MUSTAFA AKYOL > Erdoğan’s illiberal democracy

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With the latest controversy he created in Turkey, Prime Minister Tayyip Erdoğan took the debate on his much-discussed authoritarianism to a whole new level. By announcing his government will not allow student houses where “boys and girls mingle,” he unveiled his willingness to intrude in individuals’ private lives to impose his “moral conservatism.”

Needless to say, such “morality policing” is unacceptable in any free society. Needless to say, this is in fact an attack on the “personal freedoms” that Erdoğan’s party has been praising for a decade, especially when it came to the right to wear the Islamic headscarf. 

But how and why Erdoğan can take such an authoritarian step, while he still champions “democracy” in almost every instance?

The simple answer is Erdoğan only believes in “electoral democracy,” where political power is held by those who win the elections. Yet, he has no interest in “liberal democracy,” where the elected are constrained by civil rights, limited by checks-and-balances and are freely criticized by an independent press. He, in other words, seems to believe in “illiberal democracy,” where the elected leader has the right to do almost everything he wants. 

Ali Bayramoğlu, a prominent democrat intellectual who defended Erdoğan in the latter’s most troubled years, describes the problem in his latest piece in Yeni Şafak, a staunchly pro-Erdoğan newspaper:
“The prime minister not only accepts that culture, sports, media, universities and even knowledge has an autonomy defined by their internal dynamics, but he also intervenes in all these areas, even in the level of ‘micro-management,’ and according to the principle of affinity and loyalty [to himself.]
Therefore, not the institutional decisions of the government but the personal opinions and values of the prime minister tend to spread to all these areas. The result is a scene of ‘total power’ and a ‘personalization of the state’.”

The last time Turkey experienced “total power” and “personalization of the state,” the ruler in charge was Atatürk. Unlike Erdoğan, he was never elected in free and fair elections, so his rule was both illiberal and undemocratic. (It was very secular, for sure, but secularism without liberty and democracy doesn’t help much.) 

Since Erdoğan has been repeatedly elected, no one can doubt the democratic legitimacy of his rule. Yet from the perspective of liberalism (civil liberties, limited government, checks-and-balances, free press) he has increasingly become a disappointment. The fact that he deconstructed the Kemalist system led to many liberal reforms as well. But we have come to the end of that deconstruction process, and now Erdoğan’s own construction is proving to be the new problem, as he, just like Atatürk, wants to bend society to fit into the ideal form he has in mind. 

He still has a chance to take a step back and refrain from ruining his decade-old success story. His latest blunder, the will to ban homes “where boys and girls mingle,” is also the most crucial one so far. He should change his mind, his course and his willingness to control the lives of others. Otherwise, this writer, like many others who used to support Erdoğan with liberal incentives, will inevitably begin to see him as not an asset but a threat to the liberties that we once defended together against the dictates of Erdoğan’s sworn enemies.


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Notice on comments

mara mcglothin

11/11/2013 3:02:03 PM

"Illiberal Democracy"? Isn't that kind of like "cool" hot water???? You are spot on AGNOSTIC TURK. One man's illberal leader is another's dictator. MR AKYOL It is time you woke up.


11/11/2013 6:28:09 AM

@True Turk, "there is nobody charismatic as him." Are you talking about this PM that is the intellectual equivalent of a two-bit street thug? That is threatened by any logic based dialogue, especially those from youth and women? Surely you jest, because I have seen more charisma in a brick wall.

Laz Kemal

11/11/2013 5:17:29 AM

So you really think Erdoğan can be authoritarian but still champions democracy in almost every instance? That’s what I call Comedic Islamist. If you study the Islamists’ behavior you should know by now that since the Islamists cannot control themselves they try to dominate and control others. You travel internationally but still can’t look at it objectively to see or understand that definition of democracy is not a governance system but a numbers game of autocracy for the Islamists

Maz Angeli

11/10/2013 5:33:24 PM

I can't agree more with Mr Aykol. Turkey will never get into the EU if Turkish politicians say and behave in this way. Now for the sake of the Turkish people, a new body politik is required. Where all politicians embrace and believe in liberal democratic values. Ataturk and the Ottoman Empire must be confined to the past and faith should retreat to the outskirts of Turkish politics. The thing is if most people agree with Erdogan, then what???

Alt aslanoglu

11/10/2013 1:32:28 PM

Erdogan will continue to amass as more and more power in his own hands unless all of the people who object to this put their differences aside in order to stop him. That means that concerns about the age of the President's wife when he married her or the past support of opposition parties for military coups or even their current racism need to be put aside for now. Yes, it would be nice if you didn't have to cooperate with people you don't like. But grow up. The alternative is tyranny.

John Smithicks

11/10/2013 12:27:11 AM

bogazici might provide a foundation but it takes real intelligence and self-realization to be a grown up. i wish our government was grown up.

B Medic

11/9/2013 11:59:47 PM

Good article. Regarding Erdogan's strong aversion to mixed student housing, we could maybe remember the words of one of the greatest liberal politicians in modern history, Canada's former Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau (who was also a devout Roman Catholic): "There's no place for the state in the bedrooms of the nation".

Agnostic Turk

11/9/2013 9:12:14 PM

Mustafa, let me tell you how history is gonna remember Ataturk and Erdogan, after many years go by and when Turkish people are fully enlightened: The first, as a pragmatic and open-minded man who tried to modernize his country and succeeded. The second, as a dogmatic and close-minded man who tried to impose his choices on people but which has been counterproductive and hasted the ultimate failure of his camp.

ilker avni

11/9/2013 8:40:10 PM

If Mr Akyol is worried, that Erdogan the Manifiscent wants to control the lives of turks,then we should take it seriously,exspecialy when even within the akp the manifiscent fell out with his no.2 over his planes for spoiling, young students cohabiting,you have seperate sex, baths,you have Greek and Italian women wearing headscarfes,but when turkish women wear headscarfes its a BIG problem.This is about culture.Do as your father says,your culture is part of your identity.

ilker avni

11/9/2013 6:42:19 PM

Excellent article."Erdogan the Manifiscent" is not fit to be in the same room with Ataturk,let alone compareing Erdogan with Ataturk.Erdogan will a take a step to far if he interfears into the moral values of turkish students,maybe he things he is the father of the turkish nation now.
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