Coalition the best antidote to authoritarian rule in Turkey

Coalition the best antidote to authoritarian rule in Turkey

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Coalition the best antidote to authoritarian rule in Turkey Turkey has had unpleasant experiences with coalitions, but it also has unpleasant experiences of one-party rule, a prominent political scientist has said, noting that a coalition is consequently the best solution for the country at the moment. 

“Our political culture lacks the mechanisms to prevent authoritarian tendencies; therefore, Turkey should learn to live with coalitions as the best solution against authoritarian rule,” said Professor Yılmaz Esmer from Istanbul’s Bahçeşehir University.

Has the electorate asked for a coalition?

Individual voters did not say coalition but the outcome of the elections points to a coalition. These are two different things.

I don’t think too many people went to the ballot box saying “I hope my party will enter join a coalition.” That’s almost never the case. 

So what did the electorate say this time; what’s the message?

A cardinal principle in economics is that individual preferences cannot be aggregated; we cannot talk about a single message. Every voter has a different message, you can’t just add them up. You can only say, “Here is the picture and we have to act accordingly.”

But one clear message is that the voters said no to a presidential system.

When we look at the result, we can definitely say that the majority said no to the presidential system and President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s aspiration to be the almighty president. Yes, if you interpret it as a message [it is like that, but] I would not rather use it. 

Is the reason why you refrain from using the concept of “message” based on your argument that voters are not voting in a rational way?

To borrow the title of a book on electoral preferences, the rational voter is a myth. We all pretend that voters act rationally, meaning that they act in consistency with their economic interests. This simply is not the case for a great majority of voters not only in Turkey but also in the United States, the United Kingdom and other consolidated Western democracies. For some reason, we’d like to assume that voters basically consider their economic situation or the country’s macro-economic situation. This argument is not supported by facts. Did you have any doubts what the outcome of the elections would be in Beşiktaş, where we are having the interview?

This is a very, very certain district for the CHP [Republican People’s Party]. [But] go across Bosporus to Ümraniye; again, everybody knew who the majority would vote for [the Justice and Development Party - AKP].

This has been so for so many elections. Roughly, you can say left of center and right of center, and that balance just does not change from one election to the other. Yes, if there is an economic crisis, a majority votes for another party on the right. One exception everybody sites is in 1977 when [left-winger Bülent] Ecevit got 42 percent of the popular vote. But that lasted for two years and it happened only once. 1977 was a long time ago.

So the rough balance of center-left 30 percent, center-right 70 percent is still valid.

This is roughly so. 

Some claim that there is a 60 percent bloc against the AKP. Can’t we assume that the disapproval toward the AKP and Erdoğan has changed that traditional 30-70 balance?

Not really. It depends which specific issue we are looking at here. If we are looking at approval or disapproval of the presidential system, yes, there is a block of 60 percent; but if you are talking about a Kurdish problem, can you talk about a bloc?

Can’t we? There is only the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) against it, while the rest of the parties are not categorically against the peace process.

OK, but we are not talking about the same block anymore. Yes, 60 percent does exist on certain specific issues, but certainly not on all important issues that Turkey is faced with.

So it does not make sense for those claiming that the 60 percent bloc should form a coalition?

No. If they could agree on specific issues, it could be very sensible, but from the position taken by the MHP – and I don’t think they will change – this is next to impossible.

Normally in Turkey, a coalition has a very negative connotation. Do you think fears of a coalition are justified?

No, they are not. In fact, and prominent political scientists also agree with me on this, the best solution we have for the prospects of a reasonably well-functioning democratic form of government in Turkey is a coalition. The reason is our political culture. Our political culture is authoritarian. OK, we may have some unpleasant coalition experiences. But we also have very unpleasant examples of one-party rule in this country starting from the 1950s. When one party stays in power by itself for a reasonably long period of time, its leader shows extremely authoritarian tendencies and the political culture lacks cultural mechanisms to prevent something like that. This happened with Adnan Menderes [in the 1950s], and it happened with [Recep] Tayyip Erdoğan [in the 2000s and 2010s]. Therefore, a coalition is the best political solution in our case. And it is not true that our economic growth has always slowed down when we had coalitions. Sometimes it has; sometimes it has not. 

We also have good examples, the coalition between [Süleyman] Demirel and Erdal İnönü functioned as well as a coalition functions in any Western democracy. Yes, coalitions are difficult. But it is time we learned them.

So you claim coalitions will provide an antidote to authoritarian rule?

Yes, especially in this culture.

We do not have the culture of compromise which is an important tenet of a coalition. Isn’t the coalition doom to fail? On top, we have polarization.

True, this is not a culture of compromise; this is a culture of conflict. There is no doubt about that. But at least at the political elite level, if we are going to sustain a democratic regime, we have to learn that. If at least at the elite level we can give good examples of compromise between political camps, that would be a start at least. 

Polarization makes things even more difficult. This has been a very polarized society for at least 150 years – maybe longer than that. There are major ideological and cultural fault lines, and we tend to polarize around our ideological positions rather than compromise. But this was also true in the 1950s and polarization was extreme in that decade also.

Many say that the most natural coalition scenario is between the AKP and the MHP.

Yes, they say it because of a rational reason – the fact that the constituencies of these parties ideologically, culturally and, with respect to values, are very close to each other. They are conservative, religious and somewhat nationalistic. They should get along well. 

Those coalitions usually don’t work. They are formed easily but political parties will start digging into each other’s constituencies in the hope of persuading voters to vote for them instead of their coalition partner, which is bound to create conflict within the coalition. That will not be a lasting and a harmonious coalition.

Does a grand coalition makes more sense?

From the political science point of view, yes. From a personal point of view; that’s something else. 

Can you elaborate; in the 2012 values research, you claimed the AKP and CHP belong to different value clusters. 

There is an emotional tension. Why did people vote for the CHP? Certainly not to form a coalition with the AKP. That would be the last thing on their minds and it is bound to have a negative effect in terms of the electoral outcome on the CHP.

But grand coalitions work; look at Germany.

We are not Germany. When I talk about value clusters, I am talking about very basic beliefs and attitudes of people; … traditional versus secular values; materialistic versus post-materialistic values; the environment; gender equality; participatory politics and aesthetic values. Istanbul is a very good example of that; do you support more and more construction, or do you have aesthetic concerns?

There is a huge distance between AKP supporters and CHP supporters. The polarization does have a foundation.

Despite that gap, you say we should learn to live with a coalition.

Of course, it would be very helpful also for other social and economic dimensions. 

Let’s talk about the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP). Some argue that the HDP is Turkey’s new center-left party.

The HDP got 13 percent; all analysis show at least 10 or 11 percent come from ethnic Kurds. This has added in addition to the right/left and religious/secularist cleavages another dimension to Turkish political scene.

And that dimension is ethnicity. If they manage as they say to be a party of the whole country, then we’ll look at their positions on ideology and that includes economic as well as cultural. Are they secular or not; are they supporting social democratic economic reforms, et cetera.

I don’t know where to place it; it is entirely a new dimension.

Some pollsters claimed that voters will act the same in the event of early elections.

I don’t think we can know this. I know about these polls, but this is a hypothetical question. As a humble expert on polls, the answers to hypothetical questions do not always correspond to actual behavior.

Who is Yılmaz Esmer?

Coalition the best antidote to authoritarian rule in Turkey

Professor Yılmaz Esmer is currently a faculty member at Bahçeşehir University.

Esmer studied political science at Yale University and went to Stanford University for post-graduate studies. Prior to Bahçeşehir University, he was a faculty member at Boğaziçi University.

Esmer was a steering committee member for the World Values Survey before becoming an executive committee member.

Since 1999 he has been the principal investigator for the Turkey European Values Studies coordinated by the European Values Foundation.

His field experience includes surveys on gender issues, democratic culture, attitudes toward the state and taxation, Islamic fundamentalism and political Islam, as well as extremism and radicalization in Turkey.
His latest work published in 2013 is titled “Democracy, Civil Society and Islam.”