Voting as a magic wand to emerge from the ruins

It seems the right to elect and be elected has turned out to be the last right citizens still hold in the total absence of all other rights and freedoms in Turkey.

Turkey has been traditionally a high turnout country at elections. People have always been keen to go to the polling stations and dutifully cast their votes. But for the last decade or so voting has acquired a different significance.

Why have elections become even more important for citizens now? It seems the right to elect and be elected has turned out to be the last right citizens still hold in the total absence of all other rights and freedoms that should exist in a functioning democracy. Indeed, Turkey is at the bottom of all the international rankings on rights and freedoms. The Rule of Law Index 2021 classifies the country at the 117th placeout of 128 surveyed countries.

Concomitantly, it is because there remains no other right or freedom which can be ordinarily exercised that citizens place full and often overestimated significance to elections. For years now, Turkey’s collective political stance is to bet on a political alternative to the present repressive regime that has regularly canceled citizens’ rights and freedoms. The political alternative which is supposed to emerge from the polls is seen as a magic wand to soothe all social or individual ills and redress the citizens’ abused rights. “You will see the difference when they (the regime) will be gone!” is probably the uttermost political formula we hear in Turkey for a decade. This is also why the opposition politicians and opposition media have been constantly calling for early elections.

Widely shared by the citizens as well as the opposition politicians, this state of mind has vast issues.

Domestically speaking, it literally kills any political and/or societal resistance against the regime’s deeds, or at best, it postpones them until the hypothetical victory of the opposition. Indeed the parliamentary opposition with the exception of the HDP [Peoples’ Democratic Party] has systematically refused to join in any civil disobedience and rejected all calls for street protests.

In the meantime, the regime continued to harass the citizens, flout their rights and freedoms and voided the public institutions by overruling them throughout a hypercentralized system of governance. And the more the reactions were tamed through a sort of self-censorship, the more the regime felt safe to continue to attack the rights and freedoms, and disregard public institutions.

Thus, over years, the regime sought to challenge and overturn entire processes in political, bureaucratic, economic, social, and cultural fields. The core public bodies, the academia, the territorial administration, the army, the diplomacy, the judiciary and the treasury are now in ruins and entirely dismantled by the regime’s henchmen. The parliamentary opposition has done virtually nothing to stop the process of dismantlement, continued to bet on its forthcoming victory at elections, vaguely protesting here and there, and not even being capable to keep record on the widespread institutional wreckage.

The dismantlement of institutions is probably the fundamental reason behind the dire state of basic rights and freedoms which in turn attribute an oversized importance to the only remaining right, the universal suffrage.    

An independent group, the International Foundation for Electoral Systems has examined Turkish electoral behavior in eleven elections, starting with the general elections of 18 April 1999 until the presidential and general elections of 24 June 2018 to find an average of 82.57 percent participation rate.

In Italy, the Foundation has examined 22 elections from 1999 to 2022 to find out an average of60.64 percent participation rate. The difference is striking. Italy is known with its chronic governmental problems. Since the end of World War II in 1945, the country has had 69 governments, for an average of one every 1.11 years. Despite this, Italy has continued to function and citizens’ basic rights and freedoms have been largely secured thanks to robust institutions. The case of Turkey is the exact opposite.

To illustrate with some concrete examples: academia has been brought to heel through the end of university autonomy, the sacking –by presidential decree or because of the state of emergency declared after July 2016– of some 9ö000 professors and researchers, often of high academic standing. Secondary education is being deliberately Islamized with, for example, the introduction of creationism in the curriculum at the expense of philosophy. The authorities strongly promote Sunni-only religious instruction through the relentless multiplication of Koranic schools.

Already strongly centralized, the territorial administration is now entirely dependent on the regime with governors and deputy governors directly nominated by the president according to their loyalty. The municipal administration, under administrative control by virtue of the Constitution (Article 127), is kept in line especially in the Kurdish regions whose elected mayors were almost all systematically removed and replaced by representatives of the central administration.

The armed forces have been put under the control of elected officials in the first place, thanks to the EU candidacy requirements. Nevertheless, they ended up becoming an army at the service of the regime rather than the people.

The regime has established more than the classical state monopoly on violence. In addition to the army, the police and the gendarmerie, private militias, pro-regime Kurdish militias, foreign jihadi militias, private security companies and mafia-like groupings are at its entire disposal.  

The judiciary system has become openly partisan with the members of all high courts being nominated by the president or by the Parliament where the regime parties hold a majority. The system is unpredictable, arbitrary and serves only the interests of the regime. It is not illegal but a-legal, a situation to which the opposition is usually blind, deaf, and mute.

Public finances involve a system of prebends that serves the interests of a small circle of businesspeople close to the regime and who operate exclusively in the fields of construction, infrastructure, fossil fuel investments, and mass consumption.

Turkey today looks like a citizens’ rights and freedoms cemetery that the citizens and the opposition think to resuscitate thanks to an electoral victory! No need for a crystal ball to guess that there is no quick fix to redress this situation by simply voting!

Abroad, Turkey appeasers have been using and abusing the Turkish appetite for elections as a proof of democratic functioning. Not only were the elections far from being immaculate for a decade, i.e. neither entirely free nor fair according to international observers, they constitute a fig leaf for those Turkey watchers to continue to label the political system sufficiently legitimate to co-exist with.

Theoretical oxymorons such as “competitive authoritarianism” only by virtue of organizing elections, which end up by electing and re-electing dictators are commonplace to describe the regimes like Ankara’s. Such an attitude provides strong legitimacy to the rulers and provides a sense of normalcy to the voters who naïvely or cynically think that they live in a democracy. 

Voting cannot be a magic wand to redress an ethical and institutional wreckage. Moreover, if it fails to get rid of a dictatorial regime it can become a cause for collective, lethal despair.     

*Prof. Cengiz Aktar is a Turkish political scientist, essayist and columnist. Presently a lecturer at the University of Athens (EKPA) he worked for the United Nations and with the European Commission. His latest book "The Turkish Malaise" was published in London. 

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