Demirel, the system, and change

When Süleyman Demirel died last week I asked myself why such a permanent giant of Turkish politics failed to change the country during his 40 years of active politics. Why is it that genuine political change in Turkey proved to be so elusive during the long decades of Demirel’s public service? The answer has partly to do with the fact that Demirel was synonymous with the establishment. Establishment parties in Turkey have, time and again, proven unable to change the political system.

During most of the Cold War—and particularly during the 1980s and 1990s—Turkey had, for lack of a better word, a Kemalist consensus, and those outside the consensus, especially the Islamists and the Kurds were essentially excluded from politics.

The first wave of democratization in the post-Cold War era in Turkey came from the Islamists—specifically, from the Justice and Development Party (AKP). In 2002, when the AKP came to power, it decided that accession to the European Union should be its main goal and that that effort could serve as tool to undermine the political power of the Turkish military, which still lurked behind the scenes. So, incredibly, the AKP, an Islamist party, decided to bring about a post-Kemalist system by pushing for membership in the EU’s essentially liberal, democratic project. This strategy explains why Turkish liberals supported the AKP and could hope that the Islamists would push the system in a liberal direction.

But then something tragic happened. The AKP became the establishment. After the military was essentially defeated as a political force, the AKP ceased to be an anti-establishment party. Rather, it became a party that started to use the privileges of power, and itself began its own networks of patronage clientelism, and became a victim of this entity called the state. The AKP became the state.

I think similar dynamics were at play in Demirel’s political career. Demirel, too, started his career by challenging the establishment but ended up becoming one of the most permanent politicians identified with the state. His ability to change the system vanished the minute he became the system. The real puzzle is the failure of establishment political parties to challenge the system. It would have been wonderful for a center-right party or a center-left party to have taken Turkey to the post-Kemalist phase, to a post-military, pro-EU and progressive phase. But the mainstream political parties have failed. The establishment of Turkey has failed. The Kemalist order in Turkey has failed. And together with that order, Demirel failed.

There is reason to think that, in Turkey, only anti-establishment parties can actually improve the system. The old AKP was an anti-establishment party. Now we’re in a situation where the second wave of democratization may also come from an anti-establishment party, this one mostly representing the Kurds. The most democratic, the most liberal, the most progressive narrative heard in Turkish politics today comes from Selahattin Demirtaş, co-leader of the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) — not the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), not the far-right Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), and not the AKP.

What gives me hope about the HDP is that, even when it enters Parliament—and even if a miracle happens and it enters a coalition government—it will never become the state. By definition, the HDP is a Kurdish political party. The Islamists were able to become the state because Turkey is 99 percent Muslim and people could basically establish a sense of supremacy based on Muslim identity. The Kurds will never be able to represent the majority. They will never be able to become the state. They have vested and permanent interest in the rule of law—indeed their very survival depends on it. Their survival depends on minority rights and on checks and balances. This stark fact gives me hope about the HDP and its agenda.

This piece was originally published by
Today’s Zaman