ÖMER TAŞPINAR

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ÖMER TAŞPINAR
July 28, 2013, Sunday

Turkey’s lonely liberal democrats (2)

My column last week mostly focused on the differences between democracy and liberalism in a general context.

As a short reminder, it is useful to point out that democracy as a concept is often reduced to free and fair elections. Such elections usually create a representation mechanism whereby members elected to a parliament represent the will of the people. The ultimate objective is to create a government that has popular legitimacy. Liberalism, on the other hand, is focused on freedom and the individual. Protecting human rights and liberties is the ultimate objective of a liberal system. This is why only liberal democracies strike the right balance between a legitimately elected, democratic government and individual rights and liberties.

Most new democracies from Turkey to Thailand and Argentina to Hungary tend to be illiberal democracies. They lack institutions that create the legal infrastructure for the rule of law, separation of powers (between the executive, legislature and judiciary) and the protection of basic freedoms such as freedom of speech and association. Without such institutions, there is no systemic mechanism to protect individual rights and liberties against arbitrary state power. The political system in such a context may still have all the trappings of a democracy: the ballot box functions, elections are held and the majority is represented in parliament. But minority and individual rights have little to do with the ballot box. The ballot box can turn into majority rule without paying much attention to freedoms. In its most extreme form such majoritarian and populist systems can create the tyranny of the majority. In less extreme forms they can degenerate into a populist system where the “sovereignty of the nation” or the “will of the people” is glorified at the expense of individual rights.

The conundrum of illiberal democracy in Turkey was historically compounded by secularist social engineering. The Kemalist republic wanted to establish a democratic nation-state based on French-style laїcité. Democracy rightly came to be associated with the will of the people rather than the will of God. There was one major problem with the will of the people, however: the Anatolian masses were pious Muslims. If given the right to vote, they would elect likeminded pious conservatives and bring the secularist revolution to an end. As distrust between secularist elites and masses widened, the elitist of “for the people, despite the people” took hold. Instead of free and fair elections, what came to be glorified was the sovereignty of a secular, enlightened “nation.” The Kemalist republic paid lip service to the idea of democratization as a future objective while it prioritized nation-building. The system discouraged not only liberalism but also democracy. Even when a semblance of democracy began with free elections after 1950, the army maintained its supremacy until the last decade, when the Justice and Development Party (AKP) finally ended the system of military tutelage.

Now, perhaps for the first time in its modern history, Turkey has a chance to establish a liberal democracy with a new constitution. Yet, genuine liberal democrats still have a very lonely existence in this country. The political culture and governmental structure of the country remain deeply patriarchal. Civil society is still in its infancy. The Gezi protests clearly showed that protecting the state and public order trumps the protection of individual rights and liberties. The governing party claims to advocate conservative democracy, and it is an understatement to say that its commitment to liberalism is questionable. The social-democratic secularist opposition, on the other hand, pays lip service to liberalism but its commitment to democracy is highly questionable because of their ongoing distrust of the pious masses. This is why Turkey's tiny liberal democratic segment is squeezed between a government that believes in democracy but not liberalism and an opposition that wants liberalism without populist democratization. 

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