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Reading Ahmet Davutoğlu's comments

President Erdoğan, no doubt, sees this as the culmination of an Islamic administrative system—a system which, during the brief periods it worked, could be considered "democratic", in the 8th or 9th century.

Murat Belge
4 February 2015

The 1,000-room palace built for Turkey's president.

The 1,000-room palace built for Turkey's president. Nathan Morley/Demotix. All rights reserved.

Reading Ahmet Davutoğlu's comments in the interview he gave to Richard Falk and which was published in openDemocracy, one wonders at times whether we are talking—or thinking—about the same country, Turkey.

I find myself in general agreement with the Turkish Prime Minister in the passages where he is talking about Turkey before 2002, that is, before Turkey’s Justice and Development Party (AKP), with 327 current members of parliament, came to power; but it is impossible to agree with his account of what has happened in this country since 2013. Turkey has not been transformed into an earthly paradise; there is a new set of problems blocking her way to democracy, and the principal cause of this set of problems is the nature of AKP power, especially as incarnated in its leader, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

I do not want to get into a "point by point" polemic with Ahmet Davutoğlu, mainly because the interview is too long and refutations take even longer. I shall present my account of what is going on in Turkey, which is very different from Davutoğlu's, and after that touch on some points which illustrate the alarming mode of proceeding of the AKP government, headed by Davutoğlu, but in fact pulled or prodded by Erdoğan.

I shall start with the structural change that Turkey is undergoing, which is the most important issue among a number of formidable questions. For this I have to ‘begin from the beginning’, but I will make do with a very brief summary.

Where it started

Turkey during the years of AKP rule, but especially in the last two or three years, has been going through a new phase of its "long march towards democracy" (which, though it takes a long time, somehow cannot cover a long distance) and is approaching a sharp turning point in this career. To sum up and to simplify, the Republic started its life with an élitist system in which the enlightened minority was given the mission of civilizing—and westernizing— a rural and agrarian population ("The White Turk's burden").

Post-World War II developments changed the international conditions, so that the single-party regime of Ataturk had to be adapted accordingly; but even after the introduction of multi-party parliamentarianism, the élitist system and the bureaucratic hegemony continued. The newly founded (1946) Democrat Party with its populist policies won election after election, but the bureaucratic hegemony always answered back with periodic interventions: the military takeovers of 1960, 1971, 1980 were followed by the e-coup of 1997. All these interventions ousted governments elected by popular vote.

Among them, the one in 1960 is of special interest, not only because it was the first of the series, but also because of the philosophy that lay behind the Constitution that it introduced.

The early Constitution, from the time of the War of Independence, was a document enabling Parliament to act without any democratic checks. This was designed to give free room to the enlightened élite but it was disastrous when the power bloc changed. So the new Constitution of 1961 was prepared as a defence for the educated urban classes against a conservative party government which would (presumably) be elected by large masses of ignorant peasants. This "defence work" was largely given to the judiciary, who were already a significant fraction of the "enlightened bureaucracy", at the expense of the executive. In the Turkish system the executive dominates the legislative and a bicameral system was thereby introduced with a senate (which was not long lived). But the main task of "loyalty to the founding principles of the Republic" lay with the judiciary.

Despite the highly debatable intentions which lay behind this development, this was an important step in the direction of the separation of powers, and consequently of democracy. As was expected, it was not at all to the taste of the Justice Party, which followed in the footsteps of the Democrat Party. But shortly afterwards, the army, zealously fighting any move from the left, also began to suffer from what it saw as the "over-permissiveness" of the system and came up with new legislation to launch a counterattack in a series of interventions—culminating in those of 1980.

Enter the AKP

Broadly-speaking, this was the state of affairs when the AKP won the 2002 elections and was able, for the first time after a longish while, to form a non-coalition government. The Kemalists had ousted Erbakan, "the fundamentalist leader", in 1997 in their so-called "post-modern coup". Now they had to cope with the AKP.

There was a lot of panic, a lot of consternation, and as usual, élitist-bureaucratic mechanisms struck a menacing stance towards this development, largely on laicist grounds. Kemalist nationalism tried to repeat the scenarios of 1997, but this time they did not work. I believe that more than the internal havoc a new military intervention would cause, the serious absence of international support made such a move impossible. The last resort for the bureaucracy was the judiciary. A case was started in the Constitutional Court in order to close down the AKP. But this did not work either. The court decided in favour of the AKP by a very narrow margin.

The AKP reinforced its hold on power after these and many other efforts proved ineffective.

So far, there is no serious disagreement between Davutoğlu's account and mine as to the course of Turkish democracy. But at this point they begin to diverge in a sharp manner because of the astonishing volte-face on the part of the AKP, or rather, Erdoğan’s policy-makers, that took place at this point.

The bureaucratic guardianship of the Army and Kemalist ideology, at least seemed to have faded away. This was after many officers, some of them of high rank, including the retired Head of the General Staff, were arrested and tried. Their supporters claimed that the evidence was falsified, which may be correct to a certain extent, but there is not much doubt that many in the Army were bent on preserving their old role at all costs.

So this was all good news for Turkish democracy. Everything was set for a significant advance. But the process stopped there.

Volte-face

The volte-face coincided with the famed "Gezi" protests and the resistance that took place in the early summer of 2013. What are the causal links between the protests and Erdoğan's change of direction? Well you could say, here was the first test of any residual autocracy in a newly democratised system, and that the system spectacularly failed the protesters.

But they are not the only factor. And I believe there was a more underlying change that would have taken place anyway.

From the beginning Erdoğan and the AKP were harassed in a quite vicious way. They saw what had happened to the “fundamentalist leader” before them and others like them. For nearly ten years they had to avoid certain Scyllas and Charybdises. This may have accumulated a lot of resentment in a man of Erdoğan's temperament.

On the other hand, he had won one more election, once again raising his percentage, and he probably felt ready—and confident—for the radical structural change he had been longing for.

The change, looked at superficially, means a shift from the so-called ‘parliamentarian’ system to the ‘presidential’ one. But it is not as simple or easy as it looks on paper.

One could argue that this so-called ‘parliamentary’ system was actually made and designed for ‘one man’, conferring many official and maybe more unofficial privileges on the Prime Minister, while the President was more of a symbolic—and respected—figure in the background. But Erdoğan, now president, and enjoying all the ‘respect’ that came with it, also wants to wield power as he did when Prime Minister. That is why since his election, the post of the Premier looks quite superfluous. Erdoğan is apparently acting according to the rules and articles of the new Constitution that is in his mind, as yet unvoted for and unwritten. This may be his agreement with Davutoğlu: that he fill the post of Prime Minister until the Constitution is changed after the June elections. Erdoğan, at the moment, whenever he is criticized for not "behaving like a President", says that he is the first "elected President". This, apparently, gives him the right to act in a totally arbitrary manner.

But the emphasis on the ‘Presidential System’ is indicative of a broader change with some radical implications. We can say that we are now finally replacing the traditional rule of an élitist minority (from above) with the plebiscitarian-dictatorial rule of a populist leader. The magic ‘buzz-word’ is now "majority".

Islamic democracy?

Erdoğan, no doubt, sees this as the culmination of an Islamic administrative system, with its organs of advisers and consultants—a system which, during the brief periods it worked, could be considered "democratic", in the 8th or 9th century.

Dictatorships or oppressive regimes can and should be classified, defined, their differences enumerated and so on, but after all, there are certain ways of being oppressive and these are common to many different-looking social formations.

The military Constitution of 1982 had set up a body called the National Security Council, which was composed of ministers and the top command of the Army; it was the main official body where the Army tried to control and channel government. It had a secretariat where a number of ‘specialists’ worked. During the AKP years and through some referenda for constitutional change the internal balances in this body have shifted in favour of the government. Davutoğlu proudly proclaims this in the interview as a major step towards democracy. Whether the Secretary General of such a body is an officer or a civilian is no guarantee when it comes to the democratic nature of the Council. It can very easily be transformed into a board trying to put into effect the oppressive projects of the President. He clearly has designs of this kind, which will control and possibly thwart government practice.

Erdoğan's dictatorial leanings and his belligerence exploded into view with Gezi; but it was on December 17, 2013, with the emergence of evidence pointing to government corruption on a grand scale that he completely lost his temper. He came up with an interesting interpretation of the event as an illegal and immoral conspiracy against his government.

One would expect a government caught in this position—rightfully or wrongfully—first to do whatever was necessary to disprove the allegation. Erdoğan followed a strange course: the ministers were asked to resign but nothing was done for a long time, at the end of which the AKP majority in the parliament simply "absolved" them; they will not be tried.

Meanwhile Erdoğan's fury is directed at the Gülenists who tapped telephones, etc. to bring these infringements to the surface. What the Gülenists thought they were doing could indeed be a very interesting case for the study of legal procedures, but with this much evidence to hand, not investigating the charge but punishing the charger (massive sackings in the Ministry of Interior as well as the Ministry of Justice, amounting to banishment) the reaction is rather difficult to understand.

It is said that the ostensible "culprit" is the "parallel structure", the Gülenist cadres that infiltrated the state structure. But the longer term effects of this purge will be a re-structuring of these ministries, especially the Ministry of Justice, which will bring them under total government control.

Davutoğlu says that the Secretary General of the National Security Council used to be "a top military officer" until 2004. As I have already said, the mere fact of being a civilian does not necessarily change the functioning of this office. Davutoğlu gives us the good news that, "The military now in Turkey is a purely professional institution, loyal to democratic traditions and forces." Similarly, the fact that there have been many changes to the top level of command and that the new people now holding these positions are not eager to fight with the government does not mean that the interventionist ideology and practice of the Army has totally disappeared (ideologies do not evaporate away that easily).

Nothing in fact has been done to change the structure that shaped the putschist tradition. Even the small (but symbolically important) proposal to put the Head of the General Staff under the authority of the Ministry of Defence has not been fulfilled.

Deeper and deeper

The story of the "deep state" is no different. Following the assassination of Hrant Dink some progress was made, some people suspected of participating in certain terrorist acts were arrested and tried (very few, in fact); but as the corruption case came up on that December 17, Erdoğan changed his policy on this issue as well.

The main reason for this is that it was again mostly the Gülenists in the service who dug up evidence of Kemalist conspiracies. Erdoğan, at the time, vouched for their honesty and the correctness of the procedures. But with the corruption case, he had to change his opinion.

I haven't followed the thousands of pages of these trials, but I hear from many sources—and the evidence seems to support it—that there was a lot of tampering with evidence.

What was done by the Gülenists does not, of course, in any way alter the ominous role played by the Armed Forces, especially after 1960. But not surprisingly, the way these charges were brought did not look convincing to society.

In the end, the "deep state" is also still there and Erdoğan has worked in close collaboration with MIT (National Intelligence Organization), another frightful presence throughout the Republican era.

All this shows that Erdoğan is concerned not with the structure or the function of these state bodies; that he is indifferent to the centralization or decentralization of power; that after all, what comes from above can mingle with what comes from below. But that what really matters is that all these bodies should be loyal to him.

Freedom of the press?

One important presence in society and in political life is, of course, the media. Erdoğan's attitude is not any more democratic here than in other areas. On the contrary, he is apt to lose his temper more quickly facing the people of the media. Here, he has followed a policy that differed from previous methods used to silence the media (and there have been numerous ones).

As so many owners of newspapers and TV channels are actually businessmen whose real sources of income lie outside these media organs (who are used to using their power in the media to influence political power), Erdoğan could relatively easily pressure these owners to pink-slip their writers and journalists.

At no other period in the history of the press have so many journalists been dismissed by their bosses. This is a more convenient way of holding media opposition under control. Some very partisan papers are allowed to continue their (often vile) opposition, as they cannot possibly influence AKP supporters, and their presence makes it easier for the government to talk about the "freedom of the press".

So the urge to monopolize power, all power, is very strong and active everywhere. But the ultimate source of Erdoğan's craving for power is his electoral base. He represents the majority, and that is why he wants more power.

In AKP parlance, the concept of "democracy" has become identified with the concept of the "majority". The "National Will", which can easily have fascistic connotations is another one of their pet terms, and stands in for "democracy".

Davutoğlu resorts to a simplistic definition in the interview: "And what about the legitimacy of using state power in a democracy? The legitimacy is established through elections. The leaders derive power from the people and the people will question you about your intentions while in office."

Well, all one can say is that there have been several occasions when some people have indeed questioned Erdoğan's intentions. But apparently there are, for him, people and "people". Or, maybe, "Some people are more ‘people’ than others."

"Who will judge the mistakes of politicians?" asks Ahmet Davutoğlu, and answers himself: "People... If there is a valid judicial case against us we are, of course, accountable."

I can't think of a well-documented case to compare (the authenticity of the tapped conversations has been verified) with the December 17 allegations of corruption; but apparently for Davutoğlu there was no need even to make a formal explanation on the part of the incriminated ministers.

Political foresight and known knowns

Davutoğlu has made many contradictory statements in this interview and several of his statements have been contradicted by events, in particular events connected with Erdoğan. But I do not want to continue with this refutation, except to make one final point. Davutoğlu, as he talks about making his government popular and reliable, mentions three areas where the government has demonstrated prowess.

One is internal politics and democratization and I have touched upon that above. Davutoğlu next talks about economic success. This is a complex matter, but yes, the AKP government has had a certain success in economic affairs. In third place he mentions success in international politics. It is very difficult to agree with him on this point.

The only country, or rather ‘world leader’ we are on good terms with, seems to be Putin. Our western allies, after a lot of admiration and support (throughout the early years of the AKP government, despite Turkish voting on the intervention in Iraq), are now very embarrassed about Turkish positions on international questions. Our standing in the Middle East doesn't look any better. We are not on speaking terms with several neighbours.

But more important than that is the failure of the President to follow events and make a correct diagnosis and a sane assessment of what is happening.

So far, Erdoğan's political foresight or insight has been quite disastrous. He did not anticipate Assad's ‘staying power’ at all. The role ISIS was expected to play had nothing to do with what ISIS actually stood for. He disdainfully stated that Kobanê was about to fall (that a matter of hours would finish it off) and the opposite took place.

Before I finish, I would like to say just a few things with respect to the Gülenist movement about which Davutoğlu also has a lot to say. I only want to point out that however hard Gülenists tried to conceal their real intentions while trying to infiltrate influential positions in Turkey, this was an open secret and everybody knew it.

Gülenists and the AKP acted together, fully aware of each other. This was the first serious alliance between the modern sect of Nur and the ancient sect of Nakshbendiye, and it went on fruitfully enough for some time. The trials of the military were possible through the work of the Gülenists and Erdoğan was very happy about the results. The cases against the Kurdish political figures, in which thousands were arrested, was also largely the work of Gülenists, again fully endorsed and supported by Erdoğan and his government.

Apparently, while this partnership and this cooperation was continuing, Erdoğan decided to bring the Gülenist movement to an end, because one day, all of a sudden, recordings to such effect talked about on the National Security Council were aired (no doubt by Gülenists). With that the war became public knowledge, and the Gülenists struck back.

Had Erdoğan not decided to crush the Gülenist movement, to all intents and appearances the corruption case and the others that followed would not have come out into the open. That information could have stay concealed, had it not been for this struggle.

The two representatives of "Islamist politics" in Turkey, the AKP and the Gülenists, employing different methodologies, but also sharing a lot of attitudes in religious matters, have not passed the test.

Gezi - the Fall

To conclude, it was with the Gezi protests at least chronologically, that Erdoğan took his new stance. This has changed many things for the worse. There could have been a firmer democratic front in Turkey - and this democratic front should have been one on which people from different political denominations could come together. On the international plane, Turkey could have played a very positive role. But Erdoğan chose this belligerent and also arrogant part to play both within and without the country. He insists on interfering with people's lifestyles, is constantly preaching something or other, at times about the Muslim exploration of America, with the same self-confidence and assurance as when he criticizes ‘the West’. So much self-assurance in a President can only cause damage, to himself as well as to his country.

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Hear from:

Paolo Gerbaudo Sociologist and political theorist, director of the Centre for Digital Culture at King’s College London and author of ‘The Mask and the Flag: Populism and Global Protest’ and ‘The Digital Party: Political Organisation and Online Democracy’, and of the forthcoming ‘The Great Recoil: Politics After Populism and Pandemic’.

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Spyros A. Sofos Researcher and research coordinator at the Center for Middle Eastern Studies, Lund University and author of ‘Nation and Identity in Contemporary Europe’, ‘Tormented by History’ and ‘Islam in Europe: Public Spaces and Civic Networks'.

Chair: Walid el Houri Researcher, journalist and filmmaker based between Berlin and Beirut. He is partnerships editor at openDemocracy and lead editor of its North Africa, West Asia project.

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