Turkey’s silenced spring

March 24
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Updated 4:29 p.m.

This is a guest post by Turkuler Isiksel, who is an assistant professor of political science at Columbia University and will be a fellow at Princeton University’s Program in Law and Public Affairs during the 2014-2015 academic year.

With less than two weeks to go before municipal elections in Turkey, the Turkish telecommunications authority ordered a ban on access to Twitter. The move came just hours after a speech in which Turkey’s Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, promised his government would “root out Twitter and all that.”

This is the latest move in the AKP government’s sustained and insidious campaign against freedom of speech in Turkey. Turkey’s record on civic and press freedom has never been stellar, but under Erdogan’s rule, the persecution of journalists, publishers, NGOs, academics and assorted critics took on the character of a personal vendetta. For a leader who served a prison term for reciting a political poem, these curbs on the freedom of expression are particularly ironic.

Despite his hostility to the microblogging platform, Erdogan himself espouses a kind of minimalism, that is, toward democracy itself. “Minimalist democracy” is not a term invented by the Turkish prime minister to justify his government’s infringements on civil and political liberties in Turkey. It is a term of trade in democratic theory, originating in the thought of 20th century economist Joseph Schumpeter. Schumpeter understood democracy to be “that institutional arrangement for arriving at political decisions in which individuals acquire the power to decide by means of a competitive struggle for the people’s vote.” His minimalist conception is prominent among policy-makers, political scientists and public intellectuals. For instance, the widely used Polity dataset of political regimes takes the existence of open and competitive elections as the criterion for coding whether a country is democratic. Polity considers Turkey to be a “competitive multiparty democracy” with a relatively high democracy score of 7 out of 10.

As its name indicates, minimalist democracy is appealingly parsimonious. It demands little more than the procedural device of a fair electoral system that guarantees each citizen a vote. For minimalists, elections have no metaphysical qualities. They do not give voice to “We the People,” divine the common good, convey a shared sense of justice or forge a mandate. Elections (and democracy itself) are simply a way to pacify politics: The prospect of an electoral victory gives malcontents an incentive to settle their disagreement by voting rather than fighting. The prospect of a peaceful alternation of power, so the story goes, gives “losers” of any one round of elections a strong incentive to stay in the “game” (e.g., not stage a coup) in the hope of mustering an electoral majority in the next round. Similarly, it gives “winners” an incentive to refrain from unpopular actions (e.g. corruption, incompetence, widespread persecution) lest they lose their electoral majority in the next cycle.

And indeed, the AKP government plays by the minimalist rule book. Erdogan understands democracy to mean one very simple thing: government elected by a popular vote. He views neither constitutionally guaranteed rights — among them, freedoms of speech and information — nor institutions such as the separation of powers and checks and balances, to be integral to a democratic system. Instead, he believes that the state should be turned over lock, stock, and barrel to whoever wins the largest percentage of the vote in a general election. Until the next round of elections produces a different winner, the ruling party is entitled to restrict civil rights, muzzle the press, pack the judiciary with supporters and amend the constitution, all without forfeiting its democratic credentials.

These political tactics, though repressive, do not amount to large-scale violations of Turkey’s notoriously authoritarian constitution. There is no evidence that Erdogan’s party has rigged elections. Opposition parties do exist; they can campaign freely and contest elections. For these reasons, the minimalist democrat would greet Turkey’s woes with a shrug: When political mismanagement becomes egregious enough, the electorate will “throw the rascals out.”

And yet, this is precisely the problem. Given Turkey’s tanking economy, the government’s violent suppression of the Gezi Park protests in the summer of 2013, and a recent corruption scandal implicating ministers in Mr. Erdogan’s cabinet, along with the Prime Minister himself, we would expect the AKP to suffer in the municipal elections on March 30. However, opinion polls suggest that the AKP’s share of the popular vote in major cities such as Istanbul and Ankara remains secure. Audiotapes that allegedly reveal Erdogan’s orders to his son, Bilal, to hide their clandestine stash of foreign currency have barely moved the prime minister’s sky-high popularity ratings.

Part of the reason for this is that, as Turkish journalist Yavuz Baydar noted in a New York Times op-ed, the AKP has ruthlessly curbed the free flow of news and information in Turkey. The government controls news organizations by threatening the business interests of media moguls, initiating prosecutions and levying administrative penalties against them. In a series of wiretapped phone conversations released last month, the prime minister is heard instructing a TV news producer to yank ongoing coverage of an opposition leader’s criticisms of his party, who dutifully follows his orders. In the wake of the Gezi Park protests, several high-profile journalists, columnists and editors who insisted on reporting on the events were sacked. As a result, news outlets have long since stopped reporting on events that cast a negative light on the government. (Mr. Baydar himself has since been fired from his job as ombudsman for the daily Sabah newspaper.)

Although these draconian curbs do not prevent Turkey’s young, urban, educated elite from mobilizing against the government, they do curtail the free flow of information to vast segments of the electorate who rely on TV and newspapers as their primary source of news and information. There, critics of the AKP government have been portrayed as foreign agents, saboteurs, anarchists, coup conspirators or worse. In the run-up to election season (municipal elections on March 30 will be followed by the first-ever popular elections for president on Aug. 10), the lack of unhindered, professional news reporting has enabled the AKP government to consolidate its self-serving political narrative.

And there’s the rub. The mobilization of an effective opposition, on which the minimalist theory of democracy relies, presupposes a thriving sphere of political debate. By drastically curtailing the free circulation of information (of which the Twitter ban is the latest episode) and ensuring that no criticism of his government can be aired on mainstream news outlets, Erdogan has cut off vital circuits of public debate and opinion-formation. Freedom of information and speech, in turn, rely on the existence of constitutional guarantees, an independent judiciary and an effective system of checks and balances. The happy event of an alternation in power, which minimalists seize on as the hallmark of democratic rule, cannot occur without a whole host of fragile institutions to sustain the otherwise childishly simple device of the vote. Minimalist democracy, it seems, is too minimal to be democratic.

For now, Turkey seems doomed to play out this tragic paradox. Because Erdogan believes that democracy consists only in elections, Turkey may not see a peaceful, electoral alternation of government in the near future. As it turns out, you can’t spell “democracy” in 140 characters or less.

Correction: An earlier version of this story had an incorrect date for Turkey’s presidential election. 

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