Chicken or egg?

The street battles which paralyzed İstanbul on May 1 were only a reminder of the bitter mood. The increasingly aggressive language in Parliament between parties, a deadlock in the talks within the Constitutional Reconciliation Commission, growing enmity between the ideological divides on all levels and deep divisions opening up within the media all lie in the background.

The search for a peaceful national “modus vivendi” was summarized by the reformist camp on the eve of the referendum (for partial amendments to the current constitution) in 2010 as “Not enough, but yes!”

It put the expectations in context: Turkey needs change, and in total, for a first-class democracy.

Today, in the midst of a flux of developments, there is a new debate borne out of the (so far successfully ongoing) peace process with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).

While the Kemalist, nationalist and militarist opposition, which are disguised under misleading pseudonyms which recall left or right and are wrapped tightly in threatening rhetoric, engages in a Turkish version of a “nyet, nyet, nyet!” campaign, those in the reformist camp are now being torn apart around a new question of whether more democracy will bring peace or vice versa.

Hasan Cemal, who was forced to quit the Milliyet daily not so long ago for defending honest journalism, defined this in a blog as a crucial chicken and egg situation. Is it possible for there to be peace without democracy? Is it possible that there can be democracy without peace? We are all, as observers of the major flux in Turkey, Hamlets of our time, facing very tough questions.

The debate has already caused bitter episodes within the strictly proprietor-controlled big media, which has shrunk to the size of a dwarf overwhelmed by the magnitude of events. One after another, independent voices are silenced, fired or forced to leave.

But it has also spilled over to a focal point of free voices into the tiny but influential daily Taraf, which was shattered by the resignation of its editor, Oral Çalışlar, and the en masse resignations of its reformist columnists which followed.

Although many of the developments there still do not add up, it is obvious that much blood was lost and as some colleagues argued, “The backbone of a very important daily may have been broken for good.”

Yet, since much remains to be seen, let us leave it at that, only noting — on the occasion of World Press Freedom Day — that the Taraf case also shows how damaging the role of media proprietors in Turkish media today can be.

The main question remains: Peace or democracy, which comes first?

What makes it valid is certainly the ongoing peace talks with the PKK. As with many issues which have to do with major changes, it had a “centrifugal effect” along many layers. It has brought closer the anti-Justice and Development Party (AKP) and anti-Kurdish camps but caused new cracks and gaps among the liberals, moderate Islamists, social democrats and socialists.

It has also opened up new frontlines.

Perhaps the most important layer is the social fabric. At the moment, nobody knows for sure whether the peace process will succeed. Though the overall support for it is above 50 percent, Turks need to be convinced that Turkey will not be split into parts while Kurdish citizens need to be convinced that they will not be once more duped into submission with no rights granted.

The equation is made more difficult, on a political level, with a deeply rooted cultural element: blind obstinacy. It was on full display on May 1 amongst the demonstrators and authorities. Positions are locked.

In the deep background lies the bitter struggle for a new constitution. It paves the way for all sorts of tactical moves. The opposition has adopted a cunning stand that is only based on the possible failure of the peace process while delaying the draft work.

The ruling AKP, while aware that the peace process is a one-way street, is aggressively driving a presidential model which apparently falls short of the proper checks and balances, pushing the polarization to new heights.

As a result, uncertainties over whether Turkey will be able to deliver a constitution continue to accumulate. However, the genie is out of the bottle for good. Intertwined and non-separable, democracy and peace will have to give birth to each other.