Developing reciprocity in Turkish democracy

Is it possible that, since the agreed constitutional changes make the President responsible for political decision-making and appointing ministers, Turkish parliamentary life can finally normalize? Because the parties in parliament will no longer be competing over control of state institutions, the threshold for entry to parliament can be drastically reduced. Members of parliament may therefore be forced towards cooperation in legislative matters.

06.07.2017 14:42


Democracy begins in bloodshed….  To survive, however, let alone thrive, it requires a culture of mutual respect.  Popular government often emerges as a result of conflicts that turn violent, but it cannot be established or sustained unless people are willing to let their worst enemies exercise power if they win an election.

– James T. Kloppenberg, Toward Democracy:  The Struggle for Self-Rule in European and American Thought, p. 26.


Harvard professor James T. Kloppenberg’s most recent book, titled Toward Democracy:  The Struggle for Self-Rule in European and American Thought, provides much intellectual food for anyone interested in Turkey’s recent political events.  Kloppenberg argues that the essence of modern democracies revolves around three principles -- self-rule, autonomy, and equality -- but that elements rooted ultimately in culture and religion have also played a vital role. 


Kloppenberg’s description can help us understand, for instance, the political process, essentially the slow construction of true democracy, that Turkish society has gone through over the past 150 years.  The socio-political elites who founded the Turkish Republic did not dramatically change already existing political institutions – as in the late Ottoman era, a constitution, a parliament, and elections existed, but none was truly democratic in practice.  Abolishing the monarchy and establishing a republic only changed the political terminology for a few key institutions that were originally established in 1876. 


However, the popular masses that constituted the bulk of Turkish society, and their traditional culture and religion, were rejected as political informants (or did not inform in any positive way the project formulated) by those who founded the Turkish Republic. The result was that at least a majority Turkish citizens had to struggle for decades to establish their legitimacy as equal political interlocutors, and to have their culture and beliefs accepted as a source of moral and ethical guidance for Turkish politics. 


Other components of Turkish democracy also remain only partially formed.  Another approach to comprehending recent Turkish political trends is to see them as the establishment of a new, more inclusive national identity, broader than the “Turkish” identity formulated and imposed from the top down on Turkish society by the Unionist-Kemalist military-bureaucratic establishment and the intelligentsia allied to it.  This, for example, is what President Erdoğan at least partly meant two years ago when he raised a call to become “local and national” (yerli ve milli). To some extent it had to do with policy, but to some extent with a deeper notion of identity. 


Describing Turkish citizens in this manner opens the horizons of “Turkishness” to include all ethnic and religious affinities that exist in Turkish society.  For many years, Turkish intellectual space has witnessed a debate about “primary” and “secondary” identities (üst kimlik/alt kimlik).  The current, broader yerli ve milli concept gives official mandate to the “secondary” identities; it also suggests that new political actors, which are only now emerging from Turkish society, will be coming forth to participate in “negotiation and compromise,” as Kloppenburg puts it (p. 17).  Even though the the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), perceived until recently as the main political representative of Turkey’s Kurdish citizens, has dramatically failed to realize its potential, the political gains already obtained by Kurds over the past ten years illustrate the possibilities now available to all of Turkey’s minorities.


Why are these enhanced political prospects so important?  In the introduction to his study, Kloppenberg explains that the three principles (of self-rule, autonomy, and equality) that he considers to be essential to modern democracy are founded, in turn, on three premises, which he formulates as deliberation, pluralism, and reciprocity.  Of those three principles, reciprocity, which makes negotiation and compromise possible, is the one most clearly lacking in Turkish politics.


Kloppenberg defines reciprocity as “the rationale for treating all persons with respect and weighing well their aspirations and their ways of looking at the world” (p. 10).  Anyone familiar with the harsh, insulting rhetoric common to Turkish political debates should easily understand that such language makes negotiation and compromise extremely difficult, if not impossible.  Kloppenberg adds that the ultimate source of modern democratic reciprocity lies in religion.


Negotiation and compromise are almost totally absent from Turkish politics, but not because the AKP or President Erdoğan are “authoritarian.”  The problem lies in Turkish political traditions, which were largely established by the Republican People’s Party (CHP) in the first decades of the Republic’s existence.  The CHP has functioned almost exclusively as an opposition party since Turkey transitioned to multi-party politics in 1950.  But the CHP politically and symbolically represents Turkey’s traditional socio-political elites, the same segment of Turkish society that established the Turkish Republic in the 1920s and 1930s. 

The CHP and its supporters have long rejected negotiation and compromise in favor of maximalist, militant political positions that made them a permanent minority in the Turkish parliament.  Only in the 1970s, when the Turkish right was fragmented, did the CHP manage to win two pluralities in democratic elections, and even then only by a few percentage points. 


Added to the CHP’s militant politics is a general prejudice against anything associated with the Turkish masses, the various identities present in Turkish society, and the multiple cultures consequently represented by Turkish citizens.  In other words, those who founded the Turkish Republic, by-and-large, have not treated Turkish citizens with respect, or weighed well the aspirations and ways of looking at the world that Turkish citizens maintained.  The ultimate reason for this attitude lies in imported and internalized European ideas, such as Comtean positivism and Gustave Le Bon’s approach to mass psychology, which encouraged their Turkish adherents to look down on people who profess traditional beliefs, and therefore on the lower classes.  The rhetoric long utilized in Turkish political debates reflects this ideologically-fueled class condescension.   


Because the CHP and its social base never truly accepted the mass of Turkish people as equal political actors, and because the Turkish military kept mostly CHP-leaning cadres in control of state institutions, the CHP never developed a willingness to negotiate and compromise.  Just the opposite -- they felt they could insist on maintaining militant political positions and demanding that their desires be fulfilled to the letter. 


This intransigent oppositionalism has always crippled Turkish politics, but in the past ten years the situation may be said to have worsened.  The CHP’s political rigidity and refusal to accept the AKP as a legitimate political interlocutor became disastrous as the party rejected compromise on a new constitutional text to replace the current document (which had been written and dictated by the Turkish military after the 1980 coup).  This worsened the political crises of that period and eventually brought us to the 16th April 2017 referendum. 


Although the military’s influence has been removed from Turkish politics, when the CHP’s politicians don’t obtain exactly what they want, they resort to temper tantrums, the consequences for Turkish society be damned.  If the CHP and its supporters could overcome their class prejudices, and accept the necessity of political negotiation and compromise, it would remove a major obstacle to Turkey’s democracy reaching a healthier state.


Mehmet Uçum, a lawyer who is also a chief advisor to President Erdoğan, has already suggested that the nature of Turkish parliamentary politics will change because of the yes vote in the referendum.  Speaking at an Istanbul conference last week, Uçum explained that, since the agreed constitutional changes make the President responsible for political decision-making and appointing ministers, Turkish parliamentary life can finally normalize.  Because the parties in parliament will no longer be competing over control of state institutions, the threshold for entry to parliament can be drastically reduced.  And even expatriate Turkish citizens should be granted the right of parliamentary representation.  Members of parliament, accordingly, will be forced towards cooperation in legislative matters. In other words, negotiation and compromise will be on the rise as parliament’s favored mode of operation.  


Uçum’s explanation is logical, but the CHP has long been highly impervious to even the most basic political realities.  The HDP has also not shown the will necessary to permanently abandon violence and become a normal political actor.  Time will reveal whether these parties will be swayed by the presidential system’s political logic and accept participation in negotiation and compromise for the advancement of all Turkish society.  If not, they will surely be replaced by other political actors that understand the necessity of reciprocity to a vibrant democratic political culture. 




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Özgür Karacaoğlu7.7.2017 17:07:49
Dear Mr. McConnell: I think that your view touches the sore point of democracy issue in Turkey. Unfortunately, the democracy is still not considered from reciprocity perspective, even by scholars or intellectuals. It also appears that major political problems we face today would not be solved unless reciprocity is developed between political movements/actors. Thank you, Regards.