Democracy is a culture

Democracy is a culture

Is it possible to establish a splendorous park, very much like the Garden of Eden, in the middle of a desert?

Perfectly possible. With today’s technology, even an ice-skating rink might be built in one corner of it and in temperatures hovering below 50 Celsius, kids might enjoy swimming in an indoor pool while some other skate next door. Such big facilities can be constructed if and when there is a will but more so when there is sufficient money to spend on such facilities. Sustaining such investments, however, might be more problematic than constructing them, as there is a need for permanent, diligent effort.

Democracy, likewise, is a very expensive investment. It is a very slow-growing phenomenon. It takes centuries to nourish it. If democracy was to be produced overnight, the end result might be best seen in today’s Middle East, which has been nearly drowned in religious fanaticism and radicalism. Even after 93 years of secular, democratic, republican rule, did you see what happened in Turkey this week? Did the sad developments we were compelled to live through not testify to our collective failure to build a democratic society?

It is often said that Turkey started modernizing and acquiring democratic norms and traditions with the Gülhane Edict or the “Tanzimat Reform Edict” of 1856. Though some people often claim that the edict was more relevant to the rights of the non-Muslims in the empire, it indeed constituted the first-ever document that the Ottoman Sultan agreed to limit his powers with some legal arrangements.

Thus it might be an exaggeration to claim that Turkey’s democratic progress has been continuing for the past 200 years or so. This country might have a 200-year-old democratic background if the early demands for democratic rights and liberties were taken into consideration as well. But, even a 160-year-long history of democratic crawling cannot be ignored or neglected. That is not only the new republic Mustafa Kemal and his comrades in arms established over the ashes of the decayed Ottoman Empire; the so-called “sick man of Europe” was itself aware of the need to transform so that it could survive the challenge posed by changing times and conditions.

Speaking in the parliamentary group of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), Prime Minister Binalı Yıldırım was boasting about the seven big projects, including the third airport and the “Kanal Istanbul” mega projects that are constructed, underway or soon-to-be constructed in Istanbul. The development of Turkish cities, particularly Istanbul over the past decade was remarkable. In the same period, however, the governance of the country regressed from peculiar democracy – a gentle way of saying “deficient democracy” – to “hybrid governance.” That is how many international watchdog groups describe Turkey nowadays.

 Unfortunately, since the post-2007 elections, with the witch hunt launched against secularists and nationalists, this country could not even manage to “normalize” its deficient democracy. 

Now, on the one hand, with its Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) political crutch, and on the other hand, the psychological upper ground it captured because of the failed July 15 coup, there are attempts to take the country to a presidential governance, with President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan finally grasping the super-presidential powers he has been dreaming of. Would that be an autocracy, dictatorship, or a “sovereign democracy” like that of the new Russian empire?

The problem, of course, should not be what the title of the president will be. If there are sufficient checks and balances, perhaps presidential rule might serve this country better. However, if, as Erdoğan declared a while ago, the principle of separation of powers is to be replaced with a president holding all powers, there are reasons sufficient enough to make us panic that the Turkey we have known so far will soon become history.

If, for example, the raid on Cumhuriyet, the imprisonment of additional 17 journalists bringing the number of scribes, behind bars to well over 120 indicate what might be in the pipeline, is it not clear that there is a very serious problem? Or was the raid on Cumburiyet a tactical move aimed at distracting public attention while Erdoğan and his AKP move ahead to establish a hegemonic and autocratic “new Turkey?

Cumhuriyet has long feared that in order to crush it, the government might place it under a court-appointed trustee – an accustomed AKP practice. Apparently, with the accusation that “though not a member of either” the paper, its executives and writers were undertaking operations contracted to them by either the so-called “Fetullah Gülen Terrorist Organization” or the illegal Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) gang, even if Cumhuriyet can escape a court appointed trustee, it will most likely collapse and vanish. Why? Because the Public Advertisement Agency statute says any publication in which a court case has been launched on terrorism or collaboration with terrorism charges cannot get official ads.

Obviously, in full solidarity with colleagues who are deprived of their freedoms, I must underline that democracy is a cultural phenomenon and cannot be achieved overnight, but difficulties should not be allowed to derail this country from the tracks of democracy. Developments have shown once again that even after 160 years since the Tanzimat or 93 years since the creation of the Republic of Turkey, Turkish democracy is still crawling and is still vulnerable. Building an artificial Garden of Eden might be very difficult and costly but sustaining it, protecting it from challenges, is even more difficult. No letups – we must continue struggling for a better and livable Turkey.