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I do study political science, yet I am not an expert on Turkish politics per se. Moreover, personally I am not one of those who is fond of talking Turkish politics in general since I find it quite distracting and polarizing. But whenever I receive some friends abroad as guest here in Istanbul, which I do quite often, one of the most debated topics on the table is always on and about Turkish democracy. As it is expected, many argue that Turkey has been drifting away from democracy. Even some scholars find it as part of much larger global trend today: Democracy is in recession. Even though I am not an expert on the issue, I have made a commitment to write something on Turkish politics on ADV as we are heading to June 7th, general election (which probably one of the most important elections in Turkish history), and today I will comply with that commitment by presenting some of my views.

But to create a “context” to understand the issue better, let us recall one of the latest events in Turkey. Recently, in the late December 2014, Turkish police have launched a media operation to detain 31 people, including top Gulenits media figures and former police chiefs. After the police raid into the Turkish daily Zaman headquarters and took custody the editor in chief, Ekrem Dumanli, most people around the world read this as yet another crackdown of already tarnished freedom of press in Turkey. What is even more interesting was, which did not get its well deserved attention, a visit to Zaman daily newspaper headquarter made by Oktay Eksi. Once upon a time, during 1990s, when Mr. Eksi was the president of the Press Council, an independent group that for many years worked closely with the those times’ Turkish Government(s), he was bitterly fighting against the very same group and was used to make this kind of statements about the question of high number of jailed journalists in Turkey:

”We have looked at every case, after eliminating journalists who were convicted of crimes like rape and fraud, and those who directly advocated terror or violence, we came up with 24 who were truly imprisoned for simply expressing peaceful beliefs. With the recent releases, we now count 18. I am not going to tell you that 18 is not a big number. One is too many. But it’s important to give a true picture.” 

Not just the police raid and detained editor in chief but the visit to Zaman and very visitor himself are one of the latest evidences that show us that the only change in Turkish politics is old guardians becoming today’s dissidents. In this sense, neither the jailed journalist is new problem in Turkey nor authoritarianism is newfound legacy in Turkish politics.  These facts represent a bigger picture. Yes, Turkey is an illiberal democracy, but it is not becoming one recently, it was always one of the illiberal democracy, if not a hybrid type of authoritarian regime. From a factual reality, military music is to military music, Turkish democracy is to real democracy, or Turkish justice to justice, Turkish press to press. Once upon a time, judiciary was the guardian of Kemalism, now they appeared to be guardian of Erdoganism, or Gulenism or secularism. Once upon a time, Turkish press was a propaganda machinery of Kemalist nation state now it belongs to pro-Erdogan or anti-Erdogan propagandists and they have never care about journalism per se. (If there is real journalist or good quality press and media in Turkey they are very few and invisible.)

Therefore, if we really and wittingly talk about Turkish democracy, the assessment we reach should not be just the following: “the real problem is President Erdogan himself and his authoritarian attitudes towards the rising dissidents.” This assessment is widely shared by many and the case through out European and American intellectuals in particular. But I think this cannot reflect the essence of the problem. Even, in this way, we are missing the real problem about Turkish politics.  The essence lies at the context of Turkish political fatigue. The problem in Turkish democracy is not just personalities, or a choice of one party or one politician; it is more a product of broad political/cultural forces that are often beyond the grasp of ordinary daily analysis. Turkish politics or Turkish political culture is full of consent between two main fractions,  namely secularists and islamists, in a broader sense. These two fractions are historically most powerful forces in Turkish modernization even though there are many other political parties and groups. However, in Turkish context secularist or islamist are not conventional labels, (even I am not quite sure these are apt labels at all) they mean different thing than what they have been used in other contexts. For instance, in Turkish context, Islamists are not generally eager to have Sheri-a per se, even large population oppose it when it comes to political agenda, but they define themselves as conservatives. Or there are secularists who are actually pious people but when it comes to politics they prefer to support secularist parties and secular agendas. Moreover, these groups make alliances with other sub groups such as ultra nationalist or ultra conservatives based on daily political rhetorics. Even for the current Turkish political spectrum the question of who is with whom is one of the million-dollar worth questions. However, at the end of the day, even though these groups’ boundaries are very wide and nested in terms of how we define them, Turkish politics historically is a consent between these two fractions since the late 1800s. This is not so by choice of anyone, it is how it is, a systemic ordering factor when it comes to the question of sharing power (I think there is an urgent need for structural analysis of Turkish politics too.)

In modern democracies, contest as clash of ideas is a standard, a must by definition. In modern democracies, one major party as a representative of one particular fraction comes and goes through elections without violence, as it is the case in Turkey too (in theory at least). Yet, in practice, Turkish politics had been “corrected” by coups (in 1961-71-82-98) or by other undemocratic plots many times. Thus, undemocratic interventions are not very alien to Turkish political life and generally they are expected by some fractions. So, it is arguably true that in Turkey, change of political power has not been always taken place peacefully through elections as a historical record. This is especially true for the power changes from grassroots to elitists. Furthermore, as a major difference from other modern democracies, you cannot be sure about anything if you lose power. It is not just a historical fact; it is more apt for current Turkish politics too. (See current opposition leaders call for Erdogan.) Power takeover through undemocratic means including military coups and variety of plots and personal uncertainties after being toppled down create a security dilemma for grassroots politicians, which lead them to do everything including organizing counter plots and all kinds of undemocratic measures to hold the power as long as they can. Given international and regional turbulence makes the situation more complicated and daunting for both parties.

As a result, briefly, Turkish politics has a standard of a vicious circle between “authoritarian government” and “plotter opposition” which both use every tools, whether it is democratic or not, to (re)grab the power. The opposition (current or past) takes every possible actions, whether democratic or not, to tackle down the government, and once they do, the (past) government officials are in danger in the best-case scenarios.  This creates an ontological security problem for them and a great incentive to fight back as hard as they can. Turkish political history is a quite evident of this vicious circle and current politics is not free from these types of contest. Without anticipating this harsh clash of politics and distinct political culture, one cannot understand or appreciate Turkish democracy, if there is such thing.

I think Turkey is still a country in transition. Transition is a term used for implying a transition from authoritarian regime to democracy, but all of the concepts and theories employed in transition literature such as authoritarian transition, regime survival, democracy form above, and elite dominance are still very explanatory to understand Turkish politics. Transition countries have many socio-economic and political problems, dilemmas, and vicious circles. The way out from this particular political vicious circle I defined above is not pushing existing security dilemma between these two fractions. Solving through confidence building and tolerance, which is not evident today’s political culture, is the only way out.  (Lipset had also paid an explicit attention to tolerance in his famous modernization theory.)

“The gap between Turkey and the West widens. If as Turks we cannot find a way to embrace the ideals of free society, open debate, pluralistic culture and gender equality, it won’t be just a failure of democracy, it will also be a failure of imagination and will,” said Elif Safak recently. I should add this to that failure list. If as Turks we cannot find a way to embrace the ideals of modern democracies, it would be one of the biggest failure of EU too. Turkey is the only Muslim majority country in a region where disorder is the order of the day. Strengthening Turkish democracy casts far higher value than any single thing that EU can do to embrace democracy in the world.  EU must be aware of the fact that it was/ and still is one of most important actors in modernizing Turkish politics. Turkish success story will be EU’s own success. In this sense, EU must turn back to its traditional position in the course of Turkish political reformation by engaging Turkey and providing fair treatment in membership negotiations. In this regard, Turkey, which has been receiving critical arrows from almost everyone for quite some time, deserves some credits for its incremental progress as a positive engagement step as well as constructive and fair membership negotiations from EU in a bid of engagement and not abandonment of Turkey.

Image Source: MEI