BLOG: Pre-emptive authoritarianism in Turkey

BLOG: Pre-emptive authoritarianism in Turkey

Zeki Ergas*
BLOG: Pre-emptive authoritarianism in Turkey

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan speaks at the ruling Justice and Development Party's (AKP) parliamentary group meeting on April 29. Photo: AA

On April 11, 2014, Mustafa Akyol published in the online news magazine Al-Monitor an insightful article on "pre-emptive authoritarianism" in Turkish politics. The piece, I believe, captures well the dysfunctional nature of Turkish politics today. In this short essay, I will try to show what is wrong with it, and what can be done to correct it, with the ultimate aim or goal of politics being to progressively build a better, more democratic society in Turkey.  

Akyol's main point is that, in Turkey, pre-emptive authoritarianism is the most effective political strategy because a political leader must appear to be strong. To do that, Akyol argues, he must relentlessly attack his opponents. Why is that? Akyol tells us that he cannot appear to be weak. But why exactly, he does not tell us. So, I hope he doesn't mind that I will try to do it in his place.

I believe that a Turkish political leader cannot afford to be weak, and not to appear strong, mainly because of an important aspect of Turkey's social culture. Let me explain: Turkish society, despite the tremendous progress realized since the establishment of the Republic in 1923 to emancipate women, remains fundamentally a male-dominated, patriarchal society.

What do I mean by this adverb "fundamentally"? Primarily, I mean this: Women have been given political rights, and granted equal opportunities for higher education; as a result, they are now able to compete with men in the marketplace professionally, as doctors, teachers, lawyers, and so on. But, and this is the key point, that does not mean that in the privacy of their homes they are acknowledged to be equal to men. No, in the privacy of the homes, men are still expected to be the boss, and if they are not they will be seen as inadequate.

There is even more: The truth is that in the privacy of their homes, women themselves expect the men to be the boss and in charge. This cultural factor has had a significant impact on Turkish politics, where appearing soft, gentle, weak, or too sensitive, can be fatal. That is why, I repeat, a Turkish political leader must not only be strong, but also appear to be strong. Akyol writes that Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is a master of this strategy, which largely  explains his big victory in the recent municipal polls, despite the recent demonstrations, police brutality, and corruption scandals.

Now, the second part of my short political essay: Why is pre-emptive authoritarianism in Turkish politics wrong, and what can be done about it? It's is wrong for several reasons. Let me mention a few of the most significant:

1. A society in which pre-emptive authoritarianism prevails is one that is extremely polarized, unstable and dangerous. There is a tendency in it for things to fall apart, because the feelings of animosity and hostility inherent to it can lead to violent clashes that can even degenerate into a civil war.

2. Corruption may well be a constant of Turkish politics, but there are limits that should not be crossed. Nepotism and clientism must not become the defining characteristics of success in society.

3. Pre-emptive authoritarianism thrives in a business environment that is primarily defined by neo-liberal globalization, which leads to unacceptable inequalities. The political and economic elites tend to forget that social justice is an essential component of a happy society, and that wealth and income need to be better shared among the people.

4. True democracy means respect for human rights, the rule of law, and freedom of expression. Civil society must be strong and respected.  Pre-emptive authoritarianism does not lead to that.  

Now, my conclusions:  

Firstly, we need to acknowledge that the essential nature and/or reality of the Turkish social culture is not going to change overnight. Equality between men and women in the privacy of the home will need a long time to change. But change will come eventually. The modernization and development of society will inevitably bring it about. But patience is crucial. It may take two or three more generations to get there.

Secondly, in the meantime, ways and means must be found to reverse the extreme polarization of Turkish society. This, as I have argued in a previous short essay published in this newspaper, requires the development of a new culture based on compromise, negotiation, mutual respect and understanding.

Thirdly, points of harmony must be found between, on the one hand, the conservative and religious segments of society, and, on the other, the secular and liberal segments. We must constantly search for areas of convergence, as opposed to divergence, and, in the process, try to build a virtuous circle to replace the vicious circle that characterizes Turkish society today.

The government, the political opposition, the business community and civil society are all responsible for the realization of a positive transformation of Turkish society as a whole. But within that big picture, the higher educational institutions of the country - the international studies departments, the political science, economics and sociology faculties of universities - have a particularly special and privileged place.

(*) A novelist, essayist and political economist, and a former associate professor at UC, Berkeley, and research professor at Georgetown University, Dr. Zeki Ergas is presently on the executive committee of P.E.N. International's Swiss Romand Center, and a leading member of P.E.N. International's Writers for Peace Committee. He also teaches at Hacettepe University's pioneering MA Program of Peace and Conflict Studies.