Interview with Assist. Prof. H. Akın Ünver: The Democratic Dilemma on Turkish Playgrounds

Interview with Assist. Prof. H. Akın Ünver:
The Democratic Dilemma
on Turkish Playgrounds

The idea of democracy has prevailed during significant historical moments. It is supposed to find its roots in people’s power and it is supposed to guarantee their freedoms, rights and responsibilities alike, in order to create a functional and equilibrated society. Yet, in recent years, democracy has been facing substantial criticism, both on domestic frameworks but also on extended playgrounds of world affairs, rather seen as an obsolete process which cannot be generalized anymore to all kinds of international actors.

As Centre for Policy and Research on Turkey (Research Turkey), we conducted an interview with Assistant Professor Hamid Akın Ünver about the dilemma that Turkey is facing with respect to the democratization process. Winston Churchill stated that “The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter.” Whether it will be primarily about voting behavior as a key setting of democratic choices or not, this interview aims to provide a general framework regarding democracy’s main characteristics, focusing on Turkey and more specifically addressing the issue of the Kurdish question within its own borders. H. Akın Ünver is an Assistant Professor of International Relations at Kadir Has University. Previously, he acted as the Ertegün Lecturer of Turkish and Middle Eastern Studies at the Princeton University, Near Eastern Studies department, and a joint post-doctoral fellow at the University of Michigan’s Center for European Studies and the Center for the Middle East and North African Studies, where he authored several articles on Turkish politics, most notable of which is “Turkey’s deep-state and the Ergenekon conundrum”, published by the Middle East Institute.

Ünver received his PhD from the Department of Government, University of Essex, where his dissertation titled as “A comparative analysis of the discourses on the Kurdish question in the European Parliament, US Congress and Turkish National Assembly” has won the Middle East Studies Association (MESA) 2010 Malcolm H. Kerr Dissertation Award in Social Sciences. Akın also assumed entry-level policy positions at the The Secretariat-General of the European Commission, Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Center for Eurasian Strategic Studies (Avrasya Stratejik Araştırmalar Merkezi – ASAM) and the Washington Institute for Near East Policy (D.C.), as well as teaching positions at the University of Essex (Theories of International Relations) and Sabancı University (Turkey and the Middle East).

Synopsis of the Interview

I think one major anachronism in Turkish democratic thinking is that it still has not evolved past 1991 – that is, the end of Cold War. […] Yet through the Cold War, Turkey was deemed ‘democratic’ so long as it held free and fair elections and maintained a functioning free market system.”

The coalition government, which ruled through 1999-2002 failed to address this new enthusiasm and optimism in the society – which lead the disenfranchised parts of the electorate to vote for the newly established Justice and Development Party (Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi – AKP) in 2002 elections.”

…despite its significant progress, the AKP has reached the limits of its democratic culture.”

In short; the current problem with Turkish democracy is the inability to move beyond a macro-democratic understanding, securitization of criticism and dissent, and the political culture of impunity and power-hunger.”

Since the switch to multi-party system in 1947, Turkish electorate has repeatedly demonstrated that it views parties with religious discourse desirable.”

It is indeed incredible how, after almost 40 years after its introduction, Mardin’s view of Turkish politics still explains many dynamics”.

While Islam, or at the very least political/social conservatism is desirable, it is not enough by itself unless it complements policies above.”

If such politicization and ideologization of economy continues, AKP’s attempts in continuing to bridge centre and periphery will take serious damage, leading to socio-economic stress and renewed tensions between centre and periphery.”

Although Kurdish politics have long been characterized in Turkey as separatism or national security threat, the Kurds have succeeded in diversifying and broadening their political discourse, rather than radicalizing it further.”

Long-term growth and development in modern world can only happen through innovation and social peace; former requires sustained levels of higher education and the latter requires comfortable levels of political and intellectual freedom to institutionalize in a country.”

Full Text of the Interview

First of all, let me thank you for taking the time in answering our questions. As a starting point, how would you approach democratization in Turkey’s case? What would be its main problem?

I think one major anachronism in Turkish democratic thinking is that it still has not evolved past 1991 – that is, the end of Cold War. Turkey switched from a single-party republican system into a multi-party rule in 1947, in order to become a NATO ally and fend off Soviet expansionist claims. When you go way back and think about the proclamation of the Republic in 1923 or abolishment of the Caliphate, these systemic changes took place during crisis moments; without the necessary social, grassroots processes. Yet through the Cold War, Turkey was deemed ‘democratic’ so long as it held free and fair elections and maintained a functioning free market system.

Philip Robins, in his book ‘Suits and Uniforms’, explains this very well; Turkish decision-makers could not contextualize the collapse of the Soviet Union from an ideological point of view. For Europe and the United States, 1991 meant the triumph of ‘humanitarian values’ such as freedom of expression, minority rights and so on. Yet during the same period, Turkey’s political system looked more like a post-Soviet republic than a member of NATO; be it the presence of the cult of its founding leader, role of military in politics or over-bureaucratized state system, Turkey shared little in common with the Western alliance in terms of political culture, or state identity.

Then, just when Turkey could close this gap in the 1990s, once the Soviet threat was over, the Gulf War of 1990-91 happened. Once then Turkish President Turgut Özal decided to allow NATO jets to operate from the air base in İncirlik, Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein retaliated by pushing around 4 million Iraqi Kurds towards the Turkish border in 1991, creating a massive refugee crisis that would serve as the foundation of the Kurdish insurgency all through 1990s. Turkey’s inability to respond to the military, social, cultural and democratic challenges of this insurgency lead to the over-securitization of the Kurdish question, which caused the Cold War mentality to continue and prevent Turkey to close the democratic gap with the European Union. Even though Turkish governments made repeated attempts towards the EU membership in the 1990s, security challenges emerging with the Kurdish insurgency prevented the praetorian state to shift into a more liberal gear.

Then came 1999 – the eventful year when the Kurdish question lost its security dimension with the capture of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (Partiya Karkerên Kurdistan – PKK) leader Abdullah Öcalan and the European Union granted candidacy to Turkey in the Helsinki Summit, leading to a significant pro-EU boost in public opinion. The coalition government, which ruled through 1999-2002 failed to address this new enthusiasm and optimism in the society – which lead the disenfranchised parts of the electorate to vote for the newly established Justice and Development Party (Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi – AKP) in 2002 elections. AKP in its turn, successfully mobilized these new demands, enacted a number of long-needed reforms – the most important of which was the re-negotiation of the military’s role in politics. Successful representation of the rural and newly urbanizing electorate, along with addressing major deficiencies in housing, job creation and income redistribution, created the foundations of the AKP’s success and its repeated electoral victories.

Yet, despite its significant progress, the AKP has reached the limits of its democratic culture. While it has succeeded in bringing about what I would call ‘macro-democracies’ (state-society relations, politicization of large segments of society, civilianization of decision-making), the party did not show any enthusiasm towards ‘micro-democracies’ (freedom of expression, association, individual liberties that have little to do with religion). Added to the problem is the leadership effect – where Prime Minister Erdoğan’s intransigence, and decay in party’s ideological stance in the last couple of years, due to what is termed as the ‘10-year fatigue’ (the theory, which argues that administrations that stay in power longer than 10 years end up losing their edge in administrative skills and capacities).

In short; the current problem with Turkish democracy is the inability to move beyond a macro-democratic understanding, securitization of criticism and dissent, and the political culture of impunity and power-hunger.

Stating this, how significant would you argue that religion is nowadays in democracy’s case within Turkey?

Since the switch to multi-party system in 1947, Turkish electorate has repeatedly demonstrated that it views parties with religious discourse desirable. Religion is an integral part of Turkish politics and religious liberties have been a successful rallying point for the Islamists to establish a foothold in Turkish politics and evolve into AKP as a party of the masses.

Yet I believe religion has to be contextualized in Turkish politics. It is difficult to argue that Turks are inherently religious – or more religious than –say– French or Americans. What is being missed here is demographic trend. Migration determines Turkish demography and political behavior since 1950s. As rural-to-urban migration intensifies, larger percentage of the population feel uprooted and culturally dislocated. 1980s and 1990s were especially important in that regard. The byproduct of these two decades has been the rise of political Islam and a corresponding demand for Islamic-traditional politics in the urbanizing masses. Yet, Islam does not in itself explain the whole picture. A successful political party has to affirm cultural traditionalism through discourse, while easing urbanization through investing in mass housing projects, creating satellite suburbs and building a reliable transportation network, which connects these suburbs into city centres. In addition, it has to be economically liberal and encourage upward mobility, entrepreneurial spirit and income redistribution. This formula serves as the foundation of the AKP’s success. While Islam, or at the very least political/social conservatism is a desirable, it is not enough by itself unless it complements policies above.

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In trying to find a rather more theoretical approach, would you argue that the democratic dilemma in Turkey relies on the way the well-known Şerif Mardin’s theory on centre-periphery’s relation pictures society and institutional bodies in the country?

It is indeed incredible how, after almost 40 years after its introduction, Mardin’s view of Turkish politics still explains many dynamics. A considerable amount of expansions to the original theory – such as ‘centre in the periphery’ or ‘periphery of the centre’ – have been introduced, enriching the perspective even further.

AKP for one has long marketed itself as the long awaited arrival of the ‘perpetual periphery’ into the centre. This meant the conservative, rural, disenfranchised sociology was finally being bridged into the ‘centre’ – meaning big cities, political decision-making and opportunities for upward mobility. AKP also sought – with varying success – to bring the Kurdish periphery into the centre, but so long as they espoused Islam as their main self-identification. It is possible to see this recurring theme in Erdoğan’s speeches for example; or the most recent presidential campaign ads. AKP has definitely been the driver of a successful period of urbanization, also addressing the needs of previous waves of rural-to-urban migration.

Yet, this process is likely to hit some hurdles in the predictable future. Major problem is Turkey’s FDI-dependent economy: ‘mega projects’, sustained economic growth and continued infrastructure work – all hallmarks of the AKP’s success, need foreign financing. There was an opportunity for the AKP to translate its successful implementation of Kemal Derviş’s strategy into either production- or innovation-oriented sustainable growth. This opportunity was squandered in my opinion, and with the 2009 global financial crisis, Turkey entered a period of continued borrowing, leading to swelling of its current account deficit. This rendered Turkish economy vulnerable to financial stress, as well as external monetary shocks. Coupled with a deteriorating foreign policy – and unnecessary governmental discourse targeting international financial institutions and investment banks (sources of Turkey’s economic boom in the first place), a significant trust deficit emerged between these institutions and Turkish government. In recent attempts to narrow current account deficit, major chasms emerged between the government and Turkish economy technocrats as well, further reinforcing the level of vulnerability.

If such politicization and ideologization of economy continues, the AKP’s attempts in continuing to bridge centre and periphery will take serious damage, leading to socio-economic stress and renewed tensions between centre and periphery.

As a major point when it comes to Turkey’s domestic dynamics, how significant would you consider the Kurdish peace process is at this point in determining the level of democracy in Turkey?

Although Kurdish politics have long been characterized in Turkey as separatism or national security threat, the Kurds have succeeded in diversifying and broadening their political discourse, rather than radicalizing it further. Presidential candidate Selahattin Demirtaş symbolizes a long trend in Kurdish politics; outgrowing Kurdish nationalism and its narrow appeal, and instead appeals to a wider portion of the society, by redefining a political discourse based on political liberalism. As fears on AKP’s increasing imposition of social conservatism as state policy intensifies, Kurds’ renewal of their demands from the political system is crucial. To that extent, whether Demirtaş is going to win the elections or not is not very relevant; he is currently acting as a pivot for another centre-periphery convergence: while Turkey’s rural-conservatives moved to the centre through better micro-governance and macro-democratic ambitions, the Kurds are now trying to move into Turkish political centre through advocating for micro-democracies.

While the AKP attempted to unite Turks and Kurds through an Islamist discourse, Kurds have chosen to unite with mainstream Turkish politics through micro-democratic ambitions and liberalism. I find this shift very important for the structure of Turkish democracy.

Can the Kurds finish what the AKP has started? This question can only be answered after whom – or which political interests – will rule the AKP once Erdoğan becomes the President. I believe Erdoğan has become too ‘heavy’ for AKP, in terms of his rash responses and divisive language, and thus the AKP may well restructure itself as a modified ‘v2.0’ of its former self. Perhaps not immediately, since Erdoğan still holds the financial interest networks that bind the party together, but after the elections of 2015, I sense that the AKP may attempt to reformulate itself as a less culturally and ideologically imposing entity.

Long-term growth and development in modern world can only happen through innovation and social peace; former requires sustained levels of higher education and the latter requires comfortable levels of political and intellectual freedom to institutionalize in a country. AKP of today is unable to move beyond a rigid understanding of conservative political culture and thus, fails to develop in these critical areas; yet this is precisely what it should embrace to survive politically in the long-run.

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© 2014 Research Turkey. All rights reserved. This publication cannot be printed, reproduced, or copied without referencing the original source.

Please cite this publication as follows:

Research Turkey (September, 2014), “Interview with Assist. Prof. H. Akın Ünver: The Democratic Dilemma on Turkish Playgrounds”, Vol. III, Issue 9, pp.45-52, Centre for Policy Analysis and Research on Turkey (ResearchTurkey), London, ResearchTurkey. (http://researchturkey.org/?p=6886)

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One thought on “Interview with Assist. Prof. H. Akın Ünver: The Democratic Dilemma on Turkish Playgrounds

  1. maurizio

    I think the turkey is still able to support the process of integration that has started between East and West.
    We must continue to propose ideas which bring the old man, understood as conservatism, with the new, defined as poor states asking for space development.
    I do not believe that the party now in power in Turkey has concluded its social potential, but on the contrary I think it must develop additional alliances starting from the origin.
    The problem today turkey is proposes that states that now have exhausted the original strand.
    The religious discourse should not disappear but you should distribute free areas.
    Today Turkey has problems with its suburbs.
    Must therefore enhance its influence.
    Should anticipate the actions that come from far away because its periphery and turkey anyway.

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