Authoritarian slide a systemic problem in Turkey

Authoritarian slide a systemic problem in Turkey

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Authoritarian slide a systemic problem in Turkey President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is not a problem in Turkey today due to his increasing authoritarianism but is rather the outcome of a systemic problem, according to a prominent political scientist.

With checks and balances disappearing gradually in Turkey, “we have started to see a move toward authoritarianism. I look at it as a systemic problem. It is not a matter of personalities,” said Üstün Ergüder, a professor emeritus at Sabancı University. 

Will the recent change in the government prove to be another critical turning point in Turkey’s political life?

It could be a critical turning point because the whole nature of the system, the whole tradition, which is based on the prime minister being the center of power, is under challenge. We are undergoing a process in which President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan wants to continue his influential leadership which does not tolerate different centers of power.

The debates on our system of governance will go on, and I am not against the debate. Systems can change, but what is crucial is to have arrangements safeguarding individual rights and freedoms if you have any claim to being a democracy. For that, you need checks and balances. I don’t think our constitution provides enough checks and balances. We need to have constitutional reform but one that secures individual rights and freedoms. 

This is probably not what Erdoğan wants.

I don’t think so. We need to look at how his leadership has evolved. 2002 to 2007 was the best period because there were checks and balances – not all of them parliamentary. They had to open their doors and windows to civil society to recruit allies, and they were mindful of military interventions. Pursuing the European goal was a way of checking and controlling the threat of military intervention.

When those checks and balances existed, the system functioned more democratically. Once those checks and balances disappeared, we gradually started to see a move toward authoritarianism. I look at it as a systemic problem in Turkey. It is not a matter of personalities.

It is not?

It is also a matter of personalities. There are many variables, but anybody with a lack of checks and balances, who has been in power for so many years and who is culturally sitting on top of a nation that glorifies power is bound to be authoritarian. I think our best hope for Turkey is to move closer to Europe; the accession process is the most important for checks and balance in terms of a democratic system.

Many would think Erdoğan is the problem.

His personality plays a role in that, but the system does that to him. It is a multi-faceted equation. Sociologically, Turkey is going toward a transformation, too. The so-called Anatolia tigers… The Turkish economy becoming more participatory in terms of rising classes… A new middle class is emerging that has values that might not be very much in line with Western democratic values. Erdoğan’s leadership reflects that transition.

Some of my friends among the educated, Western-oriented elites say, “Maybe we should live in a pocket of Turkey to protect our values.” The political problem in Turkey is that these two groups should not become polarized but benefit from the experience of each other. Turkey needs the experience of the old middle class, the intellectuals and the private sector and that should be coupled with the rise of the new middle classes.

Amid claims about the failure of political Islam, what is the message we are currently giving the world, in terms of being a model or inspiration to Islamic countries?

Turkey is experiencing the result some of its pent-up crises. The Turkish experience is very important. The Islamic world can learn from Turkey’s experience. The republic is an excellent experiment to look into. I believe in the republic and the values of the republic.

But we have had an authoritarian republicanism. The authoritarian laicist approach has created a backlash fueled by deeply held religious values. Now we are living through that. Turkey would be an excellent model if we achieve a synthesis. The authoritarian laicism of the republic was not a good experience. But if republican laicism comes to terms with the values of the new middle classes – I am not saying it is political Islam – then Turkey will become an excellent model. I think we are going through that process now.

Are you optimistic that Turkey’s experience will evolve into something positive?

You cannot wash [Turkey’s predominantly Muslim character] away. Republican laicism tried to wash it away; you can’t do it. You have to accommodate.

Now [the Justice and Development Party - AKP] is politically powerful. But without checks and balances that’s dangerous, too. That could and does lead to state authoritarianism based on Islam instead of laicism; it’s the same tools and the same methods.

However, the excesses of political Islam are becoming increasingly evident as well. I have been doing surveys since the 1970s. I always believe that Turkish voters are not that ideological. That does not mean there are no ideological divisions, but what determines the outcome is performance, especially in the economic field.

I look at the AKP as a political party which has picked up the social justice policies of the left in Turkey, coupled it with the values of the conservative masses and used the political style of the authoritarian male individual, which Turks like a lot.

You seem to be telling us that Erdoğan is not the problem himself but an outcome of a problematic system.

Yes. Other countries have gone through that, like Italy and Germany. It could lead to fascism, and it could prove to be costly for us, too.

But are you optimistic or pessimistic in terms of this danger becoming a reality?

Since my childhood, I have always heard pessimistic scenarios, like “next winter communism will take over this country.” I don’t want to be a slave to that. I have always been optimistic – even in the 1970s when we had doomsday scenarios. While this process might end up positively, today I am more scared. The situation is scarier because it has a social base in the country.

Authoritarianism now has a very strong “plebiscitarian” base, and the society cannot produce political alternatives. We need new movements. All the opposition parties do is hit the ball that Erdoğan throws at them. They don’t set the agenda.

How come Turkey has a successful government but an opposition that many believe is inefficient?

The success of the AKP reflects a change in Turkey. It is based on the success of the republic…

This is not what the AKP would think.

It is. If they are in power it is because the republic opened up the doors to the whole world for them. It liberated women and the masses although it did not go all the way down.

The AKP would claim the republic worked for the benefit of a certain segment of the society, not the conservatives.

The electoral victory of the Democrat Party in 1950 started the process that brought the AKP to power and since then, despite lapses of military intervention, fair elections have played a crucial role in governmental turnovers. It was the republic that institutionalized elections. Now it is time to institutionalize a pluralist democratic based on a respect for individual rights and freedoms. Any constitutional reform would make sense in that sense.

Many citizens like my former student Ahmet Davutoğlu and President Erdoğan have made it up the social and political ladder to reach the top. They owe that to the republic. The AKP itself is a product of the Republic.

Why then has the opposition turned out like this?

The opposition has failed to recognize the change in Turkey. But they will. There is a vacuum right now in terms of the opposition. But I am sure there will be an Erdoğan of the 2020s representing the opposition. You can already see the demands for change, in opposition parties. I am a Marxist in the sense of analytical methods. The AKP is the thesis; there must be an antithesis. We are also moving in that direction.

Why do you think Davutoğlu or former President Abdullah Gül left in silence?

They are referring to a “dava,” a cause. I don’t know what that is. Somebody has to tell me. Probably they have been yearning for so long for power that once they achieved it, they didn’t want to let go. [They might think] that if there will be a division in the party, they will be endangered. They have achieved the power they yearned for all these years and perhaps the cause for them is to preserve it. I think the most important dava or cause for Turkey is to establish a pluralist political order with strong safeguards for individual rights and freedom. The individual should be the focus of the system, not the state. This requires an important cultural transformation.

Who is Üstün Ergüder?

Authoritarian slide a systemic problem in Turkey

Üstün Ergüder, professor emeritus at Sabancı University, received his undergraduate degree from Manchester University in England. He completed graduate studies at The Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs of Syracuse University in New York and received a Ph.D. degree in political science in 1970 before joining the academic staff of Boğaziçi University. He has also held positions at the University of Michigan as a research scholar and taught at Syracuse University as well as the State University of New York, Binghamton, when on leave from Boğaziçi University. Between August 1992 and August 2000, he served as rector of Boğaziçi University for two consecutive terms. 

He currently directs the Education Reform Initiative.

Ergüder is the president of the Council of Magna Charta Observatory of Academic Freedom and Institutional Autonomy in Bologna and chairs the Executive Committee and the Board of Trustees of the Third Sector Foundation of Turkey.