Reflections on 'Decree 696': Why do most Turks support oppressive rule?


I have been writing about the dynamics behind Turkey's steady transition from a semi-democracy to autocracy for some time now, particularly the much-neglected political culture dimension of this transition. In the meantime, I have also mentioned some actors who have contributed to this transition.

But I have not dwelled on the sacred totem of democracy yet, namely, "the people."

The question is simple: Why do a significant portion of the Turkish people support an autocratic administration? I am using the rather vague term of "significant portion," as we do not know the exact number of AKP voters due to election irregularities during the last few election cycles.

Besides, part of the electorate does not or cannot vote for a variety of reasons. There are then two things we can safely assert. First, the number of people who support the current government far exceeds the number of those who desire a change of government. Second, a fairly large number of voters, despite being opposed to government policies, contribute to the perpetuation and legitimisation of this administration, through their silence and obedience.

There are five possible answers to the question raised above:

1- Most people think that this administration represents them and their values.

2- They benefit from this government in various forms; in other words, they are voting in line with their self-interests.

3- They are afraid of the possible repercussions of non-obedience or dissent.

4- They are fearful of change and thus seek stability.

5- They do not trust the alternatives; they do not believe that other political options would create a better political order.

Of course, the answer could be all of the above or any combination of these. Let’s briefly tackle each option in turn.

The first possible answer brings the idea of "authoritarian personality" that Theodor W. Adorno and his colleagues conceptualised, drawing on psychoanalytic theory. Their theses, designed to explain the German peoples’ support of the Nazis and the Holocaust, have been strongly criticised for their methodology and theoretical biases, so there is no point in spending too much time on the theory itself for now.

Having said that, considering the physical and symbolic "lynching culture" that has been an integral part of Turkey’s political and social life, (just remember the 1934 Thrace Pogroms, the 6-7 Sept., 1955 events, the massacres of Çorum, Maraş, Sivas and so on (which could be seen as manifestations of this culture) I believe that the concept of “authoritarian personality” should not be discounted altogether.

What is much more dangerous is the way this "lynching culture" has been encouraged by the current administration itself. The most recent executive decree no. 696, which provides immunity to civilians -whether they hold an official position or not - who would fight against coup attempts and terrorist acts is nothing but the final, and boldest, step of this mentality.

There is no way of predicting the potential consequences of this open invitation to civil war, which needs to be discussed in another article.

The second possible answer to the question of why a significant number of people are supporting an autocratic regime is that they benefit from it. German historian Götz Aly starts his influential book Hitler's Beneficiaries: Plunder, Racial War, and the Nazi Welfare State with a quote by Göring: "If someone has to go hungry, let it be someone other than a German.”

Noting that German people's support cannot be explained with ideological reasons alone, Aly argues that economic stability and relative prosperity during the Nazi era was at least as essential as racist propaganda. German citizens were not affected by the war or felt the need to question Nazi policies, as income from the confiscated property of the Jewish population and the assets obtained from the occupied countries were transferred to Germany.

This argument could go some way to explaining the support provided to the AKP in its first term. Strict adherence to the economic reform programme inherited from the previous government, the positive impact of EU-Turkey accession negotiations and the global economic conjuncture, all may have contributed to the enthusiasm of AKP voters.

However, this is not the case anymore. Economic indicators have begun to point to a potential recession and foreign capital is slowly moving out of the country. As several commentators observed, (relative) stability is only achieved through artificial interventions. It is very difficult to argue that the support for the government is guided by economic interests in an environment where the president continually targets the Central Bank of Turkey and the country becomes increasingly isolated from the rest of the world due to the foreign policies the government chooses to pursue – unless, of course, we assume that they are somehow duped or lured with a few sacks of coal or food distributed before the elections. If that is the case, there isn't much to say anyway.

There are three possible answers left. Two of them are, in one way or another, related to the "fear" factor and most likely constitute an essential part of the answer.  

Again, there is no need to dwell on this too much. It is not reasonable to expect people to oppose the regime under, it seems, a permanent state of emergency that has banished the rule of law altogether; where hundreds of thousands of people are sacked from their jobs and banned from traveling abroad; tens of thousands are in jail based on flimsy evidence, without seeing a courtroom for months; and where there is a relentless national security apparatus, even talks of assassination squads sent abroad to kill dissenters...

Another dimension of the fear factor relates to the potential implications of a transfer of power. It is not hard to imagine that the Islamists and pious groups - the natural constituency of the current government - are not only afraid of losing most of what they have achieved during this period if, say, a secular opposition wins the elections, but also the price they might have to pay for their complicity.

The polarisation, even hatred, between various communities, which I wrote about previously, indicates that this fear is not unwarranted. Staying in power, in this sense, has an existential meaning both for the ones in power and those who support them.

The weakness of the opposition parties completes this picture. If you do not support the ruling party, the only remaining options are a little less Islamist, but equally nationalist alternative, or a secular nationalist party whose leader claims he will "take back" the Greek islands if they win the elections.

So it is the same food with a different flavouring. Do you want nationalism with tomato sauce or do you prefer béchamel instead?

The answer? There is no answer, or if there is one, it is not that uplifting. The brief analysis above suggests that a considerable part of the Turkish population will keep supporting this government, either because they believe that it represents them and their values, or because ​​they think that it provides stability.

The remaining part, including those who do not support this government, are paralysed with fear; some are leaving everything behind and emigrating to other countries. There is no sense of unity to fight the autocracy, and there is no opposition to take the lead in this fight (the ones that can take the lead are jailed on charges of terrorism).

It is not merely a coincidence that we keep referring to Nazi Germany when analysing Turkish politics. It seems there is no way out of this impasse save a major crisis - a military operation in Afrin, a war with a neighbouring country, e.g. Greece, or a civil war precipitated by paramilitary groups.

It is best not to raise hopes for 2018, which, in all likelihood, promises to be worse than 2017.