From Semi-Democracy to Full Autocracy: 'Statist Communalism' in Turkey

I will start with simple questions: How has the regime in Turkey changed? Why did it get this way?

Depending on where you stand politically, the answer you give to this question might also be simple. For example, if you are a Kemalist nationalist (ulusalcı), you might see Erdoğan as a project of the imperialists or a Trojan horse of the West, which has been trying to dismember Turkey since it was founded. If you are a Turkish leftist trying to distance yourself from Kemalist nationalists without compromising on your commitment to full independence, you might blame the indifference of those who campaigned for a “yes” vote in the run-up to 2010 constitutional elections with the motto “yes, but it is not enough” (yetmez ama evet), the liberals who supported Erdoğan for a long time. If you are a left liberal, then it is Kemalism that is to blame for suffocating the pious majority through a rigid secularist mentality.

If you are after more sophisticated answers, you can throw in some conjunctural local and global factors. Again, depending on your political stance, you might point to a series of developments such as the dismal failure of Turkey’s European vocation, Turkey’s growing regional importance in the aftermath of the Arab Spring – in particular in the context of the refugee crisis and the struggle with ISIS – the weakening of military power over society through the Ergenekon and Sledgehammer trials, the relative economic stability that remained unshaken even at times of global crisis, or the steps taken during this period of stability to solve some of Turkey’s longstanding ossified problems such as the so-called “Kurdish question”. In this context, you could emphasize some critical turning points. You might argue that Turkey’s descent into authoritarianism cannot be understood without reference to “ruptures” like the 2010 constitutional referendum, the tug of war between the AKP and the Gülenists that started in 2013 with the release of corruption files and tapes, the Gezi protests, the June 2015 elections, the Kurdish movement’s declarations of autonomy, and the resumption of hostilities between the PKK and the Turkish state,

The factors and processes I have listed above might provide partial answers to the questions I raised at the beginning of this article. Nevertheless, no answer that does not take into account the political culture that prevails in Turkey and the social contract that underpins this culture would be sufficient to grasp the dark picture we find ourselves in today.

Taking our cue from the relationship between the state, the individual, and civil society, we might call the concept that governs Turkey’s political culture “statist communalism”. In this model, which covers both the Kemalist/secularist and post-Kemalist/Islamist periods, the state is the most important element. Unlike countries like, say, Sweden or Germany, which also have a strong state tradition, the state in statist communalism does not have an egalitarian logic which tends to increase social welfare or protect individual or groups against encroachments on their rights and entitlements. On the contrary, in Turkey the state is perceived as a “father”, heading a hierarchical structure that promotes a form of communalism akin to the millet system of the Ottoman Empire. The communities are all connected to and dependent upon the state to further their interests. In this model, rights—whether individual or group rights—are “bestowed” by the state and taken away when the state sees fit. As we saw during the single-party period, in the wake of military coups, and during the AKP’s later, more ideological, phase (roughly from 2010 onwards), the existence of a constitution that guarantees rights and the rule of law does not alter this. In fact, almost all the constitutions of the Turkish Republic have been extremely patriarchal documents that bless the indivisible unity of the country, placing the interests of the nation and the state above all other values and freedoms.

Statist communalism considers any individual or group-based attempt to seek autonomy as an existential threat. Whether they are based on religion, ethnicity, or sexual orientation, difference, or pluralism more generally, autonomy is an ideal that must be avoided at all costs. In this framework, strategic alliances between the state and various groups are always tenuous and short-lived because they are established on the state’s initiative and based on “toleration”, not the internalisation of difference. It would be no exaggeration to say that statist communalism is the main reason why we do not have a genuine civil society in Turkey, and why fundamental human rights and minority rights remain under constant threat.

Statist communalism is different from the cozy communitarianism of political philosophers like Alasdair McIntyre, Michael Sandel, and Charles Taylor in two ways. First, unlike political communitarianism, which promotes a “pluralism (of communities) within unity (the society)”, in statist communalism difference is at best “endured”, when and for as long as the state’s interests require it. Such an understanding does not provide for shared values or institutions. The state imposes the values it sees fit on all communities, and those who do not embrace them are bound to pay a heavy price. Second, the unity that emerges from such a system is neither robust nor permanent, as it is not based on shared values and institutions. The primary goal of every community is to become close to the state and to get the most out of the state, and hence there is a competitive relationship between different communities jostling for power. Communities are not open to dialogue, other than short-term strategic alliances, and they do not trust any outsiders. More importantly, they do not welcome any criticism or differences within themselves.

Statist communalism, which shapes Turkey’s hegemonic political culture, is a key concept for understanding Turkey’s past, present, and (probably) future. In my next article, I will continue to discuss, within the framework of this concept and with concrete examples, how Turkey went from a semi-democracy to a full autocracy so easily and in such a short time

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