Following the downturn in US-Turkish relations and the recent re-election of Recep Tayyip Erdogan as President of the Turkish Republic, only this time with enhanced powers, some have begun to ask what happened to Turkish democracy?
But the question is misplaced. Sure, Turkey has certainly drifted from liberal democratic politics in recent years; however, the reality is that Turkey was never, ever, a democracy. It is worth having a brief historical recap in order to remind western journalists, politicians and wonks as well as some of their self-deluded Turkish counterparts of this fact.
The idea that Turkey is a democracy is a western construct. It is an invented and artificial idea based on the hopes of western policy makers (and some wishful thinking Turkish intellectuals) who, in the post 9/11 war on terror, thought they needed an example of a modern, western friendly and democratic Muslim country in order to convince the Muslim world that they were not at war with Islam. This construct was given additional impetus after the misnamed Arab Spring of 2011. Again, the international community wanted to point towards a model or example of a Muslim democracy. They pointed to Turkey, but they shouldn’t have.
Following Turkey’s establishment in 1923, Turkey was under the one-man rule of its principle state-builder and first president Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. Secularist, reformist, revolutionary, moderniser and visionary, Kemal-Ataturk was, however, no democrat. There were a couple of short periods when he experimented with a two-party system, but when the politics of the opposition drifted in a direction not to his liking, he swiftly did away with it. Following his death in 1938, Kemal-Ataturk’s successor Ismet Inonu took over the mantle. Elections took place in 1946 which the ruling party won in a landslide because, quite frankly, they were unfree, unfair, and undoubtedly rigged. It was not until 1950 that free and fair elections finally took place and even brought about a change of government. Adnan Menderes of the Democrat Party became Prime Minister. However, ten years later the military ousted him in a coup. Incensed by Manderes’ handling of the economy, his creeping autocratic nature and his popular appeals to Islam, they decided he needed to be gone for good. One year after the coup Menderes was hanging by the neck.
And like a kid with an open packet of Oreos, the military just couldn’t help itself. It staged another intervention in 1971 and another in 1980 after urban political violence was tearing the country apart. Until 1983 Turkey was led by a military junta. In addition to arresting hundreds of thousands of citizens, executing dozens and the many incidences of torture, the men in uniform oversaw the drafting of the 1982 constitution. They also vetted political candidates ahead of the 1983 elections. Even after return to “normal” civilian politics, the military retained control of nearly all institutions of state through informal networks and by heading supervisory bodies. Nothing could happen from foreign policy to television broadcasts if it were against the will of the generals.
The main challenge to the military’s grip over power was the rise of Welfare Party and its leader and Necmettin Erbakan who became Prime Minister in 1996 and advocated an openly Islamist foreign policy. No problem for the boys in uniform. In 1997 they gave Erbakan an ultimatum which made him obliged to resign. He was then banned from politics and so was his party.
But hold on a minute. As far removed from democracy as the above might sound, it doesn’t relate to the whole of the country. While all this was taking place, the southeast was a different case altogether. The 1920s and 30s were marked by insurrections and brutal crackdowns by the full arm of the state. The 1980s and 1990s were particularly dreadful as insurgency and counter insurgency claimed the lives of 40,000 citizens. Death squads roamed southeastern cities assassinating Kurdish leaders. Thousands of villages were destroyed and perhaps millions displaced. There were many instances of extrajudicial killings and torture which still remain uninvestigated let alone punished. So when you hear people talk of Turkish democracy, they are usually talking about only part of the country, the places where people go on holiday and policy makers and businesspersons visit rather than the southeast which resembled a war-zone.
It was not until October 2001 that Turkey entered a period of democratization with the first of a series of reforms geared towards EU accession. Not long after, in 2002, the Justice and Development Party (AKP) entered government. The following year, after his ban from politics was lifted, Recep Tayyip Erdogan became Prime Minister.
This was perfect timing for the West which was in the early stages of the War on Terror. Running the show in Turkey were outwardly pious politicians whose political careers emanated from Islamist parties. They had covered wives, reframed from drinking alcohol and talked about piety, and, yet, Turkey still appeared to be pro-western and friendly. These Turkish politicians even talked the talk about democracy.
But it was all nonsense. Throughout this period, Erdogan and the AKP worked hard to undermine Turkey’s opportunity at democratization. Just a few examples to illustrate the point. In 2005, Erdogan sued Musa Kart and the Cumhuriyet newspaper for a cartoon that “insulted” him. This was while 60 academics, journalists and publishers were already in prison or facing prosecution. The onslaught against freedom of expression which would go full speed ahead ten years later had already begun. Meanwhile, the infamous article 301, which banned the insult against “Turkishness” was also in full sway and used against novelists Orhan Pamuk and Elif Safak. Also, in 2004, there were serious discussions by the AKP government to criminalize adultery. Yes, you heard right – criminalize adultery! To make matters worse, the AKP got into bed with the Gulen movement who had infiltrated the judiciary and police force and laid fraudulent charges on hundreds of military officers in what turned out to be a successful bid to ouster the military’s ability to interfere in politics. It was also designed to make room for the rise of Gulenist ranks within the armed-forces. Although the military was by far an anti-democratic force, these means to supress it were contrary to the rule of law. They made a mockery of the courts.
In 2008 there was an attempt through the constitutional court to shut down the AKP for anti-secular activities. Ultimately it failed (although it did slap the party with a fine and a warning). However, in response, the AKP spearheaded the 2010 constitutional changes which began the process of eroding Turkey’s fragile system of checks and balances.
All the while, politicians and liberal intellectuals in the West and Turkey were heaping praise on Turkish democracy, and, by extension, Erdogan and the AKP. In reality, democracy in Turkey was barely in existence. And I haven’t even gone beyond 2010 when things got even worse. The myth of Turkish democracy should be understood as just that, a piece of fiction.
On Sunday 24 June, I will be glued to my TV screen to watch two historical events. The first, and by far the most important, is England’s match against Panama for the group stage of the 2018 World Cup. The second, and perhaps the reason why you are reading this post, is the results of the parliamentary and presidential elections in Turkey.
I have been commissioned to write a commentary for a leading newspaper and scheduled to make a TV news appearance to analyse the election results, so much of my thoughts will be expressed soon enough. However, I was recently asked by a journalism student whether I consider Turkey a democracy. My answer was negative.
On paper Turkey may look like a democracy, but in practice it is far from it. Every democratic system, whether parliamentary or presidential, contains a flaw or two whether they be the voting system, the constitutional boundaries or the role of institutions or executive branches. However, Turkey’s system (before and especially after the constitutional changes of 2017), is an amalgam of the various deficiencies that can be found in different democratic systems. The end result is a structure that resembles a democracy, but isn’t one and just doesn’t make the grade. Checks and balances? Eroded. Fundamental freedoms? Violated. Freedom of expression? Curtailed. Tyranny of the majority? Institutionalised. Civil society? embattled.
Even the electoral process is unfair, and, at times, unfree.
The elections are taking place under a state of emergency. This is the second election to be held under such restrictive conditions which have been in place for almost two years. How can Turkey be called a democracy when last year’s referendum to fundamentally transform the political system in order to entrench the rule and power of the incumbent president take place under a state of emergency? How can it be a democracy when the leaders of the third largest political party are arrested and imprisoned while still on trial without remand, in what is clearly politically motivated charges? Ahead of Sunday’s polls, the liberal and Kurdish oriented People’s Democratic Party (HDP) is experiencing real difficulties to campaign through violence and intimidation. Meanwhile, The HDP’s Presidential candidate, selahattin demirtas, is behind bars under trumped up charges of terrorism.
In Turkey, the resources of the state are intermeshed with that of the ruling party and are used for campaign purposes. After years of co-option and censorship, the media is overwhelming sympathetic to President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and the AKP. Some have counted that around 90 per cent of media outlets are now pro-government. Meanwhile the state broadcaster, TRT, has devoted, by some counts, almost ten times more coverage to President Erdogan than to his challengers. Go to any Turkish city and you will see at least three gigantic AKP and Erdogan posters located in key arteries of the population centre for every backstreet opposition billboard.
Turkey’s 10 per cent parliamentary threshold is a stain on its so-called democracy. This restriction was deliberately designed to prevent Kurdish political party representation. Indeed, if the HDP wins less than 10 per cent of the popular vote, the ruling AKP will be the winner of around 80 seats, all but guaranteeing their parliamentary majority. No wonder the HDP is constantly bullied and intimidated.
The OSCE which monitors elections in Turkey releases an interim report during the election process and another after the voting is complete. Over the years each report has been more damning than the next, but yet its criticisms and recommendations go unheeded. Turkey’s election board has been filled with government allies and the safety of ballots is in severe doubt in some parts of the country, mostly in areas where the aforementioned 10 per cent threshold becomes critical. To make matters worse, ballots without an official seal will be considered valid and safeguards against fraud are not strong enough. Many doubt the elections will be free and fair. And if enough of the population doesn’t believe that the process is transparent, then there is a serious problem.
The opposition has to be congratulated for competing in such an environment, let alone giving President Erdogan and the AKP a run for their money. Some commentators have gone so far as to raise the prospect of a governmental defeat. This is unlikely. Erdogan will probably win the presidency in either the first or second round. It would be a bonus for President Erdogan to have an AKP majority in parliament, but not essential. The new constitution was conceived to give the President enough authority to get things done without parliament causing too much trouble. And what it can do – refuse to authorise the budget and reject presidential decrees, Erdogan will overcome through backroom deals and manoeuvres with a handful of key parliamentary deputies whose support will be required to swing a vote.
Still, the opposition parties and candidates have done well in the circumstances, especially in a system designed to keep them in opposition.
With upcoming parliamentary and presidential elections, one would think that Turkey is awash with excitement and fervour. But the election season has been a rather subdued affair. Turks seem to be suffering from election fatigue. Let’s not forget that this is the sixth big vote in Turkey in just four years. The campaign period also coincides with the holy month of Ramazan – Erdogan apparently ordered electioneering to be somewhat calmer. Hmmm.
Let’s not forget just how high the stakes are. If incumbent President Recep Tayyip Erdogan wins the presidential race, with the new constitution in place it would mean he will be an elected autocrat with unprecedented power. And if his Justice and Development Party (AKP) gain a majority in parliament, Erdogan will be able to use his powers to their maximum potential. Indeed, this is an election that is worth campaigning for, regardless of which party you sympathise with. Although there is now a little bit of a buzz after the holiday period and ahead of polling day, compared to previous elections, it still remains the pretty calm affair.
The candidate and party which seems to be suffering from the most amount of election fatigue is that President Erdogan and his AKP. No doubt, they will almost certainly win, but the AKP needs to fight in order to get 50 per cent of the vote so that it may dominate parliament to rubber stamp the will of the President. Meanwhile, Erdogan will win the presidency but would prefer to do it in the first round rather than in a second round two weeks later. Yet, Erdogan is looking tired and his campaign lacklustre. Some of his rallies have been visibly empty and his tongue lashings against opponents and the international conspiracies against Turkey is less venomous than previous years. The billboard campaign of both Erdogan and the AKP appear duller by the day. Apparently, CHP Presidential candidate Muharrem Ince scored higher ratings than Erdogan not only on television, but also on the internet. No doubt because Erdogan and what he stands for is clear, the other candidates who lack media exposure are, therefore, more interesting especially when they mock Erdogan’s lack of university degree and his use of teleprompter which has been hit by system failure.
This leads to the question, is Erdogan’s popularity waning. Has the man who has dominated Turkish politics for the last 15 years, lost his shine?
Many have described Recep Tayyip Erdogan as a charismatic leader so it is worth consulting Max Weber, one of the three founding fathers of modern sociology, about this matter.
In looking at the world around him in turn of the last century, Weber characterised the nature of societal order and political authority. In other words, why do people obey? Why do we abide by laws rather than rebel or resist? Often this comes down to the question of power – people with more power control us. But the use or threat of force cannot be used all the time. More often than not, people obey political elites because they respect authority, meaning that they recognise that those in power have legitimacy to rule.
Weber was interested in different types of authority in political societies and identified three. The first is rational-legal authority, which in basic terms means the presence of rules, laws, institutions and bureaucracies that govern based on consensus, not unlike modern democracies. Secondly, there is traditional authority which is when leaders base their legitimacy on past traditions of patrimony, often this would take the form of a monarchy. Finally, and here comes the interesting bit, Weber identified the phenomenon of Charismatic authority.
The term “charisma” is religious in origin, Greek for “divine gift”. Put another way, an individual with a god-like quality or aura. That’s the origin of the word, but Charisma is also a word we use colloquially. We know what it means, but it’s hard to define. We use it to describe celebrities, board room managers, politicians and popular people. For example, George Clooney, Steve Jobs, Martin Luther King, Fidel Castro, Nelson Mandela, Adolf Hitler, Will Smith and Barack Obama have all been described as charismatic.
A few things I am sure you have noted from the above list. One, all of the aforementioned are men. Two, it lumps together the good with the evil, the profound with the superficial. Thirdly, charisma is in the eye of the beholder. For example, Obama may be charismatic for me, but not to you. Ditto Steve Jobs and Adolph Hitler.
Nevertheless, with all the problems associated with the term charisma, Weber still noted the preponderance of charismatic leaders in some countries. They often emerge in a society which has experienced turmoil or an existential crisis. In this context, an individual appears, perhaps from the ranks of the military or a religious group who has exceptional organisational and oratory skills and manages to unite a society and head them towards a particular direction or vision. This is the basis for his (rarely her) authority. That’s right, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk is an almost ideal example.
But in some respects so is Recep Tayyip Erdogan. He emerged at a time when Turkey was experiencing one of its worst economic crises in its history, there was uncertainty about the future direction of Turkey, and from the perspective of the pious and conservative population, a sense of victimhood. In this context Erdogan rose to the fore offering Turkey, or at least the demographic of Turkish society he represented as well as disenchanted liberals and capitalists, a vision of a “New Turkey”, one in which a pious generation would arise. This new Turkey would be economically prosperous, technologically and infrastructural advanced and a world leader. Women could wear headscarves to university and the organs of the state would represent and work for the real Turkish majority, those from the socially conservative Anatolian heartland and the urban poor while also benefitting the economic elite.
But that was then and the excitement of the Erdogan years of the past 10-15 years is waning. Weber predicted this would be the case in societies where charismatic authority is the source of legitimacy. Charismatic appeal is only temporary. Indeed, the rhetoric of Erdogan has been heard before. The vision is clear as is the direction. It is no longer novel and what is real can be mundane. Mega projects? The third bridge is open and so is the Marmaray. Despite all the hype, they turned out to be pretty lacklustre (some would say failures). Kanal Istanbul and the third airport now seem less exciting. Yes, Erdogan may get his new powers and promise a stronger Turkey, but what he will do is already known. Simply put, more of the same.
Weber argues that at this stage, a process begins which he called the routinization of charisma. This is when charismatic authority shifts to either traditional or legal-rational authority, a result of the need to maintain power and is often facilitated by the group around the charismatic leader. Sometimes this is achieved by building monuments and creating new rituals. To some extent we have seen this routinisation process begin with the narrative and commemoration of the “martyrs” of the attempt coup of 16 July 2016.
Regardless, what is clear is that although Erdogan and the AKP will no doubt win the forthcoming elections, we are entering a period of the routinization of Erdogan’s charisma, the process of which will dominate the work of Erdogan and the AKP and be institutionalised through the new powers of the constitution. Not much to get excited about, even if you support him.
There are many embattled democracies in the world today, but How Democracy Die is primarily a book about America. It is a warning to Americans to never be complacent about their democracy, regardless of how robust and dynamic the oldest democratic constitution in the world may appear to be; the foundations of even the strongest of constitutions shake when an autocratic demagogue is committed to smashing the liberal democratic order.
In this book, Harvard professors Daniel Ziblatt and Steven Levitsky examine international examples to illustrate how autocrats use legal means to kill democracy. Professor Ziblatt is a historian of Europe from the nineteenth century to the present day and Professor Levitsky focuses on Latin America and the developing world. You can’t get more qualified than that to write a book about how democracies die.
With the exception of its snowy neighbour to the north and its transatlantic Anglo sidekick, many who live outside of the US reside in countries where democracy has either died and been reborn, or is experiencing a difficult process of democratization. Others are witnessing the death of their own democracy in front of their very eyes. It is therefore imperative that Americans, regardless of their level of education, political views or social status, pay heed to the political histories of other nations in order to prevent the misfortune of others to be repeated in America. This is especially true while Donald Trump sits in the Oval Office. Sure, he was elected fair and square, but there are facets of his character and policies that raise alarm bells.
Borrowing and updating the work of Juan Linz, Ziblatt and Levitsky highlight four key indicators of authoritarianism. They are 1) rejection or weak commitment to the democratic rules of the game, 2) denial of the legitimacy of political opponents, 3) toleration of encouragement of violence, 4) readiness to curtail civil liberties of opponents including the media. Note that Trump falls into each of these four categories.
In recent times the death of a democracy is less likely to occur through a military coup or by a violent revolution. It’s not that there aren’t any good old-fashioned military coups anymore (Thailand, Ecuador), but it is increasingly the case that demagogues obtain power through the ballot box, and once there slowly but surely push democratic norms to the point of collapse in a bid to solidify power. Often this achieved by eroding the checks and balances needed in a healthy democracy through the combination of nullifying the legislative power of parliament, filling the judiciary with sycophantic or co-opted judges, attacking the critical media and delegitimising political opponents. Such has happened in Venezuela, Turkey, Peru, Argentina, Russia, and Hungary to name but a few. Then there is, of course, the examples of Germany and Italy earlier in the century. In the case of the United States, Ziblatt and Levitsky argue that over time America’s democratic fail safes have been eroded including party gatekeeping, institutional forbearance, self-restraint and mutual toleration. This has led to the situation of today. A US president who has no qualms about railing against the free press and calling for his political opponent to be locked up.
It is often said that history is doomed to repeat itself. Perhaps that’s true for those who choose to ignore the past. This is why a book like this is so important. Americans can no longer afford to be complacent.
The electoral schedule in Turkey has been announced, the parties who are running are confirmed, and the election harmonization bill has been signed. Meanwhile, opposition parties are manoeuvring. There have been meetings and discussions about Presidential candidates and possible alliances ahead of the joint Presidential and Parliamentary race.
It seems that as we enter the beautiful spring month of May, the election process is starting to heat up. But there are no darling spring buds blooming in this election. If you are a believer in democracy and a good dose of liberalism to boot, the situation is not looking rosy.
I have read some interesting and well thought out pieces over the past week or so, which have been somewhat optimistic about the chances of the opposition. Not necessarily because they have any real chance of winning, but because the race will be a tight; the AKP and its leader President Recep Tayyip Erdogan have to fight it out, both at the parliamentary and presidential polls. The optimists think it possible that the AKP may not end up dominating parliament, thus necessitating ’s the President (in all likelihood Erdogan), to be more conciliatory towards the opposition. A small victory for Turkish democracy.
Hate to be the bearer of bad news, but such optimism is nonsense. The upcoming election is a contest for an elected autocracy, plain and simple.
Turkey’s new presidential system, voted in after a tight referendum last year, is not designed to have a robust opposition. It is also not designed to have a dynamic relationship between President and Parliament. In fact, the opposite. One of the reasons why Erdogan and the AKP sought to move away from the parliamentary system was to untie the President’s hands of having a strong parliament which was seen as an impediment to effective government and passing legislation easily.
The new Presidential system is one where parliament’s role is to rubber stamp the policies of the President. Under the amended constitution, the President can basically ignore much of what comes out of parliament and possibly rule by Presidential decrees instead (the scope of this power is under defined). The President may also use, or at least threaten to use, the Samson option - dismiss parliament and call for new simultaneous parliamentary and presidential elections.
Let’s quickly remind ourselves of some of the other powers the President now has. He can declare a state of emergency. He can appoint his cabinet at will and without any parliamentary oversight. The President can appoint almost half the high court without any approval needed from parliament. Meanwhile, the impeachment process is so convoluted and arduous that it only really exists on paper. For a full breakdown of the power of the President under the new constitution and a critique of the new system, read the Council of Europe’s Venice Commission’s report and opinion of the constitutional changes. It is a terrifying document which accurately describes the democratic deficiencies of the new system. Basically, it is an elected autocracy. It doesn’t matter how well the opposition performs in parliament. (Also, see my post about some of the opposition’s chances of passing the 10 per cent threshold here).
It also doesn’t matter who wins the presidency. The new constitution has eroded democratic norms.
Just for the sake of argument, let us say that President Erdogan loses the race. The votes have been counted, there are no cases of electoral fraud or violence, and a committed democrat becomes Turkey’s new President. Let us even imagine that he or she decides that these new additional presidential powers will not be used. There still lies the problem that the constitution still grants such power to a future presidential office holder who might not be a committed democrat. In other words, there is currently no constitutional guarantee for present or future democratic practices.
Again, for the sake of argument, let us follow the scenario that Erdogan loses the election to a committed democrat. On entering office, the new president decides to revert back to the status quo ante and overturn the changes that were voted for in last year’s referendum. This is also problematic. Ignoring the results of the referendum may not be considered legal. Some might also argue that it would also be undemocratic to ignore the will of 50 per cent of the population who voted in favour of it. Doing so might even plunge the country into a constitutional crisis with widespread confusion about correct institutional procedures, practices, and protocols. Decreeing constitutional changes void would set a dangerous democratically questionable precedent (no pun intended).
Another alternative might be for this new committed democratic president to decree new democratic safe guards into the constitution. But you can’t instil democracy by decree as it can just as easily be uninstalled by decree. The only real option would be to seek constitutional amendments through parliament. This would mean that Turkey would have significantly altered its constitution three times in 10 years and potentially be a source of internal and external doubt about the country’s stability. But for this happen we are envisioning a scenario where Erdogan loses, a committed democrat enters office with a parliamentary majority strong enough to change the constitution and committed to democratic reform. It’s just not going to happen and that is why last year’s referendum was a catastrophe for Turkish democracy.
Sadly, it doesn’t matter who wins the forthcoming elections. The democratic constitutional safeguards are all but extinct and the power of parliament is a façade for one-man presidential rule. No-one should have such overwhelming power in a democracy. Not Erdogan, not Abdullah Gul (next time), not Aksener, Kilicdaroglu, or Demirtas. Not even the bloody Dalai Lama. Nobody.
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