politics : culture : economics

Eight ways to assess the quality of Turkish democracy

In Constitution, Democratisation, Electoral system, Kurdish question, Media, Society, Turkey, Uncategorized, Women in Turkey on November 1, 2010 at 8:29 am

What makes for a high-quality democracy? If we could answer this question satisfactorily, we would be well placed to deal systematically with some of the perennial questions of Turkish politics (what are the country’s democratic shortcomings? which reforms should it prioritise?), and to assess the various proposals for constitutional reform that will be forthcoming in the months and years ahead. Fortunately for us, there’s a growing amount of work being done in this area.

In 2003, Larry Diamond and Leonardo Morlino brought together a group of democratisation experts for a research project on the quality of democracy. The project’s aim was to identify the characteristics that distinguish high-quality from low-quality democracies. In the book that resulted from their project, Assessing the Quality of Democracy, Diamond and Morlino identify eight different dimensions on which democracies vary in quality. In this post, I’ll provide an outline of these eight dimensions of democratic quality. I’ll also add a few observations about aspects of how Turkey performs on each, but my objective here isn’t to be comprehensive by any means.


Is it an unfair raising of the bar to suggest judging Turkey against various benchmarks of high-quality democracy rather than against more basic democratic criteria? I don’t think so.

First, the advantage of the ‘quality of democracy’ approach is that it allows us to build a more rounded picture of conditions than is usually the case with more basic democratic criteria. Take the core definition of democracy used by Diamond and Morlino. This has the following four elements. First, universal adult suffrage. Second, recurring free, competitive and fair elections. Third, more than one serious political party. Fourth, alternative sources of information. It is fairly straightforwardly the case that it is possible to meet all of these criteria and still end up with a political system that is lacking in very significant ways. By fleshing out the definition of democracy, the ‘quality of democracy’ approach allows for a much more nuanced assessment of what progress has been made in a society and what is left to do.

There is a second reason for using a more demanding set of benchmarks when considering Turkish democracy. The country has been in the democratic game for long enough now to be judged not just on the basic democratic tick-boxes, but on the depth, breadth and texture of democracy as it’s implemented and lived in the country. Turkey, more and more self-confident on the international stage, is increasingly vocal in its criticism of the way it has been left to linger for decades on the EU’s doorstep. But that’s a criticism that cuts both ways. Despite progress, Turkey hasn’t exactly blazed a democratising trail while it has been waiting. It really ought to have picked up a few more of the democratic ground rules by now.


So what are the eight dimensions of democratic quality? They’re listed below. I’ll say a few words about the way they relate to each other before proceeding to look at each in turn. To skip the preliminaries and jump straight down to the discussion of an individual point, click the relevant item.

The rule of law | Participation | Competition | Vertical accountability
Horizontal accountability | Freedom | Equality | Responsiveness

The first five of these dimensions are procedural in character. The next two, freedom and equality, are more substantive, identifying fundamental values that any democracy ought to seek to promote and protect. The final dimension, responsiveness, concerns the extent to which the policy outcomes of the democratic process are aligned with citizens’ demands and preferences.

There is any number of ways that these eight dimensions might be balanced within individual societies. None is ‘correct’ per se. As the authors note, “democracies will differ in the normative weights they place on the various dimensions.”

It will also be readily apparent that the eight dimensions are not independent of each other. On the contrary, there are “dense linkages” between them, such that they cohere into a system and, empirically, countries tend to make progress across the dimensions rather than in piecemeal fashion. That’s not to say that each of the dimensions is of equal significance. According to Diamond and Molino the rule of law provides a foundation that’s required by the other seven dimensions, and they also point to the participation and competition dimensions as “engines of democratic quality.”


The rule of law back to top

The idea of the rule of law is relatively straightforward. Society should be structured by clearly formulated laws which are applied equally to all citizens by an independent and politically neutral judiciary. As I noted above, for Diamond and Morlino, the rule of law is the sine qua non of quality democracy, “the base on which every other dimension of democratic quality rests.” They continue:

“When the rule of law is weak, participation of the poor and marginalised is suppressed; individual freedoms are tenuous and fleeting; civic groups may be unable to organise and advocate; the resourceful and well connected have vastly more access to justice and power; corruption and abuse of power run rampant as agencies of horizontal accountability are unable to function properly; political competition is distorted and unfair; voters have a hard time holding rulers to account; and thus, linkages vital to securing democratic responsiveness are disrupted and severed.”

Alarmingly, anyone familiar with Turkish society will recognise many of the problems listed here. Similarly, when the authors go on to list the ways in which the rule of law can be actively subverted in a democracy, the first two issues they raise go to the heart of the bitter divisions in Turkish politics today: the use of the law by politicians as a weapon against their opponents (which is precisely what many see happening in the sprawling Ergenekon case and in the Doğan tax case); and attempts to pack the judiciary with political supporters (which, again, is precisely what the AKP government is accused of by its opponents).

A third means of subverting the rule of law is less widely noted as a political (rather than a purely social) phenomenon in Turkey, but it seems to me that it’s just as relevant and at least as dangerous as the previous two. Diamond and Morlino write in the abstract, but they could be talking specifically about Turkey, so perfect is their description of a pervasive facet of life here:

“The political culture also plays an important role in sustaining or undermining the rule of law: A democratic rule of law is diminished in many countries by the diffuse cultural attitude that views the law merely as an impediment to realising one’s own interests, a nuisance to be circumvented in any way possible.”

What are the prospects for building up the rule of law in a society where it’s deficient? Not good, it would seem. “The literature on rule-of-law development is sobering.” Apparently, little is likely to happen until leaders tackle the issue with “political will” and with “self-restraint.” Turkey has a long wait ahead of it.


Participation back to top

The participation dimension provides a good way of illustrating the difference between formal compliance with, on the one hand, a core definition of democracy, and, on the other, the demands of quality democracy. The former requires that adults have the right to participate in the political process, and particularly the right to vote. The latter, however, goes considerably further by requiring “that all citizens are in fact able to make use of these formal rights by allowing them to vote, organise, assemble, protest, lobby for their interests, and otherwise influence the decision-making process.”

In a Turkish context, this clearly goes to the heart of the politics (or lack of them) of the Kurdish question. But it also raises much broader questions about Turkish society. The success of the AKP makes it clear that effective political mobilisation isn’t impossible in Turkey. But in the absence of the kind of traditional and/or religious ties that the AKP has been able to work with, the extent to which Turks refrain from political participation beyond the act of voting is striking.

In part this is down to the kind of cultural factors that Diamond and Morlino again point to: “the apathy of a citizenry that doubts the efficacy of democratic mechanisms or has become alienated from the democratic process as a result of the low quality of democracy in other respects.” But the detachment from politics that many Turkish citizens exhibit goes beyond this kind of dismissive turning away from a politics that isn’t delivering. Turkey’s culture of political participation is one that has been actively shaped over the decades, most notably for this generation in the period following the 1980 coup. In this country’s very recent past there have been life-and-death reasons to refrain from the acts of organisation, assembly and protest that are essential to healthy participatory democracy.

Turkish society has clearly changed hugely since the darkest days of the 1980s. Nevertheless, it is still shaped in significant ways by that period. Again, this is most clearly true in relation to the Kurdish question, where the commitment to political equality that underpins the idea of democratic participation is largely absent. And even in less spectacularly dysfunctional areas of Turkish politics nothing is done to encourage open political expression, while the weight of the state is frequently brought to bear on those who do raise their voices. There are any number of cases that one might point to in illustration here. Take, as an example, Ferhat Tüzer and Berna Yılmaz, who were detained in March this year and face 15 years in prison for protesting at a speech of the prime minister’s by holding up a banner that read: “We want free education and we will get it.”


Competition back to top

The competition dimension refers to the regular, free and fair electoral contests between political parties that democracy requires. Diamond and Morlino note a range of ways in which democracies can differ on this dimension, including: the level of access to the electoral competition for different parties; the ease and decisiveness with which incumbents can be defeated; pluralism in media ownership and viewpoints; and the rules that apply to party and campaign financing.

Turkey’s most glaring deficiencies here are on the question of electoral access. Once again the Kurdish question provides the most obvious illustration, with numerous parties having been banned over the years, the most recent instance being the closure in December 2009 of the Democratic Society Party (DTP).

While Turkey’s closure cases represent an extreme form of electoral restriction, less dramatic but still undemocratic constraints on competition are built into the electoral system here. The 10 per cent threshold that parties must cross in order to be allowed into parliament is a clear obstacle to the emergence of new political forces, and I have written here previously about aspects of Turkey’s electoral mechanics that skew the translation of votes into seats.

The question of media pluralism in Turkey also warrants a mention here. While voters have access to numerous media outlets (both print and broadcast) which clearly differ in their viewpoints, the freedom and diversity of Turkey’s media sector are limited at best. Court cases against journalists are commonplace, as is the self-censorship that such legal action encourages. In addition, the current government has sought to impose itself on the media in profoundly undemocratic ways. These range from macro-level interventions in the structure and ownership of the sector (the purchase of the ATV/Sabah group by an associate of the prime minister’s in 2008; the ongoing tax case against the Doğan group that was launched last year) to sustained micro-level pressure against individual critics (the prime minister’s various defamation actions; the firing or sidelining of various critics, such as Bekir Coşkun).


Vertical accountability back to top

Accountability is the “obligation of elected leaders to answer for their political decisions.” Vertical accountability is exercised by voters at election time and by politicians and civil society between elections. Horizontal accountability, which is covered in the next section, is exercised by institutions with the legal or constitutional authority to control and sanction the behaviour of the government.

The connection between vertical accountability and the participation and competition dimensions should be clear. Diamond and Morlino:

“If voters are to be able to hold their public officials and ruling parties accountable periodically through elections, they must be engaged, knowledgeable about the issues and the performance of those in power, and they must turn out to vote in large numbers. At the same time, vertical accountability requires genuinely competitive elections, in which institutionally strong parties are able to offer programmatic alternatives to the voters, and in which voters are able to ‘punish’ incumbents for poor performance or unwanted policies. In short, political competition and the distribution of power must be fair and robust enough to allow for genuine alternatives at the various levels of government, and to produce some electoral alternation over time, so that incumbents face a credible threat of electoral punishment.”

At a minimum, the process of holding a government to account requires three things: information about the government and its actions; justification from the government for its actions; and a subsequent imposition of consequences (punishment or reward) by voters and/or other actors.

In the Turkish context, we can identify potential problems at each of these three stages. The problems with press freedom noted above raise obvious questions as to the adequacy of the information that voters receive about their elected leaders. So too does a more general weakness of journalistic standards, which reflects itself in a number of ways, including decisions as to what warrants coverage as well as the frequently distorting editorial slant that’s allowed to colour much ostensibly straight news reporting.

On the point relating to the reasons provided by governments to justify their actions, the extent to which ‘democracy’ has become a catch-all justification for many of the current AKP government’s actions is a worry. It strips the word of much of its meaning, politicises it, and thereby robs it of the force it should have as a spur to serious reform. And the other side of this justification coin is the cynicism of the government’s reasoning (or lack of it) when it comes to the more clearly undemocratic practices that it seems content to tolerate. Attempts at justification may be entirely lacking (where exactly does Article 301 fit into the picture of the brave new democratic Turkey that is supposedly taking shape?) or woefully inadequate (as in the case of the tax-related issues that have been advanced to explain high-profile instances of internet censorship).

What of the third element of vertical accountability, the ability to punish or reward the government? Notwithstanding the problems with electoral competition noted in the previous section, it remains the case that Turkish voters are free to change their government via the ballot box. That fundamental democratic lever works. Insofar as there’s a potential problem, it relates increasingly to the absence of a credible alternative government rather than to the absence of the necessary democratic procedures to get such an alternative into power. Interestingly, the travails of Turkey’s beleaguered main opposition party, the CHP, tell their own story about the weakness of accountability in Turkish politics. How else to explain the survival of Deniz Baykal at the party’s helm for all those years when it was clear that voters wanted him gone? And how else to explain the navel-gazing in-fighting that continues in the party today, at a time when, by their own account, the country is at grave risk from the actions of the current government?

This touches on a broader problem with accountability in Turkish politics, namely the fact that politicians seem to see themselves as accountable to each other rather than to voters. Admittedly, this isn’t a Turkey-specific issue. Diamond and Morlino note that even in mature democracies party discipline tends to be considered more important than accountability to voters, with the result that parliaments end up bolstering rather than checking governments’ freedom to do as they please. Nevertheless, the gulf in Turkey between the political class and the electorate is particularly wide. I have suggested in a previous post that the country’s closed-list system of parliamentary elections has much to do with this.


Horizontal accountability back to top

As noted above, horizontal accountability refers to the answerability of elected leaders to other institutions with constitutional or legal authority to regulate and constrain their actions. Diamond and Morlino list the following examples: “the opposition in parliament; parliamentary investigative committees; the various tiers of the court system, including, crucially, the constitutional court; audit agencies; counter-corruption commissions; the central bank; an independent electoral administration; the ombudsman[.]”

The most common way of subverting horizontal authority, they note, is through the appointments process, with governments seeking to sidestep checks and balances by assigning responsibility for them to political loyalists. This, of course, is precisely what the Turkish government’s opponents allege has happened with the recent changes to the composition of the Constitutional Court and the Supreme Council of Judges and Prosecutors (HSYK). The counter-argument advanced by the government’s supporters is that the judiciary needed to be reformed because it was acting as a rival to the elected government rather than as a legitimate constraint on it. Either way, it is clear that Turkey’s court system is a long way from being seen to meet the ideal of a public entity that is “independent of the government and not competing as an alternative to it.”

Turkey’s government, presumably buoyed by its steady stream of electoral victories, seems to be getting bolder in its recasting of democracy in crude majoritarian terms that attempt not so much to side-step the checks and balances of horizontal accountability as to suggest that such constraints may in fact be anti-democratic. This has been evident in the recent revival of debate about the headscarf question. When the chief prosecutor of Turkey’s Supreme Court of Appeals, Abdurrahman Yalçınkaya, intervened in the debate earlier this month, the prime minister, Mr Erdoğan, slapped him down as follows: “No one has the right to ignore the parliament’s will.” Shortly thereafter, the speaker of the parliament, Mehmet Ali Şahin, rowed in with similar sentiments: “I am expecting the [chief prosecutor] to immediately withdraw the statement and offer apologies to the Turkish nation and its representative, the Turkish parliament.” These are not the statements of men who believe in the idea of horizontal accountability.

Turkey’s deficiency in relation to its anti-corruption agency is simple. It doesn’t have one. Progress of sorts was made in February 2010 when a framework was agreed whereby a new ministerial commission would be tasked with formulating anti-corruption strategies and monitoring their implementation. However, the composition of this commission is hardly encouraging. Its executive board is to include various departmental deputy undersecretaries, while the presence of non-politicians is restricted to representatives from the business community (the head of TOBB) and the trade unions (the head of TÜRK-İŞ). There is no representation for broader civil society, let alone for anyone with specific expertise in the area of anti-corruption. What are the chances of a body like this fulfilling the kind of democratic function that Diamond and Morlino outline in the quote below? Slim.

“The counter-corruption agency is a particularly crucial agency of horizontal accountability in contemporary democracies. To be effective, this body must be charged not only with receiving but also monitoring and verifying the assets declarations of the president or prime minister, cabinet ministers, members of parliament, state or provincial governors, high-level bureaucrats, major military and police officers, and other elected and appointed public officials. … The commission must then have the staff to investigate annually on a random basis some significant percentage of these asset declarations, and systematically the declarations of the country’s highest officials.”


Freedom back to top

With freedom, we move to the first of the two substantive dimensions in our eight-point framework. It is a vast concept, which I won’t be able to do more than skim here. Diamond and Morlino break it down, distinguishing first between political and civil freedoms. Political freedoms, they say, include the right to vote, to stand for elected office, to campaign and to organise political parties. Political freedom is therefore a prerequisite for some of the procedural dimensions of democracy discussed above: participation, competition and vertical accountability.

Civil freedom comprises a larger subset of rights which the authors list as follows:

“personal liberty, security, and privacy; freedom of thought, expression, and information; freedom of religion; freedom of assembly, association and organisation, including the right to form and join trade unions and political parties; freedom of movement and residence; and the right to legal defence and due process. There are also a number of what could be called ‘civil economic rights,’ including not only the rights to private property and entrepreneurship, but also the rights associated with employment, the right to fair pay and time off, and the right to collective bargaining.”

The authors note the importance of legal clarity with respect to all of these freedoms. International best practice (as expressed in codes and conventions on political and civil rights) permit exceptions and qualifications on grounds such as public order, but this raises the risk of governments contriving excuses to suppress the rights. “Freedom is more secure to the extent that these exceptions are absent from the law entirely,” they conclude. While Turkey’s constitution is still shot through with exceptions appended to individual articles, one of the significant improvements contained in the 2001 package of constitutional amendments was the revision of Article 13 which had previously provided the state with a catch-all justification for restricting fundamental individual freedoms. The original text read:

Article 13. Fundamental rights and freedoms may be restricted by law, in conformity with the letter and spirit of the Constitution, with the aim of safeguarding the indivisible integrity of the State with its territory and nation, national sovereignty, the Republic, national security, public order, general peace, the public interest, public morals and public health, and also for specific reasons set forth in the relevant Articles of the Constitution. General and specific grounds for restrictions of fundamental rights and freedoms shall not conflict with the requirements of the democratic order of society and shall not be imposed for any purpose other than those for which they are prescribed. The general grounds for restriction set forth in this article shall apply for all fundamental rights and freedoms.

The 2001 revision of article 13 removed these general grounds for restriction. It retained the reference to restrictions contained in individual articles of the constitution, but here too it strengthened protection for individual freedoms, in two ways. First, the new article stipulates that restrictions of fundamental freedoms cannot be so extensive as to undermine the essence of the freedoms. And second, restrictions are required to comply with the principle of proportionality. Here is the revised text:

Article 13. Fundamental rights and freedoms may be restricted only by law and in conformity with the reasons mentioned in the relevant articles of the Constitution without infringing upon their essence. These restrictions shall not be in conflict with the letter and spirit of the Constitution and the requirements of the democratic order of the society and the secular Republic and the principle of proportionality.

Of course the actual protection of individual freedoms requires much more than just their enumeration in a constitution. In particular, say Diamond and Morlino, the rule of law and the institutions of horizontal accountability (among those they mention are the judiciary, the media, the electoral commission and an ombudsman) are needed to secure them. Given Turkey’s weaknesses on both the rule of law and horizontal accountability, as discussed above, it is perhaps little wonder that the country’s protection of its citizens’ freedoms in turn remains so weak.


Equality back to top

The political equality of all citizens is a background assumption of most of what we have covered so far. Ideas of political equality go to the heart of any conceivable conception of democracy. Beyond the formal political equality of ‘one person one vote,’ say Diamond and Morlino, “a good democracy ensures that every citizen has the same rights and legal protections, and also meaningful and reasonably prompt access to justice and power. This also entails the prohibition of discrimination on the basis of gender, race, ethnicity, religion, political orientation, or other extraneous conditions.”

The authors argue, however, that political equality is one of the most difficult dimensions of democracy to realise. This is because:

“individuals and groups with better education, more information, and more resources will inevitably have more power to shape public debate and preferences and to determine the choice of leaders and policies. … To enjoy political equality citizens must also have some measure of equality in income, wealth, and status. The more extreme are social and economic inequalities, the more disproportionate will be the power of those who control vast concentrations of wealth and hence the their ability to make leaders respond to their wishes and interests.”

For this reason, they continue, the advance of political equality has historically involved the political mobilisation of social groups with less money and lower status. In Turkey, much of the AKP’s initial electoral success rested on just such a mobilisation. The party has, of course, since turned the socioeconomic tables to a large degree. While many of its voters remain among Turkey’s poorest, the AKP is by no means a party simply of the poor. On the contrary, it has its own constituency with “vast concentrations of wealth.” As a result, it is rightly pointed out with increasing frequency that the label “secular elite” is a misleading misnomer for the opposition which the AKP now routinely whips at the polls.

Turkey is a deeply unequal society. This is true in financial terms, particularly in the country’s south and southeast, where poverty levels are scandalously high. It is true in cultural terms, with particular problems again in the Kurdish south and southeast. And it is true too for women, who get a rough deal in almost every sense and from every direction in Turkey, and with no sign of any significant political mobilisation on their behalf.


Responsiveness back to top

The final dimension on which the quality of democracies vary, say Diamond and Morlino, is responsiveness, which we can summarise as the making and implementation of policies that citizens want. This, we are told, involves a series of three steps:

  1. Preferences get distilled into policies by competing parties.
  2. At elections, voters’ preferences are then aggregated to form a government of policy makers.
  3. Elected and other officials then translate the government’s policies into outcomes.

Responsiveness depends to a large extent on having effective mechanisms of accountability in place–vertical accountability (and thus participation and competition) at the first two stages, horizontal accountability to prevent corrupt misrule at the third stage.

It should be noted that responsiveness isn’t unambiguously a good thing. There are a number of potential complications. For example, citizens may not know their interests, or their short-term preferences may clash with their long-term interests. Similarly, a government that is highly responsive to the wishes of the majority that elected it may end up suppressing on the rights of the minority that didn’t. This latter point is of evident relevance in Turkey, where protection for minorities is lacking.

Short of asking citizens directly whether they feel the democracy in which they live is sufficiently responsive, the authors note that attitudes to responsiveness can be inferred from responses to more general surveys of satisfaction with democracy. The results for Turkey aren’t encouraging in this respect. The bi-annual Eurobarometer surveys of public opinion conducted by the European Union show Turkey ranking well below EU averages when it comes to satisfaction with democracy. That’s perhaps inevitable given the much greater maturity of at least some of the EU democracies. What should be of greater concern in Turkey is that satisfaction with democracy is on the wane.

The Eurobarometer survey asks respondents the following question: “On the whole, are you very satisfied, fairly satisfied, not very satisfied or not at all satisfied with the way democracy works?” When the survey was first extended to cover Turkey in autumn 2004, 49 per cent of Turks expressed themselves satisfied with democracy, compared with an EU-average of 57 per cent. Skip forward five years to the autumn 2009 survey, however, and the results have worsened significantly. While satisfaction levels dipped in the EU during the intervening years (from 57 per cent to 53 per cent), the slump in Turkey was much more pronounced. In autumn 2009 only slightly more than a third of respondents in Turkey (36 per cent) said they were happy with the functioning of their democracy.

(This mounting dissatisfaction with democracy can be interpreted in a number of ways. A supporter of the government might suggest that the AKP’s reforms have whetted the electorate’s appetite for democracy, thereby intensifying awareness of the limitations that still need to be overcome. A critic might counter that a more simple explanation would be that voters simply don’t believe that the AKP has democratised Turkey in any meaningful sense, and that their successive victories at the polls reflects disappointed pragmatism—”they’re the best of a bad lot”—rather than democratic idealism.)

I’ll conclude what has become quite a long post by noting a number of the constraints that can hinder democratic responsiveness, according to Diamond and Morlino. Two of these are objective and external in character. First, resource constraints may limit the number of preferences that a government may be able to respond to. Second, the government may be hemmed in by factors outside its control, such as effects on the national economy of global economic developments.

The third and final constraint is a more basic human one. It is not a stranger to the Turkish political scene.

“[D]emocratically elected leaders do not always seek to understand and respond to the concerns, preferences, and demands of citizens. Often they instead work to maximise their own autonomy and take advantage of the complexity of problems as well as the political shifts over the course of an electoral term. When demagogic leaders seek to divert attention from, or manipulate public sentiment about, public policy issues in order to aggrandise their power and wealth, we move from the phenomenon of constraint to active subversion.”

  1. […] 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 […]

  2. […] Eight ways to assess the quality of Turkish democracy by istanbulnotes […]

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