Turkey’s False Spring

Despite Erdogan's recent electoral setback, winter is coming.

Turkey’s recent June elections have produced a religiously diverse parliament that the country has not seen since the 1950s. A total of seven non-Muslim deputies—three Armenian Apostolic, one Arab Orthodox, one Syriac Christian, and two Yazidis—were elected from the lists of three different parties. It is a mistake, however, to dwell on the success of minority candidates in a country at risk of moving not toward greater tolerance, but to scapegoating and religious and ethnic exclusivism.

Optimists argue that, after the recent elections which delivered a setback to President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s bid to consolidate power, Turkey’s political climate is finally ripe for the pluralism that has long been the goal of a new generation that is coming of age. But this is not the arrival of a Turkish political spring. If anything, we may be about to enter a long winter of discontent.

In theory and in practice, Turkey can and should be a beacon of religious pluralism and a model for peaceful coexistence in a region plagued by religious coercion, mass killing, and ethnic cleansing. The Gezi Park protests of June 2013, the first large-scale challenge to Erdoğan’s autocratic rule, produced much celebrated scenes of diversity: women in headscarves rallying alongside LGBT activists, Marxists standing guard to protect “Anti-Capitalist Muslims” during their prayers, and atheists and Muslims breaking fast together at opentable gatherings.

Such celebrations of diversity, however, fail to conceal the enormity of sectarianism and polarization in today’s Turkey. Under twelve years of Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party— Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi (AKP)—rule, the country has been a steady diet of hate, prejudice, and intolerance by top government officials. Turkey’s political culture also enabled perpetrators of hate speech and crimes not only to escape justice but to enjoy praise and promotions. This toxic climate, as the Anti-Defamation League (ADL)’s Global Index of anti-Semitism shows, has produced a Turkey that is even more anti-Semitic than Iran. According to the 2015 survey, an appalling 71 percent of Turkish citizens harbor anti-Semitic attitudes.

To make matters worse, Turkey’s new parliament, celebrated by many pundits for its minority members, has a fault line that could further escalate Turkey’s sectarian tensions. Two of the four parties represented in the Turkish parliament—the Islamist-rooted AKP and the right-wing nationalist Nationalist Movement Party (MHP)—are comprised entirely of Sunni Muslim deputies, with the exception of a token Armenian elected on the AKP list.

Moreover, although Alevis—adherents of an offshoot of Shi’ite Islam who make up 10 to 15 percent of the population—gave the AKP and MHP 7 percent of their vote, these parties chose to exclude non-Sunnis entirely from their ranks. If the current coalition talks lead to an AKP-MHP partnership, the governing bloc and its cabinet would exclude participation of religious minorities.

Were this AKP-MHP coalition to materialize, ethnic diversity would also suffer. The People’s Democratic Party (HDP) and the Republican People’s Party (CHP) combined received 64 percent of the Kurdish vote. But the AKP’s coalition with the MHP would leave a significant majority of Kurds out. This could only spell trouble for Turkey’s precarious Kurdish peace process and strained relations with Kurdish entities across the region.

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