Ahval logo
May 01 2018

Turkish democracy ― as dead as Schrödinger's cat

Twin presidential and parliamentary elections on June 24 have been styled, in some quarters, as a final chance to save Turkish democracy.

Almost everyone agrees that Turkish democracy has been subject to a serious and prolonged assault in recent years.

What, however, deserves serious consideration is not the extent to which this assault has injured Turkish democracy, but the more basic issue of whether the victim is still clinging to life, whether what began as an assault is now better characterised as the mutilation of a corpse.

The fact that President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) enjoy the support of a large proportion of the electorate, along with the continued representation of opposition parties in parliament, implies that traces of democracy still remain.  

There are, however, good reasons to suppose this may not be the case.

To begin with, the degree of support enjoyed by Erdoğan and his regime undoubtedly reflects, to a greater or lesser extent, the regime’s near total domination of the media. 

When the environment in which elections are held is as unfair and uneven as that which exists in Turkey, the legitimacy afforded by ballot box tallies, even when counted correctly, is severely undermined. 

Similarly, that Erdoğan and his AKP party have, over the course of many elections, gained more than 50 percent of the vote on only one occasion ― the 2017 constitutional referendum ― could be interpreted as suggesting that democracy is functioning.

After all, the numbers are way short of the majorities won in sham elections periodically held by authoritarian regimes. But this again does not mean that democracy in Turkey is functioning, much less that it is healthy. It merely means that some people, in fact quite a lot, did not vote for the Erdoğan regime and that those votes were counted.

The continued existence of opposition parties in parliament, whilst it may indicate signs of democratic life, might rather be interpreted as demonstrating that opposition is tolerated only insofar as it allows the regime to maintain a charade of democracy. Indeed, recent Turkish history suggests that any opposition perceived as presenting more than a token threat to the regime is swiftly dealt with, using methods that are anything but democratic.

Further, whilst elections in Turkey are indisputably neither free and nor fair these days, there is genuine debate over issues like ballot stuffing. Whilst there are good reasons for believing that vote rigging played only a negligible role in elections prior to the second parliamentary election of 2015, there is far stronger evidence of large-scale irregularities in both 2015’s second parliamentary election and in 2017’s referendum. 

Indeed, given the close result in the referendum, it may well be that the result itself was manipulated. 

Adding to these suspicions are recent changes to Turkish electoral laws that facilitate vote rigging.

Stepping back to consider the broader picture, it is legitimate to wonder what Erdoğan would do were he to fail to gather the number of votes required to maintain power after the elections.

Given the extreme levels of polarisation in Turkey, fostered in no small part by Erdoğan’s divisive style, there is no realistic way in which he can relinquish power without the very real risk that his past would come back to haunt him. 

In addition, Erdoğan cannot easily step away from the tangled and influential web of patronage he has fashioned centring on himself. 

Erdoğan therefore has ample reason to subvert the democratic process in Turkey. And, as outlined above, he has already done so. 

The only question is whether democracy is still breathing in Turkey.

Like Schrödinger's cat that may be both dead and alive simultaneously, Turkish democracy is in limbo. Its fate is already decided, but exactly what that fate is is currently unknowable. 

Given this, it is misleading to suggest that the June elections represent a last chance to revive Turkish democracy. 

Against this backdrop, criticism directed at Turkey’s political opposition that assumes a democratic, or a quasi-democratic, playing field appears misplaced. 

It ignores the regime’s not-so-subtle sleight of hand, which involves playing by an undemocratic set of rules whilst demanding the opposition conform to the very rules it eschews. 

In such circumstances, the game is rigged. So it is not difficult to understand why Turkey’s opposition appears so ineffective ― classical physics does not work in a quantum universe.

The best that democratic-minded opposition can do, at this point, is to acknowledge what they are up against. 

Only then can they hope to formulate strategies that may, one day, nurture the revival, or should that be the resurrection, of democracy in Turkey.