Turkish PM in conversation, Part 2: Old Turkey, New Turkey

Many observers fear Turkey is heading towards majoritarian tyranny. How does Turkey's 'representative democracy' contrast with General Sisi's claims that he represents the 'general will' of Egypt?

Richard Falk Ahmet Davutoğlu
17 December 2014

This conversation, which took place on September 28 2014, is in four parts - here is part 1part 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, along with the many responses we have invited: Behlül Özkan on the dangerous flaws in the AKP's foreign policy; Bulent Gokay on why Turkey will only become a real global power when it has a functional democracy; Bill Park on how governance is becoming more troubled under the AKP; Alexander Christie-Miller on the mass arrests of journalists this weekend; Firdevs Robinson on why Turkey's politicians must not be let off the hook; Oguz Alyanak on how they live in a parellel universe–and the political scientist Umut Özkırımlı on why we should not have published this piece at all.

new and old turkey.jpg

The area of Beyoğlu, once the foreign quarter of Istanbul, has seen the greatest changes since the fall of the Ottoman Empire to the beginning of the 21st century. Flickr/Gabriele Quaglia. Some rights reserved. 

Old Turkey, New Turkey

Richard Falk: Turkey has for the first time elected a president by popular participation in the form of a competitive election. Many outside Turkey see this as a major shift in structure, primarily because the very dominant former prime minister will now function as president. So, will the office of the presidency play a more important role in Turkey’s political future? This particular president has such a strong grassroots following; how will that impact upon your role of prime minister? Is there a possibility that you might be unable to play a fully independent role under these conditions, as some aver?

Ahmet Davutoğlu: To answer this question, you need to grasp the source of presidential power in Turkey. In the 1982 constitution–a product of the military coup–Evren’s cohort limited the role of the presidency, believing that the Turkish people had no capacity to make decisions serving the nation and that Turkish politicians were similar to immature children, prone to error. This military leadership wanted a brake in the system, a check upon the possible excesses of democracy. The president should be selected either from the military or maybe from a closely supervised bureaucracy. They settled for a prime minister elected by the people while the president was elected by the parliamentary assembly. This was a feature of their tutelage arrangement. The Evren leadership had no concept of a civilian becoming president one day. Presidents were, after all, supervisors, yes, but also a representative of this deep state. That was their function.

This meant that until 2007, although we were in the government, it was very difficult to act because many bureaucratic appointments were not endorsed by the president. Only after 2007, when Gül became president, did our coordination vastly improve as might be expected. What happened? Due to the destablising impact of military ultimatums and anti-democratic interventions on the system during 2007, we decided to go to the people to establish a procedure for presidential elections that would put an end to this. It was not the AK Party’s decision to introduce a popular vote for the presidency: the party was urging the need for a stronger parliamentary system.

As late as 2007 the AK Party was seeking to limit the power of the president, in the interest of accountability, and at the demand of the people. But the decision to have a popularly elected president was taken in a constitutional referendum in 2010 in order to prevent anti-democratic forces from controlling elections to the presidency, and to constrain the democratically elected government.

Never before in Turkish history had two such political transitions taken place in so smooth a manner. There was no orderly transfer even in 2007 as Ahmet Necdet Sezer refused to attend Gül’s inauguration ceremony. But in 2010, for the first time, change from one president to another occurred in an orderly manner, although both belonged to the same political tradition, and 95 countries and international organizations attended this inauguration.

And despite the potential for friction arising from both men coming from the same political tradition and working together for so many years, nobody need anticipate any serious tensions arising between the prime minister and the president in Turkey. We will support each other: we will work together. It is a residue of the old mentality to suppose that the president and prime minister must be acting against each other. That unfortunate tradition in the history of our democracy has now been overcome.

"The president and I intend to act as old friends who stand together, shoulder to shoulder against all anti-democratic interventions in the system… We also jointly oppose those international lobbies who have tried their best to remove us from power” We intend to act as old friends who stand together, shoulder to shoulder against all anti-democratic interventions in the system from remnants either of the deep state or the parallel state. We will also jointly oppose those international lobbies who have tried their best to remove us from power. At the end of the day, to repeat: “this is a relationship between two self-confident people who are friends”. We have our challenges of course. But we are well aware of the ethical responsibility we have taken on our shoulders, and everyone else should be aware of the strong personal relationship and mutual respect that is a bond between us.

By the way, I did not usually talk to the Turkish press with this degree of candour.

RF: You used the phrase ‘new Turkey’ in your speech to parliament as a prime minister, and also referred frequently to ‘restoration’ in one or another of its aspects. Yet the cabinet you appointed has created some kind of impression that there is no new approach under way, and I am aware of your profound historic consciousness. What is the connection between the new Turkey and the old Turkey?

AD: I used the term ‘restoration’ on purpose, but without making any reference to the French restoration after the French revolution. You cannot draw on history as if it were a frozen reality. For history is always flowing onwards and there is a constant need for renewal that draws upon the values and traditions of the national past. Those values and traditions must be responsive to new challenges.

At the same time Turkey is not a state that emerged after an anti-colonial movement after the second world war. We are not a new state; we have a long state tradition and we have deep historic and civilizational traditions together with an intersectional geography that links several state traditions, economic institutions and political values. Even when we make reference to “the Turkish people,” it has been correctly observed that, “It’s a culmination of all the ethnic and religious groups of the Ottoman state: Balkan nations, Caucasian nations, Middle Eastern nations, all mixed into Turkey.” This past has a continuity with the present. What we need is to restore these values, especially the strong political sense of order and cultural belonging that we owe to each other.

When I made my speech with nine points in the Extraordinary Congress of our party, I made reference to the need to revive the past. I meant, above all, the restoration of our self-confidence. Turkish people lost their confidence before the AKP took over the governing process, but now Turks have regained that self-confidence. We plan a restoration of political values, including democracy, national will, citizenship rights, and a sense of national unity through such a process; and a restoration of the state so that the bureaucracy is loyal to the state and the state loyal to the nation.

This is ‘new Turkey’, because even this year we had to face challenges that threaten all that we had achieved in the restoration of ethics, economic structures, the judicial system, and our international political status. In all these areas, I want to stress that we as a country are not a newborn baby; we have a wise, long, cosmopolitan history based on virtuous behavior. What we need to do is to reinvent these values under a philosophy of democracy and establish a new economic restructuring of Turkish society, based on developing human resources and science and technology. A new Turkey will no longer discriminate against any citizen on the basis of their sectarian or ethnic background, as has happened in the past. These are the parameters of a new sense of identity, a sense that we hope will be reflected in a new constitution.

Based on these adjustments, interpreting our long and rich history in a dynamic way, our new economic strategy is planned to secure for Turkey a $25.000 per capita income for its population in the near future. The ultimate value of all government is human dignity. In my speech I indicated that human dignity could be achieved only by achieving two goals of government: security and freedom, as mutually reinforcing not opposed entities. We need a new constitution to replace the negative constitutional history of the past century. We need a new sense of belonging in society that recognizes that there were mistakes committed in the past. We should overcome the alienation of certain sects and ethnic groups and reject prejudices against religious identities that featured in Turkey’s past.

RF: Many of the points that you have stressed as ‘new’ seem better understood as a continuation and enhancement of what has been done in the last twelve years. You are advocating a type of revival.

AD: In Turkish the word ‘ihya’ means to give life to something, which we normally translate as ‘restore.’ Here for clarity we can use ‘revive’, but let me explain to you why I used ‘new,’  by taking an example from Ottoman history.

As a response to the Westphalian Order there was a Köprülü period during which the Ottomans tried to restore their state and their institutions. The term used in our political history was ‘restoration.’ Then after the Napoleonic War and the Congress of Vienna we had ‘Tanzimat’. This means to give an order or in the case of ‘tanzim, nizam’ – to reorder the state. There was a need for modernization of the Ottoman System, so this imperative was part of the flow of history. In this respect, even the establishment of the Turkish republic can be interpreted as a kind of restoration. Although it was similar to a revolution, the institutions relied upon were older than those of the Turkish republic. Today if you go to the Fire Department (İtfaiye) or the police station you will see they are 150 years old. The multi-party elections in 1950 were also a ‘restoration’ in this sense of restoring what had previously existed.

In my speech at party Congress, I said “the nation is the source of order, the state is the servant’’. In the past the state was the ultimate authority, and the nation was its object. But in the new Turkey, it will be the nation that is the subject, and the state will be its object. In this way nobody can claim authority merely because they have the power of the state at their disposal. This conception is much better formulated in Turkish.

For example in 1982 the constitution gave various rights to the citizen, but these rights could be limited or even suspended if something was declared to be harming the state or against the public interest. To overcome this situation, we said we need a new constitution that upholds human rights, human dignity; not state rights. If you have human and individual dignity, then the state can acquire dignity, but if human dignity is not respected then the state does not have dignity, and loses its legitimacy.

RF: It’s a very interesting shift, philosophically, in the direction of Rousseau’s idea of the general will as the foundation stone of political legitimacy. But it does raise a question that came out of the Arab Spring and its aftermath. General Sisi in Egypt claims that he is acting as the representative of the people. The people supposedly lost confidence in the government of Mohamed Morsi, a leader within the Muslim Brotherhood. Thus, the armed forces claimed it was legitimate for them to act on behalf of the people.

There is a distinction between majoritarian and republican democracy here which helps frame my question. It is Rousseau’s idea that government should follow the will of the people. Republican democracy by contrast is based on a separation of powers: the notion of checks and balances within the government developed as a protection against the tyranny of the majority. In the American constitution the republican idea dominated, resting on the proposition that you could not trust the people, and that it was necessary, and indeed desirable, to contain populist sentiments. The ‘bill of rights’ was then developed as instruments to ensure that citizens would not be abused by the state.

So currently, there is ambiguity about the true nature of democracy. Isn’t it necessary first to determine whether Sisi’s ‘will of the people’ should control state/society relations, or whether some kind of more institutionalized mediation between the claims of the state and the people is more likely to be conducive to human dignity?

AD: That’s a very important point with regards to a majoritarian democracy. It is a difference between new Turkey and old Turkey. The old political system was scared of the majority in Turkish society. All of Turkey’s constitutions are based on how to control the majority, because from the very beginning they focused on threats. Conservative Muslims, non-Muslims and several social segments were seen by the governing class as internal threats. Even Alevis were considered to pose an internal threat. The constitutional focus was on protecting the state. The leadership has to act and control all these internal threats. But when you add up all those ‘threats’, they turn out to be–the majority.  As a result, a major challenge for us in 2002 was to restore democratic elections as the central source for legitimate authority.

Once you secure this goal, then the second challenge follows on: how to protect minorities in a well-functioning representative democracy? Representative democracy is based on the separation of powers. I believe we can now declare that representative democracy has been guaranteed in Turkey. Minority rights have been improved, for example, in relation to the Kurdish people. In the past Kurds were banned by law from pursuing their goals in the Kurdish language or receiving a Kurdish education. But today we no longer think that the Kurdish people are merely a minority. Our party represents Kurdish people more than any other party because we act on the basis that all citizens are equal before the law.

Similarly, the rights of non-Muslims have been protected by our government and all properties previously seized were given back to the non-Islamic religious communities of Turkey. Billions of dollars in property were given back to these former victims of discrimination.

It is, of course, important to deal with differences of opinion between the majority population and various minority views. Every individual out of the 77 million makes individual decisions and choices that are important and that we seek to respect to the highest extent possible. This is the essence of a rule of law. How to run a political system is one issue, but the administration of the rule of law is another, which we never sacrifice for the sake of expediency.

A group of judges and prosecutors visited me last week, among them were representatives of all the major political trends in Turkey. They called for unity in the judicial system. The spokesperson of this very diverse group was Alawite, and in this meeting, seculars, conservatives, Sunnis, Alawites, social democrats, and nationalists were sitting around the same table.

Why had they come to see me? It was to restore the independence of the judicial system in the face of the threats being posed by the parallel state. It reminded me of the crucial importance of the separation of powers. The independence of the judicial system doesn’t only mean independence from executive power. It also refers to independence from any manipulation of power relations from within the judicial system.

So how was it that we laid ourselves open to this parallel state structure in the judiciary? Our approach had the best of intentions. Until 2010 all members of the High Board of Prosecutors and Judges (HSYK) were elected by a judicial elite sitting in Ankara. We wanted the judges and the prosecutors to be the wisest people in our society. But in 2010, we decided that all judges and prosecutors should participate in elections to democratize the judicial system.

What we did not anticipate was that one group would collectively vote for a list and that such a group would then come to dominate the judicial system. This happened because of a Constitutional Court decision that these votes would be for lists of candidates rather than individuals. If voters were allowed to vote for individuals as we had wanted, there would have been no domination of the judicial system by one group. But if one group proposes a list and obtains 51% of the votes, and the other receives 49%, it would be cut out of the process altogether. Of course, the 51% will then be in control of the judiciary.

I told the presidents of the high court of auditors and the supreme court, “You can be sure of the objectivity or the neutrality of the system only if every judge or prosecutor decides or prepares a file according to his/her conscience, not by reference to his social networks. If judges reach their decisions in deference to social networks, then judges are not behaving in accord with their conscience. In such a case, it is the parallel structure that decides, ‘this man is good, we can help him.’ This is not justice. Judges must act with integrity as individuals, not as loyal members of social networks.”

This episode showed that we need to build a new judicial system and a new constitution, a new understanding of how the democratic process works. Representative and participatory democracy should be implemented. These are all new elements. At the same time we cannot deny or ignore our past. Self-criticism should be there too and a new approach based on the needs of the flow of history today. This is what I mean by restoration, restoration of the system.

But to return to the situation now in Egypt and the comparison with Turkey. General Sisi’s claim to leadership did not rest on any established procedure demonstrating that he represents the general will of society. The concept of the general will is itself questionable, and this is true even when there is a way to test the preferences of the people. When Sisi came to power by dint of a military coup, it was not on the basis of a test that fully assessed the will of the people. Similarly, in 1982 in Turkey, Evren claimed that he had the support of the majority or general will: but there was no test available to establish whether or not this was true.

In Turkey we have tested the national will through several elections. These have been fair and free elections. Our percentage of the vote has increased each time, and not just because they liked us individually. If we were not successful in economic policy, if we had not improved living standards, if we were not successful in democratization to extend their freedoms, including freedom of press, the freedom to speak different languages, they would hardly have supported us over and over again.

Yesterday there was an interesting poll that suggested 38% of Saadet Party, 22% nationalist party, 17% of pro-Kurdish party, and 8% of the main opposition party support me. Maybe they do not really support me, but at least they are not against me. When former Prime Minister Erdoğan was ill, many leading businessmen (it was two years ago when he had surgery) said privately that we did not vote for him but we pray for his health, which is essential for the continued stability of the country. You are right about institutionalization of democracy: that’s what we want to achieve. With a new constitution, this will be the foundation stone of the New Turkey.

So now, we are not the subjects of the political process but we’ll be under the control of the political process. There’ll be a balance between accountability and responsibility. There’ll be an ethics in relation to what we want to achieve. We need a system to prevent majority abuses of minority rights, and for this there is the need for a robust rule of law. The rule of law underpins all efforts to prevent any type of majoritarianism and to ensure the protection of human rights. This is the best way.

It is interesting, as well, that many people here in Turkey did not realize we made major reforms in local administration for 30 cities. For example, Konya is now much more powerful. It controls an entire region that is bigger than some European countries. So we are now planning to implement a public administration reform to transfer additional authority to local administrations.

This type of decentralized institutionalization is not a response to the demands of the general will. It is an expression of the AKP commitment to participatory democracy.

Read on: Here is part 1, part 3 and part 4–and here again is a summary of responses from the Editor in Chief.

Had enough of ‘alternative facts’? openDemocracy is different Join the conversation: get our weekly email

Related articles


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData