Erdogan, the Kurds and Legitimacy
In October, a series of invasions along the Syrian-Turkish border devastated the Kurdish people who live there. Violent displays caught on camera showed pro-Turkish forces executing nine Kurdish people, one of them the political leader Hevrin Khalaf. In the footage, Khalaf is shown being ripped out of her car and shot point-blank as her executioners shouted insults at her. However, this horrific story shouldn’t come as a surprise given the decline of democracy in Syria and President Erdogan’s consolidation of power since a failed coup attempt in 2016.
Once upon a time, Turkey was arguably the United States’ most strategic ally in the Cold War. Turkey was seen as a promising development of democracy bridging Europe and the Middle-East. There were even talks of making the NATO ally a member of the European Union.
However, EU lawmakers officially suspended talks of Turkey joining the European Union back in March. Citing reasons such as: limiting freedoms of the press, mass-incarceration, deterioration of civil rights, and jailing of journalists as disqualifiers to EU criteria for membership. What happened to make Turkey go so quickly from being “well on their way to joining the EU and establishing itself as a democracy” to authoritarian? Populism is a big part of the answer.
At first Erdogan appeared devoted to democratic ideals. He sought EU membership and his speeches spoke of harmony, pluralism and tolerance. But the world has witnessed in the most public of ways the breakdown of democracy and its values in Turkey’s through its invasion into Syria. According to How Democracies Die by Levitksy and Ziblatt, one of the first indicators of democratic erosion is a weak commitment to the rules and principles of democracy. These have been hallmark of the Erdogan presidency, especially in recent years. .
Statements made by Erdogan in addressing his critics, “We are the people, who are you?”, even though they too were Turks illustrated long before these invasions the problem that was brewing in Turkey. Like other populist leaders, Erdogan claims that he alone represents the people. This claim is something identified within How Democracies Die as well, that populist leaders claim sole legitimacy in representing the peoples’ interests. Anything that the leader doesn’t agree with is illegitimate and anyone who speaks out is a target for persecution
After the failed coup of 2016, Erdogan utilized his populist message in rallying Islamists to his defense. He began viciously attacking the Turkish media and press. According to Human Rights Watch, after the coup, 140 media outlets and 29 publishing houses were shut down through an emergency decree. In December 2016 over 149 journalists found themselves inside of Turkish prisons. Not much unfortunately has changed since then.
According to the Stockholm Center for Freedom 92 journalists are serving a sentence in Turkish prisons, 84 are awaiting trial, and over 162 live in exile and are pursued by the Turkish government as wanted criminals. These numbers make them the world leader in jailed journalists. But more tragically, Erdogan’s weaponization of his power isn’t only used against opponents in the media but also against the Kurds.
Thousands of people have fled, dozens have died during Turkey’s invasion into Syria. With this fact in mind and the fact that Turkey is infamous for targeting critics in the media it shouldn’t be surprising that once again this is exactly what President Erdogan is doing. No one should be shocked when the Turkish state media released a statement warning it would silence critics undermining the operation stating, “We will never tolerate broadcasts that will negatively affect our beloved nation and glorious soldiers’ morale and motivation, that serves the aim of terror, and might mislead our citizens with faulty, wrong and biased information,”.
Turkey has in effect thrown away whatever Western ideals it once possessed. The YPG, the Kurdish security force in Kurdish Syria, is seen positively by Westerners for aiding in the fight against the Islamic State. In contrast, Turkey depicts them as terrorists; and this is Erdogan’s justification for invading and attempting to cleanse the area surrounding their border of a Kurdish presence. Many would expect the United States and other westerners who conveniently enjoyed the help of the YPG to be inclined to help but clearly their reverence only goes so far as US troops leaving Syria sparked this tragedy to begin with. To the Kurds they know the fate Erdogan has in mind for them as one Kurdish YPG fighter put it, “Erdogan doesn’t like the Kurds. He wants us to leave.”
While Erdogan and Turkish forces are killing innocent people, Erdogan wants the press to write about their Olympic swim teams or Kurdish YPG violence rather than to focus on the actions of the government . This silence is one of the biggest problems about the invasion, the fact that many Turkish citizens are made complicit to their government’s violence because they are not informed about it. This at its core is one of the deepest issues surrounding the invasion and one that won’t go away even when the guns stop firing.
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