By Peter Edel
Over the last few weeks Turkey has seen lots of protests against the ruling Justice- and Development Party (AKP). It all started last month when environmentalists occupied the Gezi Park near Istanbul’s Taksim Square. The activists resisted the planned deconstruction of this last green area in the center of the city, which had to destroyed to make place for a shopping mall. The government answered with excessive police force, causing four protesters to die and thousands to be wounded. Many others were arrested. Not only active participants in the protests, but also lawyers who defended them and doctors who were treating injuries caused by the police.
The police violence triggered a nationwide protest that went way beyond the Gezi park situation. PM Erdogan was blamed for undemocratic practices, such as the imprisonment of students, journalists and politicians, as well as the introduction of laws which many feel limited their freedom.
While rights of minorities are irrelevant to him, Erdogan hides behind the domination of the majority. The fact that his party received 50% of the votes during the last general elections suffices for him to defend his ruling as entirely democratic.
This 50 % percentage is a clear indication of the polarization in Turkey. Conservative and religious Turks, who are more than willing to forgive Erdogan for negligence of democratic values, worship him like a sultan. Western oriented secular Turks who make up the other 50%, hate him as a devil in disguise.
The recent developments in Turkey confirm that the country is stuck in the paradox of democracy, meaning the situation that occurs when a majority of voters democratically chooses a leader who brings an end to democracy, or at least to democratic principles.
This is not a theory, history offers ample evidence. The most infamous and extreme example of a democratically chosen dictator I will not mention here. It wouldn’t be fair to put Erdogan in the gallery of the worst dictators mankind has known. For after all, there are still elections in Turkey. Still, only by curtailing the freedom of expression, Erdogan has already done much harm to an important pillar of democracy. Moreover, he frequently expresses opinions suggesting more disdain of democracy. He even made remarks about a discontinuation of the trias politica.
The paradox is hidden in the fact that his voters did make such undemocratic tendencies possible in a democratic way. Sometimes voters are inclined to accept undemocratic extravagances of leaders. Often because of the virtues attributed to them. Impressive highways and architecture, a growing economy, a strong currency, an assertive foreign policy, dictators have been glorified for such achievements.
However, in the long run the call for democracy can’t be silenced. So, what to do when a democratically elected government abandons democratic principles? In that case there’s the option of protecting democracy. Unfortunately the appropriate instruments to protect democracy leave much to be desired from a democratic point of view. For they violate the wishes of the majority, which is not done in a democracy. Yes, a true paradox. Turkey knows it inside out. Both sides of Turkish society do. For many decades secular powers in the state took the right to protect democracy. Later on Erdogan did essentially the same when he got even with the secular establishment he felt threatened by. To put it bluntly, in the name of democracy Turkey has an intense problem with democracy.
The religious headscarf
The paradox of democracy is also recognizable in the interpretation of freedom. Take the freedom for religious women to wear a headscarf in public buildings. It was a tricky matter for ages. The AKP took care of it so that religious girls are free to hide their hair in universities nowadays. Splendid. Reasoning from my liberal and tolerant Dutch background I fully endorse the concept. I simply don’t feel entitled to say what someone can or cannot put on his or her head. Neither do I think that governments should have a say in that.
There’s a catch though. For a liberal headscarf policy also implies the right for husbands, fathers and brothers to force their wives, daughters and sisters to cover their heads. It goes without saying that freedom is compromised this way – at least individual freedom. Instead, freedom is reduced to the right of putting pressure on the individual based on the standards of the collective.
The conservative grassroots of the AKP don’t consider this a limitation of freedom. In this section of society the individual is often secondary to the community anyway. Here Erdogan’s headscarf policy proves how democratic and free Turkey has become under his administration- which shows once again how flexible such notions are.
By the way, it was the founder of the Turkish Republic, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, who banned the headscarf from public buildings. Not to limit women in their freedom, but to liberate them from social pressure on religious grounds. Turkish suffragettes celebrated him for it.
Last weekend many ladies adorned with a headscarf attended party rallies of the AKP. Cheering Erdogan with little AKP-flags in their hands. The high representative for Foreign Affairs of the European union, Catherine Ashton, considered it a bad idea with so much tension in the country. And it has to be said that it’s questionable why the contrast in this polarized country had to be emphasized at this crucial moment.
Erdogan did not care for Ashton’s remark and persisted in his position. One of his ministers called the party rallies the ‘will of the nation’, although of course he referred to not more than 50% of the nation (and for those who believe the latest poles even less).
Erdogan was out to show the world that his policy is supported by a majority and thus answers to the criteria of democracy. This claim is undermined by the paradox of democracy. For it is highly debatable whether a majority that neglects to be vigilant against undemocratic leanings can be a legitimate argument for democracy. In other words, by accepting Erdogan’s undemocratic tendencies the majority disqualifies itself as a base for democratic governance.
During three general elections the AKP received votes for several reasons. Ironically some hoped Erdogan’s party would bring democratization. Others expected economic stability, or voted for him because he performed so well as a mayor of Istanbul. However, most voters were impressed by his religious conservatism, as well as his aversion to western oriented and secular inhabitants of the country.
Last weekend they cheered him, like the dictatorial Sultan Abdülhamit was cheered in the nineteenth century. But the massive crowd did not gather specifically to show appreciation for his plans concerning Gezi Park. For much more than the details of his policy, these massive meetings were about the man himself.
Erdogan’s arrogance is easily taken as charisma by his supporters. They adore his harsh words directed at European politicians, as they cherish his irrational rants about an international conspiracy against Turkey. With such statements he compensates for the lack of self-confidence, which followed on the loss of the Ottoman magnificence. That happened more than a hundred years ago, but the emotions are still quite present. Erdogan makes advantage of it with his neo-Ottoman rhetoric. This underlines his preferred status as an undisputed and worshipped leader whose will is law. In every way Abdülhamit’s true successor.
Because of the unquestioning and meek uniformity of Erdogan’s followers, the highly coordinated party rallies last weekend were standing in sharp contrast to the spontaneous, multilayered and leaderless protests Turkey has seen over the last few weeks among secular Turks. But in any case, two segments of society are opposing each other. This fact is at the core of the turmoil in Turkey. After the party rallies of last weekend ‘civil war’ was written on many walls in Istanbul…