The Survival of Turkish Democracy

Posted on 07/29/15
By Aygoğan Vatandaş | Via Today's Zaman
Erdoğan and his close associates failed to analyze the effects of wealth and economic factors on democratic survival. (Photo by Michael Fleshman, Creative Commons License)
President Erdoğan and his close associates failed to analyze the effects of wealth and economic factors on democratic survival. (Photo by Michael Fleshman, Creative Commons License)

In their article titled “Political culture in Turkey: Connections among attitudes toward democracy, the military and Islam,” Mark Tessler and Ebru Altınoğlu argue that “despite its history of competitive elections, Turkey does not appear to be a consolidated democracy.”


“It should probably be placed in the category of countries that possess some but not all of the characteristics of democratic political systems. Such countries have been variously described as unconsolidated, incomplete, or electoral democracies,” Tessler and Altınoğlu note, saying that this does not mean that democracy in Turkey is destined to remain unconsolidated. They add: “Heper and Güney write, for example, that neither political Islam nor military rule is likely to predominate in the long run. Rather, they predict, sooner or later, and possibly sooner, the military’s ‘occasional indirect presence will be replaced by consolidated democracy.’ The accuracy of this prediction will be known in the years ahead.”


As Tessler and Altınoğlu implied in 2004, this prediction has failed. Even though the Turkish military has been sidelined in Turkish politics, what has replaced it was not a consolidated democracy but President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s authoritarian tendencies. By transforming the traditional institutions of Turkey, Erdoğan has aggressively tried to seize the power of all the veto-players in the system — the executive, the legislature and the judiciary.


By having a majority in the Turkish Parliament, Erdoğan has enjoyed two veto-player powers at the same time: the executive and the legislature. Because of the strictly disciplined party structure and loyalty to the leader of the party, Erdogan’s decisions and words were considered law. In addition to that, Erdoğan viewed the judiciary as an institution that can be effectively used to bolster the authority of the central government.


In his article “Politics as Usual: The Battle for the Turkish Judiciary,” Michael Koplow writes: ‘Rather than try to create a truly independent judiciary, Erdoğan has worked to create a judiciary more sympathetic to his views and beholden to the newly ascendant Turkish political class. In 2010, the AKP held a referendum, which passed by a wide margin, to approve as a package deal a number of proposed constitutional amendments, including some that dealt with judicial reform. The most controversial amendments dealt with reform of the [Supreme Board of Judges and Prosecutors] HSYK, as they involved a nakedly blatant attempt to make the body more sympathetic to the [Justice and Development Party] AKP.”


This means that Erdoğan tried to consolidate his power by transforming the institutions of the Turkish political system. However, the result of the recent national election on June 7, 2015 indicated that the majority of the Turkish nation is frustrated with President Erdoğan’s increasingly unresponsive monopoly on power.


Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu seems to have understood the message given by the Turkish nation after the national election, and he is doing his best to form a coalition government; however, President Erdoğan is doing everything to prevent a coalition, especially with the Republican People’s Party (CHP), which has a strong commitment to open the corruption cases linked to President Erdoğan.


Many people in Turkey believe that Erdoğan will not hesitate to use any unrest or discomfort to further divide society and polarize Turkish politics and cement his control over state institutions and shape the institutional design of the country according to his wishes. However, the institutional design of a country heavily relies on its historical background and socioeconomic factors.


The institutional design of a country refers to whether its political system is unitary or federal, parliamentary or presidential, bicameral or unicameral and dominated by two parties or a combination of smaller parties. These institutional characteristics play a very crucial role in determining how and which political actors are influential within a given state. Therefore, by taking into account the historical, cultural and economic determinants of Turkey, it shouldn’t have been difficult to predict that the Turkish people wouldn’t approve of the dictatorial ambitions of a leader who sought to change the country’s Constitution on the basis of presidentialism.


Recall the dynamics of the birth of parliamentarism. It was economic factors that caused the power struggle between the monarchy and the newborn bourgeoisie in England in the 17th century. It is safe to say that the main reason for the emergence of parliamentarism in England was the demands of the rising bourgeoisie, which tried to secure and hide their assets from the monarchy, which needed money to maintain its wars abroad. The shift in the economic environment in England changed the sociopolitical landsc and eventually the monarchy found itself forced to compromise with the new economic elite. This actually was the first step in the emergence of a constitutional monarchy, which later on triggered the birth of parliamentary systems in France in 1814 and then Belgium and Norway.


One of the reasons behind the Turkish nation’s decision to keep its parliamentary system instead of a presidential system under Erdoğan’s rule is that people did not see their economic interests as safeguarded within an autocratic system where power and money is monopolized by one man and his close associates. By securing the parliamentary and other institutional veto-players such as the Constitutional Court, the Turkish middle class and business classes secured their economic interests as well.


By taking into account the dynamics of the rise of parliamentarism and the reliance of the ruling elite on certain economic segments of society, it would be safe to predict that the great majority of the Turkish nation would not approve of a presidential system that could easily turn into a dictatorship under a strong leader.


Erdoğan and his close associates failed to analyze the effects of wealth and economic factors on democratic survival. Political scientist Adam Przeworski argues that wealth is essentially a necessary condition for democratic survival. He suggests that the countries above a certain wealth threshold (about $6,055 per capita) are likely to stay democratic.


Erdoğan should understand that after decades of democratic and economic development and experiences, Turkey would not approve of a monopoly of power in one man.


Aygoğan Vatandaş is a writer and journalist based in New York.

This article first appeared in Today’s Zaman. Click here to go to the original.

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