Ankara—Politics always involves a tension between laws and leadership, accountability and action. Emergencies occur, the ship of state needs to negotiate the storms of unexpected events; there is a need to act. For those who believe in the priority of rights as an ideal of politics, this can be a problem. The Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben mused on this in his State of Exception, arguing that sovereignty and constitutions are unstable partners, with the sovereign always longing to slip the constitutional net.
I was reminded of this during my recent trip to Ankara as part of a European socialist delegation in order to witness the trial of the two leaders of the mainly Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP in Turkish), Selahatin Demirtas and Figen Yuksegdag. The prosecutors have asked for a 142-year sentence for each of them. It is likely that their request will be granted.
There is currently a “state of emergency” in Turkey, where President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has developed a peculiar form of national Islam, an unprecedented combination of Atatürk and the Muslim Brotherhood. Any opposition is considered a threat to both nation and faith. As Istanbul leader of the Islamic Welfare Party, Erdoğan was removed from office, banned from Parliament and imprisoned for violating Turkey’s secular constitution. He has experience of previous states of emergency. His democratic support comes from the small towns and agricultural regions of Anatolia, and is now present in all big cities, partly because of the rapid immigration to urban areas over the last 30 years. His vote grew in every election he contested as prime minister and he is by far the most popular politician representing the most populous part in Turkey.
His combination of a free market and a strong state was pioneered by Margaret Thatcher—and Erdoğan has stayed true to the script. The difference lies in the desecularisation of the Turkish polity. Women with head scarves are now allowed into public buildings. There is an explosion of state-sponsored mosque building—each flying the Turkish flag between its minarets. A more Ottoman foreign policy was initially pursued, with Erdoğan presenting himself as a champion of the Sunni interest. In a partnership with Fethullah Gülen, a Turkish exile who never left his compound in the Poconos but who established a network of schools, banks, and construction companies, Erdoğan shifted the leadership of the secularist military, established authority over the police, and appointed thousands of Gülenist judges who opposed the secular interpretation of constitutional law.
As is often the way with brothers, Erdoğan and Gülen fell out. There were many issues: the use of force to disperse protesters in the Gezi Park protests, the closing down of Gülenist prep schools, financial disputes. The rift came to a head in the failed July 2016 coup attempt by a group of junior military officers. Many Turks came out on the streets, the soldiers were beaten, and more than 200 people were killed. That was the cause of the state of emergency, which is now an unmediated form of presidential rule supported by a democratic plebiscite vote. Though supposedly targeted at Gülenists, it is the Zagros mountains and not the Poconos that pose the gravest threat to Erdoğan. It did not take long for the fundamental issue of Turkish politics to reemerge, the relationship between the Turkish state and the Kurds.