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'I Don't Care If They Call Me A Dictator'

07/11/2016 11:38

The leader of Turkey's opposition HDP party was arrested last week and with it renewed concerns from European countries about the nature of the arrest and Turkey's democratic development. It's fair to say that those democratic ambitions are edging ever closer towards the new model; a presidential dictatorship where one man leads the way, revered by his followers and feared by his opposition. Yet, we as Europeans are still watching on as this spectacle unfolds on our doorstep, powerless to prevent the erosion of Turkey's democratic culture.

The man handing out orders is President Recep Tayyip Erdogan who infamously said when he was Istanbul mayor in the 90s, 'Democracy is like a train, you get off once you reach the station.' Has he decided that he has reached his station? And could that be the presidential palace he built that reportedly cost in excess of $500 million. He topped this off on Sunday in Istanbul when he told a gathering, 'I don't care if they call me a dictator or whatever else. It goes in one ear, out the other. What matters is what my people call me.'

Turkey says the reason for the arrest of Selahattin Demirtaş, a moderate Kurdish politician, is because he failed to cooperate with counter-terrorism operations. Turkey also cites Demirtas as failing to distance his political party from the Kurdish militant group the PKK, a group that has been fighting for an independent Kurdish homeland since the 1980s.

And although Demirtas started his career in a Kurdish party with close ties to the PKK, the accusations couldn't be further from the truth in today's Turkey. With the creation of the HDP party, the Kurds have been able to incorporate a medley of identities from pious Muslims to secular democrats and has become increasingly popular as a result. The party includes liberals, transgenders, socialists, leftists all of who came together under one banner; Social-Democrats. It's wrong to call the HDP a pro-Kurdish party these days, for it is not monolithic in its outlook, something that fails to be addressed repeatedly by the Western media. It is a rare voice that can mention the HDP without describing it as pro-Kurdish. It's too easy not to.

So why now? Why has Erdogan decided to arrest Demirtas when the warrants were prepared months ago? Because with Erdogan, as with any savvy politician, timing is critical. He is an adept career politician who can roll with the punches and adapt quickly as demonstrated by the attempted military 'coup' this summer. Rumour has it that Erdogan knew what was coming having been informed by the Turkish intelligence services but let it play out because it was to his own advantage. It is no secret that he has high hopes of changing Turkey to a presidential system firming up his reign ahead of the centenary celebrations of the republic in 2023, a date that has significant resonance with Turkish Islamists for it was that year which brought an end to the great Islamic Ottoman empire and pretty much turned Turkey into a secular republic over night.

Ironically, Erdogan is behaving not unlike the man whose reign he wishes to overturn, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of the secular state. Ataturk ruled by force to transform Turkey into a secular democracy modelled on its European neighbours. Erdogan's era is one in which the world is watching so he can't be quite as radical as Ataturk was. Yet, he can be just as mindful. Ataturk left no detail untouched in his vision, even changing the alphabet from Ottoman script to a Western European one. So it is that Erdogan can and is transforming Turkey in his own vision under the watch of liberal Europe and more importantly Turkey's number one NATO ally, the US.

The timing for these arrests couldn't be better. The UK is consumed with Brexit, the US with its own elections, Europe with the migrant crisis which demands a certain amount of cooperation from Turkey - the strain on European countries is already palpable with social ideals changing, Brexit is a symptom of it. Europe was just as shocked as many Brits were to wake up to a world in which immigrants had become a political hot potato in a Western liberal democracy. The second half of the twentieth century was largely defined by our openness to welcome foreigners to our shores. It's why we should be taking note of what is happening in Turkey.

The latest arrests and ongoing crackdown against any kind of opposition is extremely serious and isn't something we should be tolerating as European, yet it is something that we have absolutely no leverage on apparently. We are witnessing the destruction of a moderate Islamic democracy in favour of a more pious one. A country in which its journalists are now seeking refuge in other countries, becoming refugees of a war being waged against their intellectual and critical thinking. A country in which the education system has introduced much more religious doctrine to the shock of many parents. A country in which the Ministry of Religious Affairs is gaining more power with larger budgets. Erdogan stood on the steps of Ataturk airport the night of the attempted 'coup' and he told us loud and clear that, 'This was a gift from God'. If that doesn't explain to us what his aim is, then what will?

Turkey is becoming a country that will one day soon, and very soon, cease to be a democracy. The purge against tens of thousands of civil servants is just one aspect of what will be the collapse of its democratic institutions. The renaming of the Bosphorus Bridge - a gem of world cultural heritage connecting European shores to Asia - to The July 15 Martyr's Bridge, should be a warning that we should be taking seriously. Totalitarianism needs symbols of bloodshed to remind people
of the fear of attack by the enemy - the bridge is where the bloody battle on that night took place between soldiers and civilians who were called to the streets by the president himself. Symbol's are a well documented political tool. This is what we should be paying attention to.

The continued attack on any opposition which is now reaching critical mass is approaching the absurd for any democracy. The end is much nearer than we think. The problem we all face is how to prevent yet another religious zealot from enforcing his own doctrine on a peoples as diverse as Europe itself. It's a worrying time for pro-democracy Turks living in Turkey. The violence is not subsiding and it is now being supported by a man at the helm of the state who feels he was gifted by God to rule with the greatest moral authority. But alas, only God it seems can save moderate Turkey from this man.

When will we be ready to admit the Turkish model has failed? Maybe never for the implications of this admission are too overwhelming to consider, aren't they? Better to voice our concerns and turn the other cheek. We intervene in countries' domestic affairs only when it is convenient for us not for them, and now really isn't the time, is it?

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