Illiberalism in Turkey and beyond
‘Illiberal Governance in Turkey and Beyond’ edited by Kerem Öktem and Karabekir Akkoyunlu (Routledge, 231 pages, £115)
Turkey has had the same government since 2002, but only in the last few years has the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) been cited as part of an international illiberal populist wave. Throughout much of the 2000s outside analysis tended to see Turkey as a promising case: Combining moderate Islam with modernity, democracy and economic development.
“Exit from Democracy: Illiberal Governance in Turkey and Beyond” is a stimulating collection of 10 essays on various aspects of democratic collapse. The pieces were originally published in the academic journal “Southeast European and Black Sea Studies” and they certainly eschew sensational soundbites. Despite its eye-watering cover price, the book is snappily written and edited.
The “beyond” of the title refers to countries in the Balkans, Russia, and Latin America, with which the political landscape in today’s Turkey has many similarities. Venezuela, Ecuador, Russia, Macedonia and Serbia are all brought under the microscope. All have unique distinguishing features, but the gradual transformation of each of them into authoritarian regimes can shed light on the situation in Turkey. Such examples also neatly sidestep the Islam-secularism binary that can often be misleading.
Many of the contributions are, however, focused on the situation within Turkey alone. In one essay, Koç University associate professor Murat Somer examines how welfare provision has reinforced the loyalty of AKP voters. Somer argues that the government has focused on cultivating clientelistic “dependency” among voters by outsourcing many social responsibilities of the state to the party organization, Islamic charities and individual politicians.
By conducting social policies increasingly through friendly business groups, “formal and informal channels involving the party organization, foundations associated with the party and political personalities,” Somer writes, “providers” are increasingly seen as patrons and beneficiaries as “clients.” By de-institutionalizing welfare provision in favor of a party, the government encourages its supporters to see the continuation of benefits as “depending on a particular party and particular politicians, and on the active ability of the citizens to keep these in power, rather than on [impersonal] state institutions.” At the expense of the state, the government makes itself indispensable in the eyes of large segments of the population.
Another impressive chapter is penned by the volume’s co-editors, research associate Karabekir Akkoyunlu and professor Kerem Öktem from the University of Graz. The contribution is barely 20 pages long but it makes a sophisticated case that the increasingly high stakes of politics in Turkey have brought democracy to the point of no return. Those in office are “no longer in a position to share or relinquish power and [have] to dominate in order to survive … In an environment where political actors fear for their survival, the nature of politics shifts from deliberative to zero-sum. Existential insecurity instills an ‘all or nothing’ logic to decision-making, rendering meaningful concessions and power-sharing costly, risky and even suicidal.”
Such zero-sum logic also prompts a descent into a kind of fantasy politics. German sociologist Max Weber defined demagoguery as manipulation of the electorate through proffering of unrealistic promises. In Turkey, daily speeches from the authorities give voters a heady brew of national grandeur and righteous victimization. The country, they say, is waging a second “war of independence” and fulfilling a historical covenant to fight dark international forces seeking to destroy Turkey and the Islamic world.
When the middle ground between domination and annihilation ceases to exist, the struggle for power becomes more than just electoral competition. It becomes an existential battle for hegemony and survival, in which any step back risks self-destruction. “Elections become plebiscites on competing life-or-death narratives,” write Akkoyunlu and Öktem. As President Erdoğan himself put it recently: The 2019 election will be between “nationalists and those under the control of foreign powers.”
Such exponentially rising stakes preclude any positive course for the country’s democracy, at least in the near to middle term.