Fear and despair are the biggest threats to democracy in Turkey
“If the government changes, the system will change overnight,” one acquaintance of mine said recently, trying to convince his wife that they should wait a little longer before deciding to leave Turkey to settle abroad.
The conversation was taking place right after a radical change in the country’s education system was initiated with a simply statement from the president. Just four days after President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan spoke about the need to remove the TEOG exam, the system for transitioning from primary education to secondary education, the Education Ministry announced that the TEOG had been abolished, without saying in clear terms what it will be replaced with.
My friend’s wife said she did not want her child to be educated in a continuously changing education system surrounded by uncertainties, and she was not convinced that either the political system or the governing power will change any time soon in Turkey.
Throughout Turkey’s past half-century there have been several periods of turmoil and instability, during which people have felt extremely unhappy about the state of affairs. But most of the time people were less concerned about being stuck with a specific government, and rather more concerned about the lack of reforms that would make the system more functional, consolidating trust in the establishment and the institutions. Governments came and went, sometimes through elections and sometimes through military interventions.
In contrast, these days people are afraid that the political power will not change in Turkey. Many feel desperate that we will be stuck forever with the ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Party.) For many people it is difficult to even imagine President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan losing power or becoming the leader of the main opposition. “Erdoğan cannot afford to lose,” many feel.
In the past few people voiced skepticism about free and fair elections in Turkey, but the lingering controversy surrounding the April 2017 referendum on shifting from a parliamentary to an executive presidential system has consolidated fears that elections are no longer free or fair.
Turkish democracy always had many shortcomings, but the separation of powers did provide a kind of system of checks and balances, albeit an imperfect one. Today, however, the Constitutional Court is almost non-existent, parliament is seen as being dysfunctional by many, and Turkey remains under a state of emergency - with no signs of its removal in the near future.
Still, the only thing that never changes is the inevitability of change itself. Just as periods of military rule came to an end in Turkey in the past, governance based on fear is doomed to fail one day. This is particularly the case in Turkey, which has over the years accumulated considerable, if imperfect, democratic experience.
Many believe that one of the reasons keeping the AK Party in power is the blind loyalty of conservatives to the ruling elites. But the narrow referendum result showed that this is not necessarily true.
The main opposition continues to fail to convince a majority of the public that it can fare better than the AK Party against the many serious challenges facing the country. Nevertheless, the politics of fear endorsed by the AK Party are not sustainable, and President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan will face serious challenges in the upcoming elections.
The real threat to democracy comes not from those who want to choke it, but those who lost faith in political change. But once the political authority changes, the question remains as to whether the systemic changes undertaken by the AK Party will be easily reversed.