North Africa, West Asia

The reproduction of authoritarian politics in the AKP era

Turkey has passed the blurred threshold that demarcates democratic politics from an authoritarian system. 

Umit Kurt Oguz Dilek
6 February 2015
Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Goncalo Silva/Demotix. All rights reseved.Authoritarianism is an illusionist practise insofaras it presents an incomplete picture of reality while leaving the audience with the perception that they are seeing all of it. It becomes possible to conceal the tricky part of the show from the audience who is fully convinced that the whole show is laid bare before their eyes. As a result, they no longer push the boundaries. 

Authoritarianism emerges out of that ambiguous domain which is located firmly in between democratic pluralism and totalitarian monism. Differing from totalitarian systems by a handsome margin, the distance from democratic forms of politics, as opposed to conventional belief, is rather more intricate. 

An authoritarian political frame may perfectly satisfy the minimum and common denominators of democracy. Totalitarian regimes, in comparison, easily wither away for there is no legal framework to make a case for the idea of representation.

Political sovereignty in most of the exemplars of authoritarian models rests upon the backing of (some of) the citizens. ‘Statist’ ideologies are almost completely absent from the scene, however. Authoritarian orders are seldom to be found embroiled within a cycle of violence. It is mostly the case that authoritarian leaders are ‘benevolent tutors’ whose polity combines elements of both persuasion and coercion.

All the democratic institutions, on the other hand, such as political parties, parliament or the judicial body convey a mere nominal value. These, and other similar institutions, actually provide little clue about the way political power is obtained or exercised within this type of politics.

This is so because the principal mechanisms for distributing political power are structured into informal social processes. The latent power structures are what determine social discourse within all the known breeds of authoritarian settings. Thanks to this esoteric character of the system, authoritarian ways of ruling can successfully hide themselves in plain sight, precisely inasmuch as that the idea of democracy remains a potentiality, but not an actuality.

Çağlay Keyder, in his monumental piece, State and Classes in Turkey, asks a deadly question: ‘Why didn’t a liberal ideology arise in Turkey?’ To this his response is equally deadly: a social class (a.k.a. a bourgeoisie) that has fundamental interests in establishing solid boundaries between power and those who hold that power never existed in Turkey.

The AKP’s loud advocacy for civic conservatism, Ottoman cosmopolitanism and/or Islamic economic puritanism seemed to raise the flag of liberties—at least for a brief period of time. Now many concur that such a marriage between the AKP and a democratic ideal that also entails liberal principles has come to an end.

Especially among left-liberal intellectuals, the AKP invoked the sense that the Party would radically transform the fundamentals of the ancién regime without disowning Turkey’s age-old political agenda: catching up with the ‘west.’  

It was therefore promoted by those intellectuals as a progressive political current that, first, would discontinue with their Islamically oriented predecessors and, second, was intent on skirmishing with ‘the establishment’ for the sake of expanding the domain of liberties. All the ideological instruments and resources in the liberal arsenal were weaponized at the birth of the party to prove that the AKP was the spearhead of new democratic advances - but to no avail.

The AKP’s posture of confomrity and appeasement towards the nationalist/state-centred bloc has been quick to reveal itself, again and again, in the following instances—the Şemdinli incident, headscarf and constitutional debates, and the e-coup of 27 April 2007. In each and every one of these incidents, their ears were attuned to any possibility of reconciling with what they were supposed to stamp out in the first place: a tutelary regime.

One of the vanguards of the party recently swore off any connection between the AKP and the Ergenekon Trials by referring to the latter as an ‘ambush’ and ‘plot.’ This is only one example from an exhaustive list of remarks all of which can be taken as evidence of the following point. That it has never been an absolute must for the AKP to put an end to what was oppressing them previously: that is, the classical foundations of the republic based around a strict sense of secularism, an exclusionary state and an official ideology of nationalism.

The AKP, until 2013, oppressed the defenders of this order, thus becoming the oppressor of their oppressors. And, when it became possible and convenient, joined in the ranks of those guardians—i.e. dominant classes with powerful economic/political stakes to act in defence of ‘old’ Turkey.

A liberal-leftist intelligentsia is said to be disillusioned with the recent turn of events in Turkish politics, for it increasingly resembles  present-day Russia under Putin’s leadership. Both of these leaders frame their nation’s self in contrast to Europe, devise ways to legitimize repressive measures and, among many other things, demonstrate their one-man rule as the sole way for securing national sovereignty.

Even though there is little recourse to the crudest violence of authoritarian systems in Turkey, they do unsparingly employ the language required for legitimizing violence. One side of this rhetoric breeds a large inventory of conspiracy theories. Any explanation that sounds plausible is readily accepted, without actually testing its accuracy, to such an extent that conspiracy theories completely take over critical thinking in public debates.

Another side of this rhetoric is the typically authoritarian enemy image: a continual fabrication of demonic others—both inside and outside the country. It is a constant in any authoritarian order to construct exclusive borderlines to first decide on who ‘we’ are and then deny the political opposition a legitimate place in this imagined domain of the national self, which never fully includes the existing cultural/social diversities. Projected 'others' and accompanying conspiracies are essential to authoritarian politics.

This orientation (re-)entered on the Turkish political stage suddenly during the Gezi Park protests. It continued with the moral castigation of extra-marital lifestyles and ‘boys-girls mixed houses.’ And, it was updated by reframing Gulenists as Trojan horses serving a massive global conspiracy by bringing together all sorts of diverse forces such as the Papacy, the CIA, Jewish capital, and even the Templars/Illuminati.

Another concept that marks the benchmark of authoritarian politics is what Foucault called ‘discipline’. Citizens are subject to perpetual monitoring by the state’s intelligence services.

Evolutionary biology suggests that individuals who perceive themselves to be targets of a ‘big brother’, upon detecting it, will try to erase all the differences that separate them from socially/politically acceptable norms. Taking self-censure as a survival strategy, they cast aside all faculties for critical thinking and social agency and awareness. In the AKP era, the state’s profiling and keeping track of individuals on the basiss of whether they conform to the AKP’s rule seems now to have made a glorious return.

A third feature is the way ruling parties/governments act out some sort of superintendent role to enable wealth transfer to those who are favoured. This suggests that the tie, which bonds the government with its domestic constituency, is one of a clientelist relationship.

Into this network providing selective access to economic means and/or political clout, those who assume an opposing posture have limited permission to enter. When the allocation of state contracts is under the purview of non-market forces, state elites are able to forge an extensive alignment matrix. Economic players who would otherwise be rivals come to meet under the common umbrella of, and become attached to, the regime as clients.

Elites can thereby achieve two ends at one time: limiting the democratic opposition while enlarging that of your allies. In Turkey’s case, the legal basis of state contracts has seen more than 160 changes within the last decade. This says that, policy-makers don’t manage resource distribution according to a preceding law, but according to that of a self-serving mentality mirroring the ever-shifting composition of political alignment at any given time. 

Finally, authoritarian regimes in different magnitudes create a leadership cult. By this means it becomes possible to squeeze the notion of voter support—based on ‘conditionality’ and ‘changeability’, away from the essence of democratic legitimacy.  The profile of a citizen who chooses among various political agendas according to his/her best interest disappears, to be replaced by a new one who is fiercely loyal to a leadership fetish.

This unquestioned culture of submission breeds the delusion of a leader that possesses some sort of superhuman qualities; that he is eschatologically chosen; or that he is all that stands in between his people and those demonic forces both inside and outside the nation.

This conserves the power base of the leader amidst even periodical economic or political disruptions. The image of the ‘grand master’, specifically constructed for Erdoğan, must be one of the most convincing exemples to hand.

The present state of affairs within the Turkish political arena is a conundrum that pushes the boundaries of what is acceptable within a healthy operating democratic order.

It seems that the country has already passed that threshold that demarcates democratic politics from an authoritarian system. The Schmittian language that the AKP leadership has assumed, is hurling Turkey from a militant-Baathist mode of authoritarian rule to a wholly different one—one that takes on a rather civilian-Baathist character. This has already changed everything in Turkey.

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