It is well known that “power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” So here is the question: Given that Turkish Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, does not possess absolute power and yet is considered by many to be corrupt and increasingly authoritarian, where would his pursuit of absolute power lead him and what would that mean for Turkey? In this light, the importance of the current protests in Turkey lies not so much in the political change that they could bring about, but in the possibility that they might not bring about the political change they would like to.
When he first assumed power in 2003, Prime Minister Erdogan entered the political scene with a reformist dynamic. A promising dynamic for Turkey’s economic development and growth, its relations with the EU, its civil-military relations and its democratization process, its abidance with the international and EU law, and the overall political, economic and social stability of the country as well as its increasingly important position in the region and the world. Erdogan, and his Justice and Development Party (AKP), succeeded to a great extent and Turkish people loved him for that. He gave Turkey the impetus that many believed it should have. But this is not the whole story. The more PM Erdogan and the AKP consolidated their power over the state and at the expense of the political power of the military, the more their control became “asphyxiating” (for many) and their policies reflected a top-down conservative social engineering project.
Today, his plans, and the processes of Capitalism that his policies represent, are being opposed, perhaps not by the majority of the society but surely by a large part of it. The centers of dozens of Turkish cities are witnessing massive protests while the police crackdown on the protesters has been overwhelming to the extent that it is now clear that the state does not want this social opposition to be voiced. However action causes reaction and violence brings more violence. When peaceful protesters are being violently suppressed then the state’s main responsibility, which is to ensure the well-being of its citizens, fails and the demonstrators resort to other means (i.e. reactionary violence) by necessity; in the words of Malcolm X, “Sometimes you have to pick the gun up to put the gun down.” To be sure, this is not to be wished but it is a social and historical reality nevertheless.
Now, what if the protesters fail to impact the policies of their government? What if the state disperses them successfully or the country enters a long period of prolonged social turmoil which would, however, be easily manageable by the government? The latter would mean that Turkey would become significantly unstable with societal forces opposing a government unwilling to address the obvious problems. What’s more, if the demonstrations are not successful in impacting the state’s policies or future electoral results, it means that Erdogan would most probably get re-elected but this time as President. On top of that, the position of the President would be much more powerful in the next elections should the AKP government manage to amend the constitution and convert Turkey’s political system from parliamentary to a presidential one. In this scenario, Erdogan would have absolute power.
Given that Erdogan has been thus far neglecting and downplaying the demands and importance of the protests, if he got elected as President he would be even more powerful and controlling while he would feel justified to demonize and suppress the demonstrators even more. Yet at the same time, his emerging absolute authoritarianism would be gradually opposed by an increasing number of people thus driving the country into a vicious cycle of intensified violence between the state and its citizens. It is thus clear that a possible failure of the protests to bring about political change, due to the ability of the government to control the state apparatuses and security forces as well as due to the limited dynamism and political coherence of the “movement”, could lead to even more violence and socio-political fragmentation with destructive potentials for Turkey.
Conclusively, it is obvious that a majoritarian understanding of democracy cannot – always – function, for it could easily be perceived as dictatorial by the minority, which ironically could constitute up to 49% of the electorate. From that perspective, the AKP government and Prime Minister Erdogan should initiate a meaningful dialogue with the protesters and be prepared to proceed to concessions rather than maintaining the same hard political line. Otherwise, Turkey’s future looks bleak.
Published on Strategic Outlook, 28th June, 2013.