A stronger rule of law requires bridging Turkey’s income gap
Turkey is heading to early elections. On June 24 citizens will elect the first president since the transition to presidential system, narrowly approved in the controversial April 2017 referendum.
Every election presents another chance to improve the political system and gives an opportunity to consider what is needed most. Today, many Turkish citizens agree that their primary need is a fair legal system that protects citizens’ constitutional rights, regardless of their political identity.
According to the World Justice Project, Turkey has been steadily moving down the rule of law ladder and was most recently ranked 101 out of 111 countries in 2017. According to V-Dem, Turkey’s transparency score was ranked 98 among 175 countries in 2012 and dropped to 135 in 2016. Turning this trend around is what many voters expect from their prospective president. Ideological preferences are secondary.
Istanbul’s Işık University last week hosted a panel titled “Middle East, Turkey, and Democratization.” As one of the speakers, I considered why achieving progress in rule of law can be very hard, even for countries that made the transition to democracy decades ago such as Turkey.
Recent studies on democratization show that transitioning to democracy is hard but democratic deepening is even harder. A high-quality “liberal” democracy requires more than free elections. It also needs strong rule of law that protects the rights not only of the winners but also the losers of democratic elections. However, while some democratic transitions are followed by democratic deepening, many get stuck at the initial stage - often called “minimalist” democracies - if they do not fall back into authoritarianism. Instead of evolving into a deeper form, many democracies evolve to some form of “populism,” embracing the electoral aspect of democracy but not its liberal rights component or the supremacy of law.
In these populist models, rulers emphasize that they represent the “general will” of society against various kinds of “elitism.” Populist leaders typically try to justify transgressions and interventions in the judicial system by portraying constitutionalism as another form of elitist imposition on “the people’s will.” Under these circumstances, the rule of law gradually erodes.
Why is establishing the rule of law more difficult in some societies than in others? Previous studies assumed that democratization and a stronger rule of law grew hand in hand. But recent analyses show that this is not always the case. In contrast, in some societies the transition to democracy can be followed by a decline of the rule of law. When does this happen?
New evidence suggests that developing societies plagued by deep income gaps respond differently to democratic transitions than those that have a more egalitarian income distribution. In polarized societies that go through democratic transitions, elected rulers face high redistributive pressures from their electorate. To stay in power, they often respond to such pressures and pursue wealth transfers, which may require the judicial system to go under the control of the executive branch of the state. This paves the way to political centralization and erosion of the rule of law.
How can we avoid this? What lessons can we derive for the prospects of Turkish politics?
With a Gini coefficient of 41.2 (according to 2014 World Bank data), Turkey faces a deep income gap. Arguably, this income gap also overlaps with other ideological, cultural and ethnic cleavages that make it hard for us to solve our coordination problems and collectively lay claim to our laws. This gap creates a highly unstable ground to achieve institutional development and fight populism.
These set a high bar for the presidential candidates of Turkey: A simultaneous commitment to establish the rule of law and to fight socio-economic polarization in society. They may be difficult to attain but these two goals are indispensable for Turkey’s prospects of democratization. Otherwise, elections alone may do little more than create populist contracts between leaders and voters.