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Turkey's blueprint for the future

Tom Stevenson Istanbul
November 29, 2016

Turkey's government is pressing on with its plans to bring back the death penalty despite the risk of dashing EU accession hopes. Tom Stevenson reports from Istanbul.

Türkei Präsident Recep Tayyip Erdogan
Image: Picture-Alliance/dpa/S. Sunat

When Turkey's ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) abolished capital punishment in 2004, the move was widely praised as evidence of the pragmatism and political maturity of the country's religious conservatives.

Turkey had not carried out a death penalty since 1984 but its legal abolition was hailed as a symbol of a break from the days of military rule under which figures such as former Prime Minister Adnan Menderes was hanged in 1960, and prominent left-wing activist Deniz Gezmis in 1971.

Just 12 years later, the same ruling party is in the final stages of preparing to reinstate capital punishment as part of a radical set of changes to Turkey's constitution that supporters and critics alike say will be a blueprint for the country's future.

The government's volte face on reinstating capital punishment has come directly out of the shifting grounds of Turkish politics that followed the attempted military coup against the state in July. Immediately after the coup attempt was thwarted, Prime Minister Binali Yildirim publicly raised the idea of reinstating the death penalty in law.

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has since raised the issue on several occasions and used others as an example. "The US has it, Japan has it, China has it, most of the world has it. So they are allowed to have it... Sovereignty belongs to the people, so if the people make this decision I am sure the political parties will comply," he said at a post-coup rally this summer.

Yet despite the timing of the move, Prime Minister Yildirim has repeatedly made clear that if the bill is passed, it would not be possible to mete out a death sentence retroactively and therefore that it could not be applied to the suspected coup plotters.

'Part of Islam'

Getting people on the street to comment is far from easy these days, but those that are willing to talk don't mince their words. "Capital punishment is part of Islam, it is religion. If someone kills another man then he deserves to be killed too - for me it is that simple," 59-year-old Huseyin Akturan told DW, outside a traditional cafe in Istanbul's generally conservative Tophane neighborhood.

The government's main purpose in reintroducing the death penalty debate may be to whip up popular support among the country's most conservative elements, according to one academic expert on justice and democracy at a leading Turkish university who asked to remain anonymous for safety reasons.

Türkei Istanbul Demonstration von Kurden von Polizei aufgelöst
Many fear that the possible reinstatement of the death penalty is just one item on Erdogan's to-do-listImage: picture-alliance/dpa/T. Bozoglu

"It looks like the consolidation of one-man rule is the immediate goal of the new regime that is being established and the ultra-nationalists have always wanted this; it's playing to their interests as a kind of political mobilization," the academic told DW.

A national referendum on a new constitution that would expand president Erdogan's constitutional power is expected to be held as early as this coming spring and the argument posits that recent, highly conservative government policies on the reinstatement of capital punishment and the liberalization of child marriage are fodder for the far-right in advance of the referendum.

"Ahead of that time they would like to foment and politically mobilize all sectors of society that are happy to see blood: nationalists, racists, lumpen elements within the society because their votes are going to be needed again," the academic said.

Should the plans to reintroduce the death penalty make it into law, there will be wide-ranging effects on Turkey's economy and its relations with Europe, particularly on the stymied EU accession process.

Anti EU-sentiment

However European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker's pledge that "if Turkey should bring back the death penalty, we will immediately stop the negotiation process" currently carries little weight in Ankara, where anti-EU sentiment has been growing rapidly since the failed coup attempt.

Türkei Türkischer Polizist bewacht die Bilgi Univerität
There's little love lost right now between Turkey and the European UnionImage: Getty Images/AFP/C. Turkel

More pressing for Turkish officials is the concern that reintroducing the death penalty now would damage the extradition request that the government has filed in the United States for Pennsylvania-based Turkish preacher Fetullah Gulen, whom the Turkish government believes was the prime suspect behind the July coup attempt.

"The government would like to get rid of the political constraints implied in the EU accession process and international law, it cares less and less about these things and I think the death penalty will be reintroduced, because the AKP also has an ideological commitment to it," said the academic expert on justice and democracy.

Emel Kurma, the general coordinator of the Helsinki Citizens' Assembly human rights group in Turkey, says all the talk about the death penalty is a useful distraction for Erdogan and his party.

"Stirring up a debate to re-install capital punishment serves Erdogan and the government in diverting public attention from the actual political/economic challenges as concretely experienced in practical daily life," she told DW.

Kurma also argues that the AKP is using capital punishment in order to further cement its alliance with the MHP nationalist party and thereby increase its influence in parliament.

"On a much more practical basis, the capital punishment card provides good leverage to attain the support of MHP, the nationalist conservatives. Thus, it is aimed to weld their support to that of the traditional AKP electorate: the religious conservatives," she said. "The stirring up of capital punishment is a symptom of increasing adoption of authoritarian policies and practices, as the world at large is shifting into populist or authoritarian regimes and illiberal democracies."