17 April 2014, Thursday
Today's Zaman

Turkey must rethink founding ideology and strengthen democracy following local elections
Levent Köker*

13 April 2009, Monday /
The July 22, 2007 elections represented an important step forward for Turkish democracy that helped the regime overcome the legal and political crises of April 2007.
As might be recalled, Parliament was denied the right to exercise its authority to elect the new president by the Constitutional Court's notorious 367 quorum decision, which many scholars, including myself, declared illegal. Before this, then-President Ahmet Necdet Sezer mentioned in a speech the duty to protect the republic, while then-Chief of General Staff Gen. Yaşar Büyükanıt gave a press conference in which he argued that further democratization and EU harmonization reforms were not good for Turkey and that Turkey's next president should embrace secularism in his words and actions. On April 27, 2007, the night before the presidential elections, an e-memorandum was posted on the General Staff's Web site. The main opposition party took the results of the election to the Constitutional Court and its leader argued that Turkey would be dragged into conflict if the court did not cancel the elections. Through political will, Turkey overcame this political crisis, which actually meant that Parliament's authority to elect the president had been taken away, in the July 22, 2007 elections.

During this process, some opinion leaders even argued that Turkish citizens were not able or competent enough to select their rulers. These "views," which referred to the Turkish people as jar-headed men scratching their bellies and shepherds in the mountains, were actually the supporting arguments given by some academics who were convinced that the transition to democracy in 1945 was a mistake for Turkey and that reliance on democracy is not a good option even today. The holders of these views failed to see that a strong Parliament relying on undisputed legitimacy and strong legislative authority emerged in the aftermath of the 2007 elections. The ultimate result can be summarized as follows: reliance on the power of the Constitutional Court to limit the authority of Parliament with respect to law making and undermining the government's eagerness to introduce further reforms with the filing of a case for the ruling party's closure.

The recent March 29 local elections, which were held in the context created prior to and after the 2007 elections, provided signs that may reinforce Turkish democracy. The first of these signs is that the citizens showed their awareness of democratic principles and standards with their choices. Most of those who disrespected the popular will in the aftermath of the 2007 elections are now making contradictory remarks, most likely because of the Justice and Development Party's (AK Party) partial defeat this time. It should be noted independently of these views, which will apparently change depending on the results of the next election, that it will be impossible to stop people who are eager to express their choices or to block further democratization and the introduction of bolder reforms.

Another result of the March 29 elections is that it has become apparent that the distinction made by the AK Party during the election campaign between service politics and identity politics was not welcomed by the people. As pointed out by Bejan Matur recently, the political representation map that emerged after the elections shows that identities are determinative in Turkish politics. Cultural identities, the interactions that dynamically form and change these identities and differences between lifestyles and worldviews are all realities of Turkey and the Turkish people. This reality, which is arguably evident in all other modern societies, should make us see that cultural identities are expressed in the public and political spheres and that this is actually a requirement of modern democracy.

Decades ago a number of social scientists noted that political demands based on cultural identity and values are as influential as social and economic demands. It is actually sad to see that this fact has not been noticed up until recently in Turkey, which has never been separate from European affairs and developments. Turkey needs to consider this idea that political and cultural identities are part of political life, a fact confirmed by the March 29 election results, and introduce bolder reforms for a stronger democracy.

This should also include a critical approach toward the founding philosophy of the republic. The nation-state model of a single cultural and political entity as promoted in the 19th and early 20th centuries, and Kemalism, the ideological expression of this structure, are unable to appreciate the multiculturalism embedded in modern democratic plurality. This flaw, which makes Turkish democracy defective, cannot be overcome by trying to restrict the sphere of cultural identity differences to the private area, traditional structures or setting barriers before the expression of these differences in the public sphere. A republic deserves this title only so long as it provides a broad sphere where citizens are allowed to express their differences. This will be possible when Turkey's political and administrative organization are restructured in accordance with the principles and requirements of multiculturalism and a new legal order where cultural identity differences are freely expressed is established. The attitude of US President Barack Obama, who has expressed his support for the improvement of Turkey's democracy and its EU bid, should serve as a catalyst for Turkish politicians to introduce further reforms. The March 29 election results point to the same reality and necessity. I should finally note that without thorough democratization, Turkey will most likely remain as a nationalist and introverted state. Let's just hope that the Turkish political establishment appreciates the need for great transformation and further democratization.

*Professor Levent Köker is a lecturer at Gazi University.

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