The nonsense of a “human rights action plan” in an authoritarian setting

The last decade in Turkey showed that since the constitutional referendum that was held in 2010, all elections, whether local or national, from referenda to the presidential election, were about Tayyip Erdoğan. But today is the first time that Erdoğan's AKP has so many rivals in the right-wing political sphere. Furthermore, most polls demonstrate that Erdoğan is unlikely to win 50 percent or more of the vote. This is where the aim to “prearrange the elections" comes into play.

President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who also serves as the chair of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) announced a so-called “Human Rights Action Plan” on March 2. The government promised to “establish a more robust human rights protection system” and therefore overhaul the laws regarding political parties and elections.

Yet associating electoral and political party laws with the notion of human rights does not make much sense. But rather than discussing those terms, one should focus on the new constitutional strategy devised by the AKP and its coalition partner, the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP).

A strategy that aims to bring about a new constitution has been put forward by the AKP, the MHP repeatedly expresses its desire to change Turkey’s electoral and political party laws.
Election, Democracy, Dictatorship

Turkey’s political regime is anything but unique. There are other “local and national” equivalents that follow similar practices and strategies. That includes Poland and Hungary in Europe, Brazil in Latin America and the Philippines in Southeast Asia. Those regimes learn from each other.

As stated by French philosopher Étienne Balibar, those authoritarian regimes result from the fusion of two opposing tendencies: technocratic and populist. This trend can be traced back to the 1970s and the breaking of the ties between citizens and politics. All those regimes attempt to deinstitutionalize and expand the boundaries of the executive power as much as they can. They also seek to retain the political power they have acquired through electoral ways even though their democratic legitimacy is questionable.

Former US President Donald Trump followed a similar path. The raid on the U.S. Congress that took place in the aftermath of Trump’s electoral defeat in November 2020 underlined the importance of an institution’s resilience. Indeed, elections serve as the most important institution to provide a veneer of democracy in authoritarian regimes. Yet those regimes all behave the same when faced with the prospect of a change of government that would allow for the minority to become the majority through elections.

The efforts of the MHP-AKP alliance to change the laws surrounding elections and political parties as well as their efforts to close down the minority-focused opposition Peoples Democratic Party (HDP) should be interpreted in that sense.

In functioning democracies, electoral systems and political parties serve three critical roles. Firstly, electoral systems serve to create manageable masses and instill trust in the electorate by building majorities. But whether the system is based on proportional representation or single-member plurality yields very different results. The aim of the AKP-MHP alliance in amending the electoral system is to produce a system that will be more likely to keep them in power.

In functioning democracies, political parties, whether they are in power or in the opposition, serve as essential components of the system as institutions that enable the democratic change of government. The demands of the public are debated through political parties as the instruments of institutionalized political participation through democratic means.

Legal regulations for political parties serve to determine what parties can and cannot do, which of the public’s demands will they push for as well as who can or cannot be their members and executives. The founding statutes of political parties and other relevant legal regulations are therefore the basic laws that determine the system’s transparency and non-transparency. Hence, it is very obvious why this authoritarian government alliance that is about to lose its democratic legitimacy is attempting to change the electoral and political party system.

The last decade in Turkey showed that since the constitutional referendum that was held in 2010, all elections, whether local or national, from referenda to the presidential election, were about him.

But today is the first time the AKP has so many rivals the right-wing political sphere, including two new parties that sprung from the AKP itself. What is more, most polls demonstrate that Erdoğan is unlikely to win 50 percent or more of the vote. This is where the aim to “prearrange the elections" comes into play, a practice allowed by the deinstitutionalization strategies of authoritarian regimes. 

Let us examine the efforts of the AKP-MHP alliance more closely.

First of all, the investigations carried out against the HDP as a result of MHP pressure should be interpreted in this light. Second, as demonstrated by the making of the election alliance legislation in 2018, those electoral arrangements are blatantly done in favor of the ruling alliance. Third, the decisions of the Supreme Election Board (YSK) in both the cancelling of the Istanbul local elections and in 2017, where all in favour of the government and flouted the rule of law. Finally, the absurdity of holding an election with local administrators that are directly appointed by the Interior Ministry as trustees, thereby replacing those elected ones through democratic vote, should also be pointed out.

One can easily predict that the MHP-AKP efforts to prearrange the elections – similar to those that we have witnessed so far - will intensify in the coming days. This is the governing alliance’s main agenda. For the democratic opposition, the essential part of the problem in Turkey is no longer to remove an authoritarian government through elections, but to provide those political assurances that governments can change peacefully, as a result of free and fair elections.

The rest of the action plan

I don’t believe we ought to bother discussing the so-called “human rights action plan” separately from those efforts to change the electoral and political party laws. How could this action plan be assessed as 19 and 20-year old students are kidnapped and threatened with death in Ankara and the Office of the Governor of Ankara does not respond to the pleas to find the perpetrators, as the Interior Minister targets students at Boğaziçi University for their sexual orientations, as despite ECHR decisions, philanthropist businessperson Osman Kavala and former co-chair of HDP Selahattin Demirtaş are kept in prison as if they were hostages, while tens of thousands of people, who demand justice, are kept waiting at the gates of the OHAL commission - the commission on examination of state of emergency procedures; while the Human Rights Association is made a target by the Interior Minister and while disappearances of people and methods of torture wound human dignity systematically?

How about simply enforcing the constitutional principles that have prevailed in our country for 150 years?

September 29, 2021 Discussing the post-AKP era