As Turkey is gearing up for its biggest political challenge – to solve an armed conflict that has already killed more than 40,000 since 1984 – it is depressing to see that no national platform for free and open exchange of views exists.
The greater the task in front of us, the lower the quality of public debate becomes.
The Justice and Development Party have never had an inclusive and consultative approach to politics. Prime Minister Erdogan’s speeches often polarise or even demonise his rivals.
In return, the opposition is always on the defensive. Instead of offering durable solutions and an alternative vision, they resort to predictable and clichéd positions.
When political leaders fail to build relationships based on mutual respect for democratic traditions, as well as for each other, compromises necessary for addressing major national challenges become even harder to reach.
At the end, both sides resort to appealing to the lowest common denominator, populism.
In Diyarbakir, Prime Minister Erdoğan attended a mass wedding of 400 couples with the president of Iraqi-Kurdistan Masoud Barzani. Ordinarily, this should have been an occasion to feel hopeful.
“We will witness a new Turkey where those in the mountains come down, the prisons empty, and the 76 million citizens become one,” Erdoğan promised.
“In Diyarbakır, the city of brotherhood, we have been brothers for time immemorial”.
The next day, still in the region, he talked of a new process, a new climate and a new spring atmosphere being experienced not only in Turkey, but also in the region.
Perhaps it was the sparkle of gold coins distributed to happy married couples by the visiting Kurdish leader Barzani that prompted this level of optimism. Or was it the haunting Kurdish songs of the iconic singer Sivan Perwer, freshly returned from exile? Elsewhere in Diyarbakir, a counter rally was organised by the main Kurdish party, Peace and Democracy (BDP).
Dismissing the prime minister’s appearance with Barzani as a party-political show with an eye on municipal elections next March, BDP officials complained about “the lack of concrete steps by the government for the rights of the Kurdish people.”
Further away from the south-east, young people have been harassed by police following the prime minister’s comments about offence caused to conservative society by male and female university students sharing accommodation. They could not quite see the signs of this new climate. For those tear-gassed and water-cannoned on streets of Istanbul or Ankara, the air smelt neither brotherly nor democratic.
As for a new spring environment being experienced in the region, an increasingly dim picture in Syria threatening both Turkey and Iraq, made this claim somewhat delusional.
It was surely more about a package of deals with Iraqis, in the north and south, to build a multi-billion-dollar pipeline to export oil and gas to world markets.
A day after the Diyarbakir ceremony, Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu told a Brookings Institute audience in Washington DC, that he had apologised to Kurdish singer Sivan Perwer for being forced into exile for 37 years.
Whilst recognising how crucial addressing injustices in the past is to any conflict resolution effort, I couldn’t help noticing the irony. Surely, the minister owed similar apologies to many more people who suffered similar treatment in Turkey. There were countless young lives destroyed, families separated, careers ended as a result of the country’s notoriously authoritarian legislation.
Somehow, I cannot see the government rushing to replace the current 1982 Constitution, enacted after the 1980 military coup.
In fact, you don’t need to look that far back. There are plenty of examples from the Justice and Development Party’s rule that deserve a grovelling apology and urgent redress.
Notably, limitations on the freedoms of speech and assembly did not get any better under Mr Erdogan’s rule.
Coming back to disappointingly low quality of political debate, the opposition not only missed the opportunity to sufficiently counter somewhat dubious government rhetoric, their deputy chairman Faruk Logoglu lowered the tone further.
Criticising the Prime Minister for turning a domestic matter into a regional one, Logoglu was particularly incensed about Erdogan’s use of the word “Iraqi Kurdistan”. Despite being the official name of the autonomous Northern Iraqi region, even in Saddam Hussein’s time, the word Kurdistan still seems to rattle Turkish establishment.
A retired senior career diplomat, Faruk Logoglu also worried about a Prime Minister of Turkey going to a provincial town to meet a regional leader instead of receiving him in his own capital.
An effective public debate led by an opposition is important in any democracy, but it is absolutely crucial for a successful transition from conflict to peace. Once again, the government did not see the need to involve all sectors of society in the process, but more importantly, the opposition sadly failed to see the wood for the trees.
This post is also available in: Turkish