By Sevgi Akarcesme
10 December 2013
Turkey has been vigorously debating the nature of its democracy and popular Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan's ruling style, which has increasingly authoritarian tendencies, as never before since the Gezi Park protests in May. From my perspective, the Gezi protests, on which everyone was almost forced to take sides, is a grey area since both the government and the protesters made their share of mistakes.
Although I strongly disapproved of the initial police brutality and thought the government handled the crisis terribly, when I perceived an attempt to interfere with the government, I could not help writing that before we start saying democracy is only about the ballot box, some of us should ponder the meaning of legitimate election results regardless of the prime minister's authoritarian style.
Erdoğan's extremely polarizing behaviour reached its peak during the Gezi protests. Although democratic conservatives did not approve of Erdoğan's earlier remarks, which had tones of social engineering, not many among his voter base spoke up strongly enough. However, with his latest attempt to close private exam preparatory schools, which is unthinkable in a free market economy, many have woken up. This includes those who thought that no matter what Erdoğan says, he seems to back up and let common sense prevail, as happened in his attempt to criminalize abortion. After all, Turkey had witnessed unprecedented democratic improvements in his era.
When the grassroots Hizmet movement reacted strongly to the exam prep school plan, considering it a blow to their very existence, what some have called an “emotional break up” took place. Progressive religious voters, for the first time, faced an Erdoğan unwilling to compromise and one who has imposed certain choices on them. Erdoğan seems to underestimate the impact of the Hizmet movement. While its voter base turned out to be only 1 percent in the polls he ordered, I think he had better not rely too much on the reported results when measuring the size of the Hizmet movement. Even if the Hizmet movement, which extends far beyond the borders of Turkey, does have an approval rate of 1 percent, this does not justify the imposition of a completely irrational act on the private sector.
What is worse and more alarming is Erdoğan's tendency to perceive people purely as “voters.” According to him, only those people who approve of his policies represent “the national will.” As political scientist Ersin Kalaycıoğlu accurately put it some time ago, Erdoğan declares anyone who does not vote for him to be “illegitimate,” which is a very dangerous trend, as there are millions who are ready to take everything Erdoğan says at face value.
Indeed, it is impossible not to agree with another academic, Ahmet İnsel, who says that with the increasing power of the Justice and Development Party (AK Party), the traditional but challenged “state authoritarianism” has overlapped with the “authoritarianism of the people” for the first time in the history of modern Turkey.
What does this mean? It means that in the past, when the Kemalist regime dictated a policy on the nation, it was resisted and not internalized. But now, when Erdoğan wants to impose a policy, for instance, on mixed-gender student housing, this is approved by the majority of society.
A conservative society, the majority of which has the same mindset as Erdoğan, cannot even see a problem in the imposition of conservative values, since they believe it is “the right thing to do.” I began to think that Turkey might be a hopeless cause when a driver told me last week that he prefers Erdoğan's one-man rule to the “secret domination of foreign forces” in Turkey.
Indeed, we are fast moving towards an atmosphere in which criticism of Erdoğan might be considered “illegitimate” given the reactions of his extremely partisan “journalists” and the AK Party's supporters in the social media.
Unfortunately, the liberal pious of Turkey, which blossomed with the democratization of the country and who are in favour of Anglo-Saxon-style secularism, are being squeezed between two kinds of authoritarianism, which seem different but are actually the same.
Erdoğan delegitimizes the arguments of the liberal pious and liberals at large by proving that prejudices about himself and Islamists are right. In other words, more and more people might be convinced that Muslims cannot be real democrats.
Whether Erdoğan has always wanted to design society according to his own convictions is not clear. What is clear, though, is that the more Erdoğan feels like the “new and rightful owner” of the state, the more he disregards the concerns of any other group in society. When the Hizmet movement chose not to bow to Erdoğan and displayed a completely peaceful, legitimate and determined form of opposition, Erdoğan went as far as accusing the movement of “treason” in a veiled statement, while he openly pronounced the Taraf daily and journalist Mehmet Baransu to be traitors for publishing secret National Security Council (MGK) documents which revealed a plan to fight the Hizmet movement.
Last week, when the illegal storage of data on religious groups until as recently as 2013 was also revealed, instead of explaining how the National Intelligence Organization (MİT) is still able to act independently, labelling its citizens without government authorization, the government and staunch pro-government media chose to shoot the messenger. After excluding and denouncing all and any dissent, no-one really knows who represents the national will according to Erdoğan.
Amid such a bleak and disappointing picture, which leads Turkey's democrats to learned helplessness once again, I am convinced that the destructive impact of the authoritarian Kemalist education system is still alive, even among the Islamists of the country.
This is not to say that I will abandon my dream of a Turkey in which the state maintains an equal distance from all of its citizens, who “feel” free, but apparently there is still a long way to go.