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July 28, 2013, Sunday

Why is Erdoğan polarizing Turkey?

There were surely those who wanted to hijack the Gezi Park protests to help bring the military back to politics or derail the ongoing peace process to end the armed insurgency led by the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK).

The main message of the protests, however, was that the “new Turkey” which Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has helped build will no longer allow arbitrariness and authoritarianism in the government. Mr. Erdoğan, instead of acknowledging this and returning to the policy of seeking broad consensus which he pursued prior to the latest general election two years ago, has declared the protests to be the work of conspiracies by “internal and external enemies” to discredit him and weaken Turkey.

Turkey is headed towards election years. Next year in March local and in August presidential elections will be held. In July 2015 parliamentary elections will take place. One of the major consequences of the Gezi Park demonstrations has been Mr. Erdoğan taking an early start to the election campaign with the “respect for national will” rallies that he organized to denounce the protests. With these rallies he also indicated that he is going to pursue an election strategy of polarizing the electorate between those who are with him and those who are against him.

He said that the police, by using disproportionate force against the protesters, had created a “heroic saga.” He humiliated citizens putting forward certain demands about the future of Gezi Park by retorting, “Since when have the feet become the head?” Last week his polarizing discourse found perhaps its starkest expression when he called on his supporters to sue their neighbors who banged pots and pans in protest of the government, adding: “For years we struggled in courts. Now let them struggle.”

There are mainly two theories put forward to explain why Erdoğan has decided to polarize society despite the evident dangers of such. One theory says there is actually no logic behind this strategy. It only shows that after more than 10 arduous years in power, he is showing signs of exhaustion and fatigue. His health may have deteriorated. It perhaps only confirms once more that “power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

The other theory maintains that there is indeed a logic behind Erdoğan's strategy. He is aware that the coming years are likely to pose a number of serious difficulties for him and his government both in the economy and in politics. This is why he is trying to prop up his supporters, oblige citizens to take sides either with or against him, is increasingly resorting to an Islamic populist discourse and is attempting to silence his critics in civil society and the media.

The polarization strategy is yielding results. One of those is the expanding debate in the country on what democracy really means. In this debate Erdoğan and his loyalists advocate a crudely majoritarian view of democracy, defending that democracy essentially means the “ballot box” and that the party that wins in the elections is entitled to govern the way it chooses until the next election, when it will be held accountable for its performance.

Those defending a liberal and pluralist democracy in Turkey have for decades fought against the argument that there can be no democracy without the tutelary role of the military and the judiciary committed to Kemalist secular nationalism, which has led to periodic military interventions that created more problems than they solved. Now, after the curbing of the political role of the military and the judiciary committed to Kemalism under Erdoğan's Justice and Development Party (AKP) government during the past decade, the struggle against crude majoritarianism advocating a concentration of power in the elected executive with no checks and balances in the political system seems to be on Turkey's agenda.

In Turkey it took over 60 years for a broad consensus on the principle of government by elected politicians to more or less be consolidated. The hope is that a similar consensus on the principle that democracy is not only elections but also full respect for citizens' rights and freedoms by the elected government will not take equally long to consolidate.

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