Turkey has elections, but not democracy

Whatever shortcomings today’s Turkey has, they cannot all be pinned on AKP rule. But democracy and governance are deeply troubled and becoming more so.

Bill Park
17 December 2014

This article is a response to a conversation between Richard Falk and Turkey's Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu, which took place on 28th September–see part 1part 2part 3 and part 4. There was much internal debate at openDemocracy about whether or not to publish the series. Read the Editor in Chief's reasons for doing so here, along with the many other responses to Davutoğlu published in this series, listed to the right under 'Related Articles'.

turkish police at election protest.jpg

Turkish police use water cannon to disperse opposition Republican People's Party (CHP) supporters outside the Election Committee offices after a protest over alleged fraud at the local elections. Demotix/Tumay Berkin. All rights reserved. 

In a succession of local and national elections and referenda held since its first victory in November 2002, Turkey’s AKP has met with remarkable electoral success. Indeed, in each election it has managed to build on its electoral popularity in Turkey’s conservative, devout Anatolian heartland, and amongst the least educated and poorest of Turkey’s citizens. Undoubtedly much of the AKP’s success has been due to the impressive economic growth and dynamism that is associated with AKP rule. As Turkey’s economy falters, it is possible and even likely that the AKP’s popularity might diminish a little, not least with the Islamic middle class that have benefited most under AKP rule but which would suffer most from an economic downturn.

The AKP’s success also owes much to the personality cult that has grown up around former prime minister and now president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan. He is seen by his supporters as a man of the people, blunt spoken, nationalistic, and sharing their prejudices and preferences. They don’t mind that he has built himself a Ceausescu-esque palace. He is their Sultan. Whether the AKP could fully survive his political or physical demise has yet to be seen.

Turkey before the rise of the AKP was generally regarded as an ‘unconsolidated democracy’. It was characterised by repeated military interventions in the political process, the banning of especially Islamist and Kurdish political parties and media outlets, and a sinister ‘deep state’ rooted in the judiciary, the bureaucracy, the security apparatus and even the media and academia, that was associated with the unexplained deaths, disappearances, and the intimidation of critics that punctuated Turkish political life. Turkey was ruled less by independent institutions, the rule of law or by elected politicians than by an interlocking network of well-placed Kemalists, presided over and ultimately protected by the General Staff.

Whatever democratic shortcomings today’s Turkey has, they cannot all be pinned on AKP rule. Nor can any absence of a fully developed democratic political culture. Turks–and especially those that form the AKP’s core support base–are used to authoritarianism, corruption, nepotism, and fear. They have not experienced a vibrant civil society of the kind found in more developed democracies. However, AKP governments have brought this same segment of Turkey’s population an unprecedented and sustained improvement in their economic wellbeing. And this is brought to them by rulers that share backgrounds and values similar to their own. It is no wonder that the AKP is so popular.

Democratically elected government, yes: but no democracy

In containing the political power of the military and in rooting out hidden networks that might work against it, the AKP government has also profoundly altered the inner workings of Turkish politics. Today, a democratically elected government runs the country in a way that is quite untrammelled and quite novel for Turkey. But that does not mean it runs it democratically–at least not in any way that established democracies would understand it.

A succession of European Commission Progress Reports, ECHR rulings, the findings of a range of US government agencies, the investigations of many different non-governmental organisations, and the work of countless academics and journalists, testify to that. Turkey has one of the world’s worst records for the imprisonment of journalists. Not only is corruption on the increase–including at the very top of the government–but investigations into it and reporting on it have been curtailed by a range of intimidatory measures. Lawyers, journalists, and government officials increasingly rely on government patronage and approval for their career prospects. Institutions such as the police and the MIT, the country’s intelligence agency, are increasingly run by political appointees, operate on behalf of the government rather than the state, and are granted increased powers and immunity. Criticism or opposition, such as that associated with the Gezi Park protests last summer or the Soma and other mining and industrial accidents that have been laid at the door of nepotism or government neglect, is brutally suppressed.

The social atmosphere has also acquired an intolerant, and increasingly ‘Islamified’ tenor. The language used by political figures–most notably by President Erdogan himself–has become increasingly intemperate, bullying, and ignorant. Women who give birth to an insufficient number of children, public displays of affection, mixed dormitories, the sale of alcohol, learning about Einstein rather than distant Islamic scholars, the moral virtues and values of non-Turkish spouses, have all been the subject of comment and even legislation. Education has become a particular battlefield, with the increase in religious indoctrination in schools, the growth in religiously oriented imam-hatip schools, the burgeoning and favouring of new universities built by business networks close to the government and its values, the proposed construction of mosques on campuses, and the introduction of Ottoman language instruction.

Turks are told by their leaders that Jews know how to kill and that Israel’s retaliation against Hamas’s rocket attacks was comparable to Hitler’s excesses, that foreigners hate Turks and would like to kill their children, that gender equality leads to high rates of suicide, that there have been attempts to murder Erdogan by telekinesis, and that Muslims discovered the Americas. Opponents and critics of the government are liable to be abused for their religious or ethnic origins. Alevis remain marginalised, and Turkey’s already tiny Christian and Jewish minorities continue to drift away. Anti-semitism is now almost mainstream in Turkey.

Richard Falk’s interview

Much of this accords with the values and preferences of AKP voters, and none of it necessarily implies that Turkey’s democracy is any less consolidated than it was before the AKP came to power. But none of it is even hinted at in Richard Falk’s interview with Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu. This is serious, because Turkish society is as highly polarised now as it has ever been. In such a context, the government’s confrontational approach to its critics carries even more import than would otherwise be the case. It is hard to hide from the government’s wrath, yet there is plenty of wrath to hide from. The weakness of Turkey’s democratic practice and culture was not invented by the AKP, but nor has it been remedied by it. Some would say that things are getting worse rather than better. Yet this interview fails entirely to entertain even the possibility that Turkey’s democracy and governance is troubled and becoming more so. 

In his interview, Davutoğlu is correct to note that past presidents obstructed government appointments, and that this was a way of protecting the tutelage system that he refers to. Today, appointments are not obstructed, for–as he points out–the government and president are as one. Falk may or may not be correct in his assertion that the function of checks and balances in US democracy was to protect against the tyranny of the majority, but it also protects against the tyranny of the government of the day. Turkey under the AKP has removed any such checks and balances and, given that it electorally represents the majority and is damning of the opposition, the Turkish system of governance is now well-placed to impose the tyranny of the majority. Furthermore, in today’s Turkey the bureaucracy is not loyal to the state, as Davutoğlu asserts. It is loyal to the government of the day. It is a moot point whether the government of the day is loyal even to its own electorate–it can hardly be said to be loyal to those that do not vote for it.

The AKP’s voting base appears satisfied at any rate. But some might argue that the government is increasingly prone to demonstrate a greater loyalty to its own incumbents. Others might say–indeed Erdogan has come close to saying–that its loyalty is to God. In any case, neither Falk nor Davutoğlu make mention of the fact that Erdogan has tried once and will try again to institute a presidential system that would leave his office far too impervious even to the elected government of the day.

Davutoğlu might be right to argue that minority rights in Turkey have been improved, and the AKP deserves credit for its endeavours to address the country’s Kurdish issue. But Turkey remains an uncomfortable place to be a Kurdish speaking Kurd, or an Alevi, Christian, Armenian or Jew. The utterances of government figures ensure that remains the case. And in a country where the law and its agents are so subordinated to the political rulers, they ultimately have no more protection against the government’s anger than do Turkey’s critical and investigative journalists or its street demonstrators. The government may well have prevented the ‘parallel structure’–shorthand for its former allies, the Gülen movement–from dominating the judiciary and other branches of the government. But nothing can now prevent the government’s political appointees from so dominating them.

The failures of Turkish democracy

The AKP government will not fall because of its democratic shortfalls. Its voters are not especially concerned with them. It will fall as a result of economic failures, because of a system of corruption so vast and so relentless that it will begin to impact negatively and directly on the wellbeing of AKP voters, because of the consequences of Ankara’s foreign policy ventures that threaten to bring instability to Turkey’s streets and Turkish lives, because there may be no political figure that can match Erdogan in the eyes of his adorers, or through some combination of these factors.

If and when the AKP eventually fall from grace, they might not leave behind a country in a worse condition politically than they found it, although it will be faulty in different ways, and it might well be economically transformed. But, on current trends, it will not be closer to having consolidated its democracy, it will not be closer to EU accession or ‘look’ more European than it did in 2002. It will be experiencing an escalating brain drain as its educated and secular citizens find themselves discomforted by living in an increasingly religious, polarised and intimidating environment.

Indeed, all of that might be true, yet the AKP might not fall from grace, such is the nature of its support. There is too a possibility that in time Erdogan will come to be seen as a liability or otherwise fade from the scene. Would the AKP, and some of the policies with which it is now associated, be able to free itself from some of the less salubrious and more confrontational aspects of his leadership? What would then lie in store for his ‘old friend’, Ahmet Davutoğlu?  

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