Turkish Democracy at Tipping Point

Erdogan, the Mideastern leader who achieved regional preeminence by his good neighbor policy and policy of treating domestic Kurds with a greater measure of justice, has now asserted the right to deny statehood to Syrian Kurds. It  reminds one of nothing so much as the Israeli assertion of the “right” to deny statehood to Palestinians.

There is nothing new in history in the story of a local tough guy telling a minority that it must kneel down, but wasn’t it only a few years ago when Erdogan appeared to be the great new democratic hope of the Mideast? Has Turkey not been the shining example to the world, under Erdogan, that it is possible to have a politically active Islamic country that also treats its people with justice and allows democracy to flourish?

Yet, now, we seem suddenly to be watching the man who would be king choosing of his own free will to burn his kingdom to the ground beneath his feet: inciting domestic sectarian civil war, radicalizing his people, and suppressing the single Mideast society that appears capable of standing up to the Islamic State campaign of barbarism.

Democracy and MinoritiesConsider a multi-ethnic political system governed by the interaction of two dynamics: the nature of the ruling majority’s conflict resolution strategy (from negotiations to force) and the degree of activism by the minority. Four alternative outcomes can be identified:

  • war (red quadrant) – if the majority’s conflict resolution strategy is “forceful” and the minority is “active;”

  • repression (blue quadrant) – if the minority is “passive;”

  • democracy (gray quadrant) – if the majority’s strategy is “conciliatory” and the minority is “active;”

  • marginalization (green quadrant) – if the minority is “passive.”

Only what I am loosely terming “democracy,” i.e., a political system that both the majority and the minority support, constitutes a solid foundation for stability in the contemporary world because all societies today are well aware of the possibility of liberty.

Democracy in a multi-ethnic state requires political activism by minorities; they must participate. It a fatal mistake for the majority to imagine that it is offering the minority a gift if it shares power: rather, empowering the minority is the condition for enabling the majority to enjoy its own liberty. The majority of course always has the option of using force, but the cost is the sacrifice of democracy: the measures required to repress the minority will generate a reaction repressing the majority as well. The weakening of Israeli democracy as the result of its repression of Palestinians, which provoked the rise of the Israeli garrison state, and the return of the Egyptian military dictatorship as the result of the military suppression of the legally elected Morsi regime are but two examples. And when the minority being repressed is gaining power politically (e.g., Turkish Kurds) or gaining power militarily (e.g., Syrian and Iraqi Kurds), the cost will not just be the loss of democracy but the provocation of war.

Democracy and Minorities - TurkeyForce might work against a passive population, but increasing force against an increasingly activist population willing and demonstrably willing and able to defend its own interests leads to war, in this case a sectarian war by Turkey against regional Kurds and against its own Kurdish citizens, spelling the collapse of Turkish democracy.Over the last 10 years, the relationship between the Turkish regime and Kurds, both inside and outside of Turkey, moved slowly but steadily for several years from military conflict, repression, and discrimination toward political integration and cooperation but then, stimulated by the rising chaos of the Syrian civil war, began shifting in 2014 toward renewed confrontation (the arrow in the diagram).

Evidence on the ground of rising hostility in Ankara toward the Kurds is accumulating, Erdogan’s anti-Kurdish rhetoric is signalling trouble to come, and Kurdish warnings of precisely that are further poisoning the atmosphere. One major unknown that might impact this slide toward renewed Turkish-Kurdish ethnic war is the recent Kurdish electoral success in Turkey, finally passing the 10% barrier for admission to parliament, which will for the first time give the Kurdish citizens of Turkey representation roughly equivalent to their proportion of the population. In theory, this victory for democracy should translate into greater justice for Turkish Kurds; unfortunately, evidence that this democratic advance will generate mutual good will remains difficult to identify.

Fortunately for Turkey, the Kurds, and the whole world, the backsliding illustrated in the diagram above remains no more than the initial sliding down the slope toward chaos. Erdogan could turn back; the other parties in parliament could deny him power to form a new regime (though it is hardly clear that a rightwing-Kurdish coalition could even be politically feasible in Turkey, much less produce a multi-ethnic democracy). The Turkish middle class could promote equality under the law and an integrated society. All that is certain at this point is that Turkey is moving backwards, and if that is the case, where is the power to save the Mideast from itself?


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