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Don’t sweeten the bitter pill of an illiberal democracy

In Turkey, where there is a weak parliamentary system and power remains heavily concentrated in the majority party, the September 12 constitutional referendum will result in a huge centralisation of power
Ceren Coskun
10 September 2010

In the ‘western’ media, Turkey’s September 12 constitutional referendum has been widely covered as a move that will deepen the country’s frail democracy and put an end to the military’s hold over civilian politics. Why is this? Because, it is argued, the ‘secularist’ military will have to accept that democratisation means accepting the will of the Turkish Muslim masses. In this way Turkey is held up as a model Muslim democracy in the Middle East, a role that has been eagerly pushed by Europe and the US since September 11 and that the governing Justice and Development Party (AKP) fully embraces.

The AKP is celebrated for its economic achievements, political reforms and its eagerness to play the role of ‘regional stabiliser’. However, with this vastly over-simplistic approach, commentators appear to be applauding the uncomfortable reality of Turkey’s transformation into an illiberal democracy. In part, this is a residue of Orientalist perceptions, with Turks commonly portrayed as irrational and paranoid in the Western press. More importantly, the insistence on the Muslim character of this ‘bridge’ has facilitated the silencing of those striving for liberal democratic principles in the name of authoritarian and majoritarian democracy and for western geopolitical interests in the Middle East.

It is true that under the banner of secularism or laicism certain elites and the military have carried out injustices and authoritarian policies throughout the Republic’s history. In turn, Islamists have used the claim to victimhood to attack all of its opponents and present itself as the true soldiers of democracy. However, the principle of secularism is a fundamental pillar of civic citizenship and hence liberal democracy, insofar as it encapsulates the idea of an equal citizenship that is difference blind. Dismissing secularism altogether because of the actions of certain groups would be akin to throwing out the baby with bathwater. Despite the reformist steps taken in its early years by the current AKP government, which has its roots in the Islamist movement, the direction of its policies have been increasingly illiberal. The chosen date of the referendum itself, in marking the thirtieth anniversary of the military’s most brutal coup is an effort to further propagate the myth of victimhood. This is a truly Machiavellian ploy because the AKP is the product and beneficiary of Islamisation policies adopted by the Turkish military following the 1980 coup, which incidentally was carried out with the backing of the United States.

Two critical state manoeuvers

The propagation of the Turkish-Islamic synthesis, a kind of authoritarian religious nationalism by junta leaders subsequently was an effort to crush the ‘red threat’ with the ‘green belt’ while also managing a neoliberal transformation of the economy. The use of religion to fight communism of course was not unique to Turkey, but part of an American strategy of containment of the Soviet Union by creating a ‘green belt of Islam’. In Turkey, the instilling of religious nationalism as a social cement meant the proliferation of Koranic schools, the establishment compulsory religious classes teaching Sunni Islam, forced building of mosques in Alevi (a Muslim sect) villages as well as the penetration of Islamist groups into state institutions and the security forces.

This top-down, conservative social project was disrupted with the start of the 1997 ‘28th February process’, following the military’s move to issue an eighteen point memorandum to deal with growing political Islamism. This eventually meant the resignation of the governing coalition, with the leading Islamist partner the Refah Party (and its offspring) subsequently closed down by the courts for being a centre of ‘reactionism’.

The governing party’s emergence and success in 2002, rests on these two critical manoeuvrings by the state, as well as the opportunity space created by Turkey’s Europeanisation process in the late 1990s, the total bankruptcy of existing parties, a deep economic crisis in 2001-02 and the changing international milieu post September 11. Presenting itself as a conservative democratic political movement, the AKP armed itself with the language of rights and freedoms and took the momentous step of achieving the start of negotiations with the EU in 2005.

The end of a political spring

The political spring that followed AKP’s emergence as a one-party government in 2002 however is well and truly over. What has taken place is a creeping Islamisation of daily life and the ‘othering’ of anyone who does not fit into the AKP’s vision of a Sunni Muslim polity. This includes increasing restrictions on alcohol consumption especially in Anatolian cities, and rising sectarianism in public institutions and society. The culture of fear that has resulted is not the  paranoia that ‘western’ commentators like to dismiss, but has in part resulted from some controversial outbursts from the Prime Minister and his henchmen, as well as the efforts to silence any opposition voice by associating them with the ongoing Ergenekon investigation over military coup plans. In his latest outburst, the PM declared that ‘those who stay neutral will be eliminated’. Even actors once close to the AKP and Islamist brotherhoods, such as Hanefi Avci, a chief prosecutor, have come out in defiance at what they see as the level of infiltration of the Islamist brotherhood, the “Gulen community”, into state institutions.

When it comes to this Sunday’s vote, it is clear that the constitutional reform in question is chiefly an effort to overhaul the judiciary and to increase political control over it. Other sprinklings in the proposal are packaging to lure cross-party support especially the old leftists that have suffered the most under the military and are keen to curb its stranglehold on Turkish politics.

It is not just the case that the AKP will, through its control of the presidency and government, get to choose members of the judiciary. It is true that in established liberal democracies judges may be selected by parliaments. Indeed, after eight years of being in government, the AKP is in a powerful enough position to introduce a far broader and more democratic constitution. As ‘selfish democrats’ however, the AKP has refused to tackle for example the 10% electoral threshold which has barred pro-Kurdish parties from entering parliament. In the Turkish case where there is a weak parliamentary system and power remains heavily concentrated in the majority party, the proposed changes will result in a centralisation of power in the hands of one party on an enormous scale. This would be dangerous in an established liberal democracy, let alone in a democracy like Turkey which has yet to be fully consolidated, whether or not the governing party happens to be the AKP. The constitutional changes proposed therefore are not attempting an overhaul of the authoritarian 1982 constitution but will eliminate the checks and balances (Constitutional Court, separation of powers) introduced in 1961 following the breakdown of majoritarian democracy in the 1950s and 1960 coup.

As one political commentator puts it, we’re expecting a democratic transformation to be carried out by political actors who are not democratic and certainly not liberal. True, Turkey is not experiencing an Iranian revolution, but certainly it is going through a low level protracted revolution in which the pursuit of the freedom of religion of the Sunni majority is increasingly trumping all other rights through a hollow appeal to democratic principles. In this unfolding battle, the ‘west’ should stop trying to import into Turkey its own civilisational paranoias in its Faustian alliance with Turkey’s Islamists. If Turkey can only be a ‘bridge’ and a model to the Middle East by giving up the prospect of establishing a liberal democracy, that is not a goal worth pursuing.

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