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Democracy field notes

Censored Thoughts on the Fate of Turkish Democracy

Written several days ago, the following thoughts on the unfolding crisis in Turkey began their strange life as a tweet. It read: ‘failed Turkish coup shows that in the age of communicative abundance power doesn’t rest only on guns, tanks, jets & state media.’ Within hours, I received a message from a journalist working on the news desk at Istanbul’s prominent Anadolu Agency. She told me her editors were impressed, and now wanted a thousand words, for quick publication in Turkish and possible translations into Farsi and Arabic. Within the tight deadline, to brief, I mailed her the piece, with a note of thanks. Aware of the mounting pressures faced by Turkish journalists, and bearing in mind that AA is a state-run agency closely linked to Erdoğan’s government, I added my best wishes: ‘I hope you will like it, despite the risks it may pose to you.’ Radio silence followed. Several nudges later, the journalist confirmed her editors had turned down the piece. Why, I asked? Her words felt rather like a hail of bullets. I had ‘totally misunderstood’ the brief, the journalist said. She complained that ‘Western media’ are failing to understand ‘what happened in Turkey’. She praised the thousands of citizens ‘on the streets’ and those in ‘schools, mosques’ standing ‘against the heinous coup attempt’. She then added the important bit: AA’s priority is to publicise the failed coup d’état, not to raise difficult questions about what comes next, or about the imaginary dangers posed to the republic by ‘the post-coup measures’. Our correspondence ended with a cold goodbye: ‘Warmest regards from Istanbul.’ In my brief response, I posted a link to a fine piece in Amsterdam’s _de Correspondent on the puzzles surrounding the failed coup and the dangers posed by the current Erdoğan government crackdown. I asked the journalist whether she agreed that under these extraordinary, difficult and confusing circumstances, editors should edify, and not betray their profession by parroting official narratives, censoring authors and sucking up to state power. I await her reply._

Pro-government protesters burning an effigy of the Muslim cleric Fethullah Gülen, Taksim Square, Istanbul, 21 July 2016. Ozan Kose/AFP

The whole world is currently watching Turkey and wondering what will be its fate. If the Erdoğan government is to be believed, thanks to a political miracle last weekend, demokrasi was rescued from the clutches of a military coup d’état backed by an organised foreign conspiracy, a ‘terrorist organisation’ directed by Fethullah Gülen, whose extradition from the United States is now demanded, pending charges of criminal conspiracy to overthrow the republic.

President Erdoğan justifies the demand, and the large-scale arrests and crackdowns that are now happening, as ‘swift and effective’ measures to ‘eliminate the threat against democracy’. Two days ago, he told al Jazeera that although these measures are ‘necessary for the nation’s peace and stability’, Turkey ‘will remain inside a democratic party system’. He added: ‘we will never step back from democracy.’

Striking to outside observers is the fact that in Turkey, for the moment, everybody is a democrat. This fact is not to be mocked, or its consequences underestimated. For understandable historical reasons, to do with the collapse of the Ottoman empire, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk’s secularism and brutal military rule, the precious language of demokrasi has managed to capture the hearts and minds of millions of Turkish citizens. That is why, a decade ago, the prospect of a post-secular Muslim democracy and a non-violent civil society raised hopes throughout the region, and the world. Many considered the Turkish republic a new political model, living proof that a Muslim majority society could successfully build a de-militarised and peaceful, power-sharing government, based on a tolerant ‘religiously secular’ civil society, within a region generally swallowed up by war, corrupt plutocracies and religious bigotry.

Wise Turkish citizens recognise that this potential is now under siege. It’s true that the government led by President Erdoğan, buoyed by multiple election victories, is trumpeting its support for democracy. But in a world where everybody from Xi Jinping to Vladimir Putin and Robert Mugabe speaks in favour of ‘democracy’ and the ‘sovereign people’, wisdom dictates that citizens learn to judge words by actions, to read behind the breaking news headlines, and to think for themselves about what’s going on.

The Life and Death of Democracy, my full-length history of democracy, still awaits a Turkish translation, but readers who know it will see that it offers some tips for making sense of the present wild convulsions. The book notes that during political dramas, language matters just as much as guns, tanks and jet fighters; and it recommends that the precious word demokrasi be handled with great care, not ceded to its enemies. The book shows why elections are no longer the defining principle of democracy, and why we’re now living in times of ‘monitory democracy’. In Turkey, as elsewhere, it notes, while democracy now means nothing less than free and fair periodic elections, it means in fact something much more: the continuous public scrutiny and restraint of arbitrary power, wherever it is exercised, by citizens who are supported by a rich variety of watchdog institutions, including free communications media, that stand outside the rhythm of electoral politics, and in opposition to the bossing and bullying of the rich, the violent and the powerful.

Judged by the standards of monitory democracy, dark clouds are gathering in the Turkish summer sky. It cannot be good for monitory democracy that scores of thousands of civil servants, policemen, soldiers, judges and academics have so far been arrested. It’s a bad sign that many more are facing detention, travel bans, suspension and public suspicion; that public access to the WikiLeaks web platform is blocked; and that the enforcement of a three-month state of emergency has begun.

From the point of view of demokrasi, these are ominous developments. It may be (future historians will tell us) that the failed coup proves to be the trigger of a new push towards a power-sharing, rule-of-law monitory democracy with Turkish characteristics. Confronted by war, lawlessness and power-grabbing, the odds are against that scenario. Yet one thing is absolutely certain. Turkey is not sliding backwards, towards some kind of 20th-century ‘authoritarian dictatorship’. It is not (as Roger Cohen claimed during the past few days in the New York Times) heading towards a system of ‘one-party rule’ in which ‘one man pulls the strings’.

The spectre confronting Turkey is despotism. By this I don’t mean what 18th-century European Orientalists meant when they denounced the Ottoman rulers as recklessly un-enlightened despots. The real threat to Turkish democracy is its bastardised, vulgar form, the kind of state rule that has descended on Hungary, Russia, China, Belarus, Uzbekistan and elsewhere. These new despotisms of the 21st century are without precedent. They are phantom democracies. Operating in the name of ‘the people’, they are media-saturated oligarchies backed by great concentrations of wealth held in a few hands. Their oligarchs cultivate patron-client relationships, preach law and order and spread paranoia. They resort when necessary to violence, and rule by mastering the forces of fear and nationalism.

These new despotisms are not old-fashioned dictatorships. They manage to defy the textbooks by wooing their subjects and winning their affection, and calculated support, all in the name of ‘the people’. These despotisms are a strange new reality and a serious alternative to monitory democracy, which is why Turkish citizens must now be vigilant. Elections alone will not rescue the Turkish republic from the clutches of this despotism. Something else is needed. That something has happened before, and it surfaced once again during the past week. It’s the spirit of Taksim Gezi Park: the powerful belief that the best form of government is based on the active consent of wise citizens, who refuse voluntary servitude because they know the dangers and follies of arbitrary power.

Sydney 21 July 2016

Erdogan government billboard in Istanbul.

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