politics : culture : economics

La démocratie, c’est moi

In Democratisation, Turkey on October 27, 2010 at 5:51 pm

One of the most striking things about Turkey at the moment is the fact that although its politics revolve increasingly around the notion of democratisation, the level of debate about what democracy might actually entail remains extremely underdeveloped. This leaves politicians far too much leeway to define the term for themselves, and to proceed from there with a democratisation process crafted so as to dovetail conveniently with their interests.

As has been the case in many areas, the governing AKP has resoundingly outperformed its rivals in this definitional endeavour. With ruthless efficiency (and cynicism) they have hollowed out the idea of democracy until there is little left but an assertion that the reins of government should be in civilian rather than military hands.

The logic this facilitates would appear to run as follows. Democracy is good. Democracy requires civilian rather than military rule. We are civilian rulers with no ties to the military. Therefore we are democratic. Therefore what we do is good. (It’s not so much “l’état, c’est moi” asla démocratie, c’est moi.”)

I’m being flippant, but not that flippant. Responding to criticism in the wake of the Tophane attacks some weeks ago, Turkey’s prime minister, Mr Erdoğan, said the following: “Sivil diktatörlük. Allah aşkına böyle bir kavram olur mu ya? Diktatörlük, sivilin işi değildir.” Which we can loosely translate as: “Civilian dictatorship. Is such a concept possible, for God’s sake? Civilians don’t do dictatorship.”

The government is, quite literally, defining the terms of the democratic debate in Turkey. This is not a good thing. Democracy isn’t a new concept. It has been around the block a few times and, by now, people have learned to identify many of its key characteristics and prerequisites. Clearly, more needs to be done in Turkey to draw on this experience. There is no need for criticism of the government’s democratisation process to be as ad hoc and as ad hominem as it often seems to be. A more systematic, forensic and therefore constructive accounting must be possible.


This short post is preliminary to this subsequent post. In it, I try to flesh out aspects of the democratisation process by outlining eight inter-related benchmarks that can be used to assess the quality of democratic regimes.

  1. Yes. This line of propaganda got really going after ’07, I believe. “Sivil” became a brand, and anything so branded became desirable and more or less untouchable. Perhaps “laik” was like that around ’97. Neither concept is worthless, of course. I wonder if any studies are done to see how public discourse gets shaped and implicit ground rules are laid here as power shifts around.

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