Turkey’s Long Path to Democracy Reply

Turkey tries to consolidate democracy by diminishing the military’s influence in politics.

By: Dolunay Bulut

Despite 56 years of multiparty politics, it appears that democracy remains misunderstood in Turkey. From the very beginning, Turkish parliamentary democracy has had to grapple with the transcendental state tradition which, unfortunately, has made parliamentary democracy a framework without its essence — namely its fundamental principle of inclusive debate. What is meant by tutelage is actually this: the transcendental conception of the State is supposed to stay outside the zone of daily political changes; and it needs to be protected by legal (first four articles of Turkish constitution provide this legal guarantee), and sometimes, illegal mechanisms. Despite the government’s successes in limiting the military’s power, the continued struggle between civilian leadership and the military shadow state has kept Turks questioning the reality of their country’s democracy.

From the foundation of the republic nearly ninety years ago, Turkey has experienced two coups (1960 and 1980), two coups by memorandum (1971 and 1997), and many attempts by military juntas to overthrow the existing political regime. As a result of the inclusion of the armed forces in what should be a civilian sphere of politics, the military assumed a perpetual guardianship position, intervening in governance whenever it felt necessary. This tradition of military influence in the body politic has thus become a core dilemma of Turkish democracy.

These days, Turkey is deciding whether to prosecute military officers, replace the Army-made 1982 constitution, or altogether break the bond between military and politics which has eroded the foundation of Turkish democracy. Declaring enemies among the citizens of the state they claim to defend and justifying their interventions and their discourse referring to those “other’s” is the focus of critiques against Armed Forces. The self-appointed military guardians have declared enemies among the citizens of the state they claim to defend, as illustrated by their justifications for their interventions and discourses by pointing the finger at the Other. This is the wrong point, though, or at least half wrong. The problem is not specific to the military. Turkey’s actual problem is the concept of tutelage which traps Turkish politics under the sway of the military or civilian powers.

Especially since the Operation Sledgehammer (Balyoz Harekatı) trial concluded a few weeks ago, national media and government officials have repeated that the tutelage tradition of the military over the civilian zone of politics is finally broken and politics can find its way towards democracy and freedom. If what is meant here by “breaking the tutelage tradition” referred to breaking the state conception that the military exalts and the discourse that declares the Other as the enemy within, there is almost nothing broken and defeated. The only thing broken is the image of the military and its power over politics, but clearly it has not been replaced with noble ideals of democracy or parliamentarism. Instead, the power vacuum that is emerging in the withdrawal of the military as a political actor is being replaced with something civilian and nominally democratic (since it is based on popular vote), but not with democracy, openness, and deliberation. The discourse of Otherness and “enemies” still finds targets within our borders, among our citizens; only the source that produces this discourse has changed.

Today, in the name of removing the armed forces from politics, the parliament and its rationale are themselves drifting from democratic tenets. Based on the vote share, political parties can claim absolute power as if they are monarchs. Vote share and “political capital” overwhelms the principles of openness and discussion. In today’s Turkey, politics are being oversimplified by declaring enemies rather than discussing and negotiating the differences. The Justice and Development Party (AKP) government, instead of having room for activist students, workers, critical voices in the media, civil society or even the parliament, prefers to place them prisons or call them enemies of the glorious state of Turkey.

Breaking the military tutelage for the sake of democracy is one thing, replacing it with a civilian one is another. The civilian tutelage regime that is being established uses the same language of demonizing the “Other;” only the parameters defining the “Other” have changed. However, it is not the matter who the “Other” is, or on which criteria being “Other” depends. For a long time, Turks have been told that their country is in the process of “transformation and adaptation,” but nothing actually changes. We just change the makeup, then go on with same structural deficits. Democratic consolidation cannot blossom under the shadow of a strong-arm state and contemporary Turkey is on the verge of establishing another — non-military — strong-arm state. The only change here is the mentality that determines the enemy.

For decades, the Armed Forces defined enemies of the state as threats against the authority and security of the traditional, transcendental Republic of Turkey. Today, the AKP government declares its enemies in smarter ways; the definition of the “enemy” is ambiguous and changeable now. Depending on the circumstances, the enemy corresponds with activist students who defend the right to free education and health care, freedom of conscience, and freedom of belief — basic, inalienable human rights, in general. Other times it corresponds with civil society organizations that declare their opinions about social, political, or economic events (e.g., the Turkish Industry and Business Association (TÜSİAD) after their doubtful and critical statements about the Uludere airstrike), or political parties that reject the operation of so-called parliamentary politics behind closed doors–without discussion, deliberation, and transparency. After the authorization of the Syria resolution in the Grand National Assembly, Prime Minister Erdoğan declared opposition parties both Republican People’s Party (CHP) – party of Atatürk- and pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) enemies of our strong, honorable state. Indeed, this was the discourse that the military used to justify its intervention in 1971 against the threat of communism, or in 1980 against the political chaos that threatened the tradition and authority of the Turkish state.

In this sense, the matter is not breaking the tutelage of army, but is getting rid of any kind of tutelage. It is crucial to make parliamentary democracy more than a formality, a framework in which this or that kind of tutelage rules over public deliberation, openness, and consensus. Today, thanks to our democracy-in-progress, it seems Turkey has traded the tutelage of the military over the political sphere for a civilian one.

Today’s regime is certainly more legitimate than that of the military shadow state; however, the AKP government, like its military-rooted predecessors, doesn’t know how to embrace opposition — the “Others” — and adapt them into the political system in democratic ways. Behind the masquerade of parliamentary democracy and voting polls, a political regime is being re-established here that quashes dissent by branding dissenters as enemies. The problem is not who the Other is, but the labeling of opposition as a problem to be solved outside the framework of parliamentary democracy. This mentality, that relies on the existence of Others as the guarantee of its maintenance, is actually a greater problem than the military itself. It doesn’t matter who holds the power as long as this power creates outsiders.

Dolunay Bulut is a graduate student at Middle East Technical University, Ankara. She studies Turkish political history, especially 1970s, as well as symbols of animosity and otherization in state discourse.

Photo Credit: Umit Bektas/Reuters/Washington Post


Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s