Turkey’s new legal reform stuck in our throats

It is clear that the future of the People’s Alliance, and the relationship between the AKP and the MHP, which Bahçeli offered and Erdoğan accepted, go beyond simply the tallying of votes. We now understand that the options offered and attributed to Erdoğan are not as clear cut as we once thought.

Turkey is at times a most strange country. Within only a couple of days, the trajectory of the country’s agenda can reverse completely, alongside all of our underlying assumptions. Recently, the likelihood, contents, and scope of new legal reforms in Turkey were being discussed. Amid such discussions,  statements and developments have surprised even the originators of said legal reform. Before, we were seeing arguments and reports indicating the potential outcomes of such reforms coming from the government as well as the opposition front. Not long after, statements emerged that blindsided all sides; and now, as a result, all of our understandings of our government have changed. Claims that Erdoğan was forced to consider reform because of the obligations of his position, have further strengthened those obligations.

In chaotic moments, such as these, originally justifiable comments are now being mocked while those who made unfounded comments are able to say: “I told you so!” Major political developments, such as with these legal reforms, are often perceived as occurring in clear phases rather than as nuanced processes. The impatience (or opportunism) which this view enables creates recurring problems in our understanding.

Right now, with only a series of statements and strong positions having been made, we cannot presume to think that this legal reform process has been completed. Both the pressures and obligations, which resulted in many calling for legal reform, and the scope of the “reform bid” itself are part of an ongoing discussion. The few existing statements of support and opposition, contrary to what has been indicated, do not mean that we now have full clarity as to the current situation. Rather, because of increased instability and volatility, the ongoing debate has reached further extremes. For instance, the chairman of the MHP, which sits as the minor party in the ruling alliance, Devlet Bahçeli, has continuously backed Alaattin Çakıcı, a far-right mafia leader. This does not indicates that Bahçeli understands the situation of legal reform as being fully resolved. The same can be said of Doğu Perinçek, chairman of the Vatan Party, who entered the debate saying, “Unless there is a coup d’état, Demirtaş cannot be free.” The recent acts of German soldiers who, as part of an “EU mission,” boarded and searched a Turkish ship in the Mediterranean, also indicate the ongoing nature of the debate in Turkey surrounding legal reform. Additionally, you can add the re-rising of foreign exchange rates after an interest rate hike to this list.

Earlier I wrote that the limits which Bahçeli drew for this new “legal reform” clearly indicated that “Erdoğan has no intention not to follow these recommendations” and that it was unlikely that “Erdoğan will go any further than this.” Erdoğan quickly responded, leaving no room for doubt: He readily expressed his satisfaction with the People’s Alliance, between AKP and the MHP, and expressed his gratitude toward the MHP. This statement may have simultaneously helped and hurt his allies. This controversy may have ultimately resulted in Bülent Arınç’s resignation, but primarily it shocked reform enthusiasts. He also opposed the Minister of Justice, Abdulhamit Gül, who demanded judges be more courageous and tried to charge Osman Kavala, a longtime imprisoned businessperson and philanthropist, with financially sponsoring the Gezi protests. A charge which he has been acquitted of. Within such a landscape of uncertainty, talks have started concerning the tutelage of Bahçeli, which Erdoğan been unable to to free himself of.

As I mentioned earlier, despite some newclarity of the situation via these recent statements, we are very much still in the thick of this nuanced process and have little certainty as to the new dynamics and long-term consequences which will arise. The  conditions and pressures on Erdoğan and his circle which have led to this need to address “reform,” still exist and are perhaps becoming deeper. These conditions, which originated outside of the government, as well as the causes of the crises within the government, have both become more visible. We will continue to monitor these conditions as they progress, and will likely need further discussion.

I anticipate that, in addition to the ways in which this legal reform agenda will progress politically, these discussions regarding the power dynamics within the government may deepen even further. Or, at least there is the possibility for this to occur. I feel that these recent developments may have further political consequences beyond simply making the conflicts and dissent within the government more visible.
The first of these potential political consequences is the end of the two-dimensional understanding of the issues within the People’s Alliance and the presidential system in Turkey. Second, is the possible consequence of the emergence of more platforms, which the government creates in hopes of achieving certain results, but somehow, ends up with a platform that the opposition could not have created.

These potential consequences may seem very conceptual within the current political environment, but the concrete impact of their existence would not be felt until further on. For example, we can already see that the dynamics between the People’s Alliance and the presidential system are changing. The prevailing analysis up until this point has mostly focused on the predictable voting outcomes of the alliance. Analysis and discussions of possible scenarios were limited to this framework. It is clear that the future of the People’s Alliance, and the relationship between the AKP and the MHP, which Bahçeli offered and Erdoğan accepted, go beyond simply the tallying of votes. We now understand that the options offered and attributed to Erdoğan are not as clear cut as we once thought.

Erdoğan has continuously linked his power and the success of his government to the survival of the country. He has only been able to do this because of the strength afforded to him through the People’s Alliance. However, what affords this strength is not the numerical power of the alliance, but the new tutelage system it has created. Erdoğan has been able to flex this power in almost every arena, from the judiciary to the security bureaucracy, because of this alliance. Of course, he knew from the beginning that this power would not come without a price. Thus, his dependency on the MHP goes beyond the 50+1 requirement of the presidential system. What is coming into focus now is more than the picture of Bahçeli as having no other alternative but to support the government. We can now see a picture of Erdoğan stuck with fewer and fewer options.

This relationship forced by necessity does not make the ruling People’s Alliance any stronger. The government has increased its power thanks to depoliticization and has avoided many political risks. However, now it must pay the price for distancing itself so far. Similar to the crisis the neoliberal model, which wanted nothing more than depoliticization, is experiencing now, the government has lost the “center” which was its primary assurance.

Recent events have brought to light answers to a number of questions regarding the ruling bloc: What is the People’s Alliance? What are the dynamics of the relationship between the parties in the alliance? In a way, the genie now seems to be out of the bottle. However, these metaphors of loose genies or open Pandora’s Boxes often refer to the resulting uncontrollable outcomes. One of these outcomes may be rapid changes in the way ordinary people understand what we are facing, despite the fact that the opposition’s actors are nowhere to be seen. It is possible that the veil of the two-dimensional point of view created by long-established polarization cannot now obscure everything.

Moreover, it is also possible that the effects of this on the foundation of the ruling party may multiply. The developments we are seeing may give parties which have broken off from the AKP a raison d’etre which they have been unable to generate themselves. These invitations to and attacks on the İyi Party, by the ruling parties, have had the opposite effect than was intended. Simply a mention of “reform,” which connotes a “return to the old,” may just have a life-saving effect on the DEVA and the Future Parties.