“The thought police would get him just the same. He had committed–would have committed, even if he had never set pen to paper–the essential crime that contained all others in itself. Thought-Crime, they called it. Thoughtcrime was not a thing that could be concealed forever. You might dodge successfully for a while, even for years, but sooner or later they were bound to get you.” George Orwell 1984.
After a summer marred by demonstrations against his authoritarian rule, last week Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan unveiled a raft of reforms he said would take Turkey forward over the next 10 years. However, the response from a world press, not stifled by heavy handed restrictions at home, was essentially mixed. While some commentators declared it as a genuine attempt to reform for the better – i.e “Erdogan Deserves Credit for Democratization Package”, others claimed it was clearly designed to strengthen his and his parties long term position further promoting the power of the countries Sunni Muslim majority, at the expense of the secularism that the modern Turkish state was founded on 90 years ago this month i.e: “Erdogan Taking Turkey back 1000 years”.
Of course the truth, as always, lies somewhere in-between and for what it is worth I believe one key element has been lost in all the headlines about Headscarfs and Kurdish and other minority rights and that is the one thing he announced that can really improve the process of democracy itself. The reduction from 10% to 5% of the national vote required before any party can enter parliament must be seen as a positive thing no matter what side of the political fence you sit on? It will completely change the political landscape here and give a voice to some minorities, who have had little say for years, and not just the Erdogan years; because let us never forget that the 10% rule was actually put together by the nationalists parties long before he came to power, specifically to keep the Kurdish and religious leaning parties, like the AKP, out of politics. This is now seen as one of the biggest own goals in political history because all but one of those parties polled enough votes to enter parliament the year the AK Party swept to power, and the rest have endured the political wilderness for the past eleven years. However, I must add the caveat that Erdogan unveiled this as an idea only so it has some way to go before it is voted into Turkish law.
So progress of a sort and an indication that the ruling party are at least willing to listen to what the people want. Yet what they announced this week is seen as a slap in the face for those who believed his reforms would ultimately lead to an environment, where freedom of speech and expression would win over the present, rather draconian restrictions – “New Law to permit Turkish police to detain ‘possible’ protesters”.
When has the answer to complaints about lack of freedom of expression been even less freedom? Of course this is often seen as a logical response by the rulers of communist dinosaurs such as Russia and China, known for their violent, knee-jerk reactions against any public decent or criticism. While closer to home, across north Africa, where the Arab spring has unfortunately soured into an Arab winter in some countries like Libya and Egypt, old die hard habits like oppression have shown that they never really went away. However, Turkey is a mature democracy and no matter which way it may lean, left or right, Islamist or Secular, the party in power has been legitimately put there by the people.
So what are we to make of it when a democracy starts to drift towards autocracy? Yes, in most Arab countries and even in the history of the Turkish Republic there is an tradition of the population seeming more comfortable with a strong leader such as Ataturk or Egypt’s Colonel Nasser. However, modern media and a younger, more educated and sophisticated population, with an increasing willingness to make their voices heard are far more suspicious of powerful leaders; particularly those that challenge their human rights or they perceive as quietly imposing a religious agenda upon society. Even in the relatively short time I have lived here I have seen many changes, not least how some of those older traditions, like blind acceptance of authority, are waning. But what happens if a government ignores this trend and continues down the road to autocracy, for what else do you call it when police are given powers to round up and throw into prison without charge, anyone they simply suspect of “thinking” about demonstrating against the government, or indeed anything else?
But is Turkey unique in this seemingly Orwellian reaction to dissent? The answer is a resounding no as most European countries have some form of restriction on what people can and cannot say in public, particularly if what is said has the potential to become incendiary or is perceived as a Hate-Crime such as racism, homophobia or incitement to religiously motivated violence. However, none of these countries specifically target people for simply expressing dissatisfaction with their governments, or give their police sweeping powers to arrest anyone they want to, without any real need for an explanation.
In a true democracy most voices are heard and those with a genuine grievance are given a chance to express themselves either at the ballot box or through peaceful demonstrations. However, when a government decides to silence any public dissent by introducing the unmanageable concept of Thought-Crime, resentment can only increase because history has shown us time and time again that when a call for freedom is met by a reduction of existing freedoms, the chance of a positive outcome always moves that much further away.