Turkish citizens’ struggle for self-rule

Turkish citizens’ struggle for self-rule
2017-04-20
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Donia Al watan

by Adam McConnel

ISTANBUL

“At the heart of debates about democracy are three contested principles, popular sovereignty, autonomy, and equality; and three related, but less visible, underlying premises, deliberation, pluralism, and reciprocity…. This book also explores two underappreciated aspects of North American democracy, its religious origins and its ethical dimensions, which have profoundly influenced its development.” (James T. Kloppenberg, Toward Democracy: The Struggle for Self-Rule in European and American Thought, p. 6)

Now that Turkey’s referendum has passed, with about 1.4 million more citizens voting to accept the constitutional changes than to reject them, foreign observers of Turkish political events need to calmly, objectively evaluate the results, and begin looking towards the 2019 elections, when most of the changes will actually take effect.

Since Turkish elections became democratic in 1950, Turkey has been plagued by intermittent military interventions and unstable, coalition governments.

The switch to a presidential system ends the coalition government problem. So the essential political task of the coming years is reform aimed at creating more effective, efficient, transparent, and democratically accountable state institutions.

The systemic changes instituted by the referendum should also finally strengthen citizen-based democratic control over those state institutions. But this point is clearly lost on most foreign observers, whether those writing for the international press or academics.

For that reason, I think that anyone who wants to understand the ongoing Turkish political process should refer to Harvard professor James T. Kloppenberg’s recent intellectual history of Western democracy, titled Toward Democracy: The Struggle for Self-Rule in European and American Thought.

Kloppenberg bases his analysis on several concepts that he sees as fundamental to democratic political processes. Even though his focus is on the North Atlantic democracies, his analysis is eminently relevant to developments in Turkish democracy.

A main obstacle preventing most foreign observers from comprehending Turkish politics is the widely held – and mistaken – assumption that Turkish democracy was fully formed at some point in the recent past, and then backsliding, usually blamed on “the Islamists,” began. Those who have fallen victim to this error are then unable to comprehend that Turkish democracy is still deepening and expanding.

Kloppenberg lists popular sovereignty, autonomy, and equality as the main points of contention which democratic politics in the U.K. and the U.S. formed around.

In the book’s introduction, he summarizes these concepts: popular sovereignty, for Kloppenberg, not only involves the right of a society’s citizens to exercise authority over their own affairs, but also the problems of representation and participation.

To what extent should the people be able to participate directly in making political decisions and to what extent is representation acceptable? In history, both topics have been realized across a spectrum ranging from minimal to extreme.

Autonomy, as Kloppenberg describes it, “… requires a self both psychologically and ethically, as well as economically and socially, capable of deliberate action; and it requires the absence of control over individuals by other individuals and by the state.

Autonomy has meaning only if individuals are understood as beings who act on the basis of consciously chosen goals developed in the framework of community standards and traditions.” In other words, autonomy is an individual’s ability to undertake political decisions that have both personal and social dimensions.

Kloppenberg then describes equality, itself a problematic concept, as posing apparent contradictions to individual autonomy. The reason that all three of the main concepts underlying democracy can coexist, according to the author, is that they function in dialogue with each other as a society attempts to find solutions to the problems that it faces.

This approach features “careful weighing of different values” and sees democracy as a “way of life, not simply a set of political institutions.” But Kloppenberg cautions that arguments over goals and compromises are an “inevitable” result of democratic processes.

In the Turkish case, even though the Turkish state was not under the direct control of any foreign power, popular sovereignty existed only on paper until about 10 years ago. In truth, Turkish citizens did not have complete control over their own state.

The reason is that elections were not democratic for the first 25 years of the Turkish Republic’s existence.

Then, after elections did become democratic in 1950, whenever the military-political elite’s control over state institutions was threatened, the military stepped in to reassert their domination. This situation continued even into the initial years of the Justice and Development (AK) Party’s government.

The emergence of the other essential concepts stated by Kloppenberg, autonomy and equality, was also stunted by the lack of popular sovereignty in Turkish politics.

Those who controlled the Turkish state from the 1920s to 1950 did not see the mass of Turkish citizens as equals, which precluded the ability of Turkish citizens to develop their own autonomy.

Only after 1950 were the Turkish people slowly able to begin the process of constructing their autonomy and forcing the military, the state bureaucracy, and the intellectual classes to begin accepting them as equals. It has been a long, difficult road.

Along with increasing control of their political system, Turkish citizens also gained greater control over the ideas and values guiding their political system. Kloppenberg notably refers to the “religious origins” and “ethical dimensions” of the democracies he discusses.

In the long quote concerning autonomy quoted above, he also refers to the “community standards and traditions” which are vital to an individual’s decision-making. But have Turkish people had recourse to their own culture’s “standards and traditions”?

In the Turkish case, a modernizing political vision, based on ideas that were not simply foreign but fundamentally at odds with Turkish culture, was imposed on Turkish society beginning in the mid-19th century, during the reform era known as the Tanzimat.

The initial attempts at Ottoman modernization were carried out by state bureaucrats who did not follow any deterministic intellectual outlook.

But after 1908, the Committee of Union and Progress (CUP) asserted influence, then direct control over Ottoman institutions.

The CUP, of which Mustafa Kemal was a member, preferred European ideas such as Comtean positivism, radical materialism, and Gustave Le Bon’s anti-democratic mass psychology.

The CUP did not see the “values and standards” preferred by the vast majority of Turkish citizens as an acceptable guide for political decisions.

In the 1920s and 1930s, the state-sponsored effort to suppress traditional Turkish culture went to the extremes of mandating certain types of Western clothing, instituting a Turkish call to prayer in place of the Arabic, and encouraging the adoption of Western music in place of traditional Turkish musical styles, among many other similar interventions.

Since the 1950s, Turkish political movements, generally mislabeled in Europe and North America with the derogatory term “Islamist,” have become the dominant political voice of the Turkish people.

The Democrat Party of the 1950s, the Justice Party of the 1960s and 1970s, the Motherland Party of the 1980s, and now the AK Party of the past 15 years achieved electoral successes because the Turkish people saw their aspirations, as well as their values, expressed through those movements.

Religion was one aspect of those parties’ platforms, but only one. Consequently, those parties should be understood as the expressions of Turkish “community and traditions,” a fundamental aspect of a successful democracy, according to Kloppenberg.

For the majority of Turkish citizens, true democracy has only recently begun to take shape. Turkish citizens have struggled for many decades to establish the concepts discussed by Kloppenberg as fundamental elements of Turkish democracy, but there is still much to be accomplished.

The task for foreign observers, on the other hand, is to remove their cultural and ideological blinders and to inform themselves about Turkish society’s real political history.

Only then will they be able to comprehend why a majority of Turkish people, and quickly growing numbers of Turkey’s Kurdish citizens, see a vote for the AK Party, for President Erdogan, or for last Sunday’s referendum as a vote for Kloppenberg’s popular sovereignty, autonomy, and equality.

* Opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of The Agency.
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