politics : culture : economics

What the YSK debacle tells us about democratic reform in Turkey

In 2011 general election, A new constitution, Constitution, Democratisation, Kurdish question, Women in Turkey on April 23, 2011 at 2:44 pm

For the past week, Turkey has been convulsed by the decision of the country’s electoral board (YSK) to prohibit a group of Kurdish independent candidates from participating in June’s general election. The YSK’s ruling prompted a political crisis as well as angry protests in which one young man died and many others were injured.  Although the ruling was largely reversed on Thursday, it remains the subject of considerable controversy.

The episode prompts many questions, not the least of which are these, which seem to provide the starting point for much of the follow-up analysis so far: what (or who) drove the electoral board to make such a disastrously ill-conceived decision, and who stands to benefit from the chaos that ensued?

It’s not that these are bad questions. But they lend themselves to a very Turkish process of convoluted speculation as to precisely how many conspirators can dance on the head of a pin. Let’s take a step back instead and ask a bit more prosaically what this YSK fiasco tells us about the norms that regulate public life in Turkey. Because this is something that can shed some light for us on larger questions about the likelihood of meaningful democratic reform here.

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The first thing that the YSK crisis should alert us to is the irrepressibly slipshod, ad hoc and, frankly, amateur-hour standards that all too often hold sway in Turkey. Far too few holders of public office seem to subject their actions to any kind of probing, strategic intelligence. As in so many spheres of Turkish life, impulsiveness is accepted and indulged.

As soon as the YSK barred the Kurdish candidates, the game was lost. There were better and worse ways of trying to recover the situation, but none that would prevent a bright light being shone on serious problems. Had the YSK dug its heels in and insisted that the rules gave it no choice but to exclude the candidates from June’s election, Turkey’s outrageous infringements of the political rights of its Kurdish voters and politicians would have been advertised more glaringly than is usually the case.

Far preferable, then, for the YSK to have reversed its decision relatively swiftly? Well, yes, up to a point. The decision’s reversal is to be welcomed. But look at what it says about the robustness of the system that underpins Turkey’s electoral mechanics. On Monday, the rules were interpreted to mean that these individuals had forfeited the right to stand for election. This was the conclusion of a state body the decisions of which are not subject to appeal. And yet on Thursday the same body performed a neat little pirouette to arrive at more or less the opposite of its position on Monday.

What does this tell us about the integrity of the rules? It tells us that what matters in Turkey is not the formal construction of the rules, but the spirit in which they’re interpreted and implemented at any given time. This is not a phenomenon peculiar to Turkey, and it is not a phenomenon that necessarily yields negative results. But at a time when Turkey is considering a wholesale revision of its constitution and when the gap between lofty democratic rhetoric and grubby coalface politics is wider than ever, it warrants some attention.

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I am of the view that the process of drafting a new constitution in the wake of June’s election is potentially of great significance. But we should not get carried away. Even if it were the case that the drafters were to emerge from their deliberations with an impeccably democratic text, we could not for a moment conclude that Turkey was therefore set to become an impeccably democratic country. That’s not how these things work.

There’s no doubt that a constitution built on more democratic, liberal and pluralistic principles than the current constitution would serve to pull Turkey’s political culture in a positive direction. But the crucial point here is that the opposite also applies. The deep-rooted problems of Turkish political culture would simultaneously serve to distort the meaning of any new and more democratic constitution that’s adopted.

It is easy to think of concrete examples to illustrate this kind of process. Would an unambiguous statement of gender equality be a welcome inclusion in Turkey’s new constitution? Of course it would. Would it lead to a situation in which unambiguous gender equality prevailed? Of course it wouldn’t. (This isn’t simply speculation. We can be confident on this point because Turkey’s constitution already contains an unambiguous statement of gender equality. According to article 10: “Men and women have equal rights. The state shall have the obligation to ensure that this equality exists in practice.” Needless to say, that’s not how things look on the ground for Turkish women.)

The words in the constitution are important. Of course they are. But on their own they are insufficient if they go against the grain of embedded aspects of the prevailing culture. Overturning the remnants of Turkey’s 1982 constitution won’t on its own transform the country’s political culture. The latter will be a much longer and more drawn out process. Crucially, it will demand levels of leadership, commitment and political self-restraint that do not come naturally to Turkey’s political class and that aren’t currently on prominent display.

This isn’t to say that a new constitution won’t potentially be an important step forward. It’s just to say that we should be deeply sceptical of anyone who suggests that it offers a short-term panacea for Turkey’s political shortcomings. Ultimately, the writing of a democratic constitution is child’s play. It’s the breathing life into it that’s an altogether more daunting task.

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  1. Aengus,
    Perhaps an even starker example to your point is the deep state itself. Created as a safe-guarder of Turkey’s secular and nationalistic identity, it increasingly seems to have been taken over by the very forces it was supposed to guard against.

    If you want to get banned in Turkey, speak peace in Kurdish or try to get a political mandate to remove the headscarf ban. If you want to overthrow the secular elite, join the Cemaat and get a law degree.

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