By Halil Bilecen
August 16, 2014
Sadly, living under an authoritarian government is the destiny of many Middle Eastern countries. Although there has been relatively better democracy in its history compared to other Middle Eastern countries, authoritarianism has always been a threat in Turkey as well.
After experiencing several military coups since 1960, Turkey succeeded in reducing military tutelage of late. However, Turkey is now facing another form of tutelage: that of political Islam.
Turkey has suffered several military coups, an experience similar to that of many Latin American and Middle Eastern countries. Even though free elections take place in the country to a certain degree, each government also tends to take advantage of undemocratic gaps in the system to create “others,” thereby pressuring them to obey the policies (including unlawful ones) of the government. The common characteristic of these governments is to attribute blessedness to the state in direct proportion to their power while ruling. Hence, these governments utilize the power of the state to enjoy more benefits, consequently consolidating their own power and tenure by using public force against other groups in the society.
Regardless of ideology, each party has been affected by the powerful, centralized state structure since the early years of the Turkish Republic. Exclusionist discourse has influenced the ethnic and religious composition of the society. Thus, employing undemocratic means, the primary aim of governments has generally been to hold a heterogeneous society together under a monolithic and highly centralized nation-state system. Yet, despite the lack of a western-style democracy -- and military coups which occur every 10 years, on average -- there has nevertheless been a relatively well-functioning democracy in Turkey since the transition from authoritarian one-party rule to a multi-party system in the 1950s.
The overwhelming power the military has had over political institutions has been the main reality of the system during periods of either right-wing or left-wing governments. The tutelage during these periods can characteristically be referred to as “Kemalist tutelage.” In this context, the main social entities controlled by the Kemalist tutelage up until the 2000s can be grouped as Alevis, Kurds and the conservatives (Islamists). Within these groups, a group of Kurds under the leadership of Abdullah Öcalan formed the Partîya Karkerên Kurdistan, the Kurdistan Workers' Party, popularly known as the PKK, which became a part of the state as a “Kurdish” entity. After the Feb. 28, 1997 postmodern military coup against the Erbakan government, conservative groups under the umbrella of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) challenged the Kemalist tutelage with a strong single-party government.
During the first two terms of the AKP governments, the AKP took many crucial steps toward the goal of European Union membership by passing a series of reforms, including improving minority rights and freedom of the press. However, things have abruptly changed since the last general election in 2011. The AKP government has come to dominate nearly all branches of government, from the high judiciary to the executive power, and from the armed forces to the press. Thus, the AKP is now laying the foundation of a new tutelage that could most appropriately be called “the tutelage of political Islam.”
The Turkish Republic implemented new reforms to create a homogenous secular nation in the early republican period by pressuring all the “others” who could be a threat to the new republic. The state determined the lifestyle of the people to make them “modern” individuals. By its very nature, this sort of state pressure could only be exerted in a closed, isolated society. It is for that reason that the primary aim of the early Turkish governments and bureaucrats was to establish a closed, and thereby controllable, society. There is, however, no such duty of modern states to contemporize individuals. There will always be some groups in society that do not wish to be contemporized.
Therefore, there has always been outrageous conflict between a variety of groups and the state in Turkey -- which has consumed the internal energy of Turkey since the beginning of the new republic.
The military was the driving force behind the Kemalist tutelage, whereas the tutelage of political Islam sees national intelligence as the primary power to ensure that its policies are enacted. Nevertheless, we should acknowledge the fact that many different intelligence agencies check and control each other to harmonize the system in mature democracies such as the US. This dynamic is more important for developing countries, as each political party may have the chance to modify the regime according to their own ideological leanings.
Considering this fact, granting too much power and authority to a single intelligence agency in hybrid regimes like Turkey is a very dangerous game, because this intelligence agency may use its overwhelming power in destructive ways. Thus, it is always a danger that another kind of tutelage will take hold in such a system as a result of a change in governments.
I do not think that the tutelage of political Islam is as powerful and permanent as Kemalist tutelage yet. What I do think is that Kemalist tutelage may reincarnate in the AKP government. The recent discourse of the senior figures of the so-called Ergenekon terror organization (including ex-generals, politicians, and bureaucrats who aim to overthrow the government) in favor of the AKP government would seem to confirm this assertion.
Unfortunately, the “tutelage game” -- one of the primary reasons for the backwardness of the country -- will continue until such time as a developed democratic system is permanently established. The proponents of Kemalist tutelage are the victims of the current circumstance in the country. We do not know if they have taken a lesson from the past. On the other hand, AKP supporters are enjoying their victory now, not discerning the threat of the new tutelage that stems from the extraordinary power of the AKP government, and which may lead to an irresistible, unstable democratic structure which will ultimately end up in an economic crisis.
Halil Bilecen is a Ph.D. student in the department of political science at the University of Houston. This article was originally published in the Zaman daily in Turkish on July 12.