The lesson from Biden’s inauguration

I started my last post saying President Biden would now start addressing America’s polarisation, COVID-19 and a wrecked foreign policy and he has a far heavier agenda than many of his predecessors.

In an earlier post, I had also said, “… a worse disease, polarisation is spreading in countries far away from the Middle East and tightening its grip. And since it does not kill in a matter of days or weeks there is no big rush to find cures. Some even see it as a blessing to perpetuate power. Nonetheless worries are on the rise. A case in point is the United States”.

In his inaugural speech President Biden used the words “pandemic” and “virus” once despite the fact that the day before coronavirus death toll in the United States had passed 400,000. Neither did he say much on foreign policy. He used the words “democracy” and “unity” twelve times each. His main theme was the healing of America’s polarisation. He said:

“Today we celebrate the triumph not of a candidate but of a cause, a cause of democracy…

“To overcome these challenges, to restore the soul and secure the future of America, requires so much more than words. It requires the most elusive of all things in a democracy – unity. Unity…

“I know speaking of unity can sound to some like a foolish fantasy these days. I know the forces that divide us are deep and they are real…

“We can see each other not as adversaries but as neighbours. We can treat each other with dignity and respect. We can join forces, stop the shouting and lower the temperature. For without unity there is no peace, only bitterness and fury, no progress, only exhausting outrage. No nation, only a state of chaos…”

It was an inspiring speech, an appeal to the nation as a whole, not a haughty lecture. The presence at the inauguration of former presidents Clinton, Bush and Obama was a significant show of solidarity. I watched them with envy as they congratulated President Biden, stood behind him and Vice President Kamala Harris as the two laid a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.

The three former presidents also reflected on the inauguration of President Biden, highlighting the imperativeness of a peaceful transition of power in a video message. “I’m pulling for your success, your success is our country’s success,” said George W. Bush, a former Republican president.

All of the foregoing is only the start of what appears to be a long process. A Washington Post’s article last Saturday carried the title, “Move on or fight on: Americans remain sorely divided as Biden’s quest for unity begins”.

Turkey is also a polarised nation. As President Biden said, I also know that speaking of unity these days can sound to some like a foolish fantasy. But we Turks too must start healing the disease.

In Turkey, separation of powers is a myth. Our institutions are weak. We lack transparency, accountability. Public statements by our politicians lack humility, courtesy. People hardly ever see them getting together even on days of national importance. If they do, there is no camaraderie. Their world outlook is different. Their heroes are different.

Their attitude inevitably reflects on people.

According to the “Dimensions of Polarization in Turkey 2020 Survey” by turkuazlab:

75 percent of the respondents did not want their child to marry a supporter of the political party which they feel “the most distant to”,

72 percent of the respondents did not want to do business with a supporter of the political party which they feel “the most distant to”,

67 percent of the respondents did not want their children to play with the children of the political party supporters which they feel “the most distant to”,

61 percent of the respondents did not want to be neighbours with the supporters of political parties which they feel “the most distant to”.

And one of the principal conclusions of the survey is, “Though They Live in Different Worlds, Different Party Supporters Unify over Anxiety”.

Because nobody knows exactly where the country is heading.

Turkey’s political leaders have to see that the current course would only take us to further polarisation of the dangerous kind. Nowhere in the world does 50 percent plus one vote at the ballot box give the winner to rule as he or she pleases. Majoritarianism only deepens divisions.

Turkey’s leaders also need to remember that democracy has always been our strongest card in the international arena. Yes, our democratic journey was sometimes a roller-coaster ride but it enabled us to become a member of the Council of Europe, NATO and launch accession negotiations with the European Union. And yes, this was an open-ended process unlikely to lead anywhere but it enhanced our soft power, nonetheless.

President Biden has set an example to follow.

Turkey’s leaders need to rise above political interests and restore our democracy to reunite the nation. Even if they were to start today, healing would take time. And the last exit is not far away.

(A version of this article was originally published here and reproduced by permission. The opinions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.)

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.