Erdoğan’s illiberal democracy

Erdoğan’s illiberal democracy

With the latest controversy he created in Turkey, Prime Minister Tayyip Erdoğan took the debate on his much-discussed authoritarianism to a whole new level. By announcing his government will not allow student houses where “boys and girls mingle,” he unveiled his willingness to intrude in individuals’ private lives to impose his “moral conservatism.”

Needless to say, such “morality policing” is unacceptable in any free society. Needless to say, this is in fact an attack on the “personal freedoms” that Erdoğan’s party has been praising for a decade, especially when it came to the right to wear the Islamic headscarf. 

But how and why Erdoğan can take such an authoritarian step, while he still champions “democracy” in almost every instance?

The simple answer is Erdoğan only believes in “electoral democracy,” where political power is held by those who win the elections. Yet, he has no interest in “liberal democracy,” where the elected are constrained by civil rights, limited by checks-and-balances and are freely criticized by an independent press. He, in other words, seems to believe in “illiberal democracy,” where the elected leader has the right to do almost everything he wants. 

Ali Bayramoğlu, a prominent democrat intellectual who defended Erdoğan in the latter’s most troubled years, describes the problem in his latest piece in Yeni Şafak, a staunchly pro-Erdoğan newspaper:
“The prime minister not only accepts that culture, sports, media, universities and even knowledge has an autonomy defined by their internal dynamics, but he also intervenes in all these areas, even in the level of ‘micro-management,’ and according to the principle of affinity and loyalty [to himself.]
Therefore, not the institutional decisions of the government but the personal opinions and values of the prime minister tend to spread to all these areas. The result is a scene of ‘total power’ and a ‘personalization of the state’.”

The last time Turkey experienced “total power” and “personalization of the state,” the ruler in charge was Atatürk. Unlike Erdoğan, he was never elected in free and fair elections, so his rule was both illiberal and undemocratic. (It was very secular, for sure, but secularism without liberty and democracy doesn’t help much.) 

Since Erdoğan has been repeatedly elected, no one can doubt the democratic legitimacy of his rule. Yet from the perspective of liberalism (civil liberties, limited government, checks-and-balances, free press) he has increasingly become a disappointment. The fact that he deconstructed the Kemalist system led to many liberal reforms as well. But we have come to the end of that deconstruction process, and now Erdoğan’s own construction is proving to be the new problem, as he, just like Atatürk, wants to bend society to fit into the ideal form he has in mind. 

He still has a chance to take a step back and refrain from ruining his decade-old success story. His latest blunder, the will to ban homes “where boys and girls mingle,” is also the most crucial one so far. He should change his mind, his course and his willingness to control the lives of others. Otherwise, this writer, like many others who used to support Erdoğan with liberal incentives, will inevitably begin to see him as not an asset but a threat to the liberties that we once defended together against the dictates of Erdoğan’s sworn enemies.