continuing. Two other Dev-Yol trials, since concluded, each had about 900 defendants. The trial against the DISK trade union had more than 1,400 defendants. The fact that Turkish law allows mass trials — and schedules hearings so that cases drag on for years — has nothing to do with Erdogan and everything to do with the deliberately imperfect system the former military junta bequeathed to Turkey’s current leadership.

These critics profess shock at those who believe the Ergenekon trial may have validity. The real surprise is not that some members of the armed forces might have been planning a coup, but that Erdogan was courageous enough to challenge the military. The military, after all, has made a habit of staging and planning coups — it seized power in 1960, 1971, and 1980, and engineered a "soft coup" in 1997, when it forced the resignation of Prime Minister Necmettin Erbakan. Whether those on trial are all guilty is impossible to know. But to claim that the case portends an "ominous future for the country’s democracy" ignores the fact that the military itself is responsible for some of the worst abuses of democracy in Turkey’s history.

There are good reasons why some still find Turkey’s judiciary and policymaking bodies wanting. Erdogan has not fully upended the faulty and easy-to-abuse judicial, civil, and political systems he inherited. And Turkey is not a Western, liberal democracy just yet. But it is moving in the right direction. Over the past eight years, Turkey has improved its civil rights protections, strengthened its free market economy, and moved closer to fulfilling the demands for EU membership. Erdogan has also pushed Turkey’s military out of the political decision-making process and pressed the judiciary to investigate military officers implicated in extrajudicial executions of Kurds in the 1990s. These are positive changes, though you’d never know that by reading the new wave of anti-AKP commentators, many of whom seem to think that another military coup is needed to put Turkey back on the right track.

Of course, the situation in Turkey could change. Reforms could stall. Erdogan could become too power-happy. But one thing is for sure: The only real fiction here is that Turkey was a freer and more democratic place before Erdogan’s AKP party took office.

Aliza Marcus is the author of Blood and Belief: The PKK and the Kurdish Fight for Independence.