Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Turkish Protests and the Fundamental Question of Governance

Until recently, I haven't been following the events in Turkey very closely. I have several Turkish academic friends who have posted lots of good stuff to Facebook - much of it, unfortunately, in Turkish - which has given me a general sense that things are bad, probably worse than the slimmed-down story carried in standard American news outlets. My guess is that most of my fellow Americans aren't paying much attention either, although the longer things go on the more people may take notice.

I should also point out that I am not at all an expert in Turkish politics, nor am I Turkish myself, nor have I ever been to Turkey. But, as my friend Steve Saideman is fond of saying, why should this stop me?

In truth, I don't have any great insight into the particular conflict going on in Istanbul, nor do I have solutions or advice to offer to either the protestors or Prime Minister Erdogan. But a dimension of the conflict as it has unfolded has struck me as important - indeed, as essentially fundamental to the question of how societies govern themselves and what democracy is or should be.

The core of the conflict, as it initially began, revolved around a plan to alter (or demolish) a park in central Istanbul to make way for different kind of public space. Having never been to Istanbul, I'm in no position to say whether this was a good or a bad plan. But some Turks appear to have thought it a very bad one, and undertook nonviolent resistance tactics (e.g. occupying the park) as a means to stop the government's plan, at least until there could be a broader dialogue about it.

From this initial conflict - protesters vs. the government over the fate of Gezi Park - has grown a much larger fight between the central government and opposition groups more generally. As E. E. Schattschneider pointed out some 50 years ago, the key to winning a fight is controlling what the fight is about, because that determines who else gets involved. The original band of protesters has been very effective at getting a wide range of others involved in their fight, such that the protest expanded beyond the park itself to neighboring Taksim Square.

The government's response - personified in Prime Minister Erdogan - has been, essentially, to order the protesters to stop protesting and to employ force to drive them away. In justifying this response, Erdogan and other Turkish officials have referred to the protesters as "riff-raff", "marginal", and even "terrorists". A representative summary from a recent Reuters news article reads this way:
Erdogan argues that the broader mass of people are at best the unwitting tools of political extremists and terrorists and points to his 50 percent vote in the last of three successive electoral victories for his political authority.
However much the government might like to frame the protesters as "marginal" - and however much they may or may not not represent the majority of opinion in Turkey - the fact remains that they are Turkish citizens. One of the fundamental insights of modern democratic systems - as distinct from simple majoritarian rule - is that everyone gets a voice. In the end, not everyone will win - in this case, maybe 75% of the country really does want the park to be remodeled - but everyone gets to say their piece. And the end result, in any representative republic, is supposed to be the best approximation of the will of the people as a whole as can be achieved.

Many people lament the inefficiency of democratic institutions, but inefficiency is the price for this kind of inclusiveness. It takes time to let voices be heard, to consider all points of view, and to weigh and sift those views into something like a "national view". In some cases, shortcuts are taken where decisions need to be made quickly. And in most cases, over time the will to really do the hard work of listening and weighing and sifting declines (but that's a story for another day).

Rather than take the radically democratic approach of stepping back, framing the question, and inviting everyone in to a dialogue, the Erdogan government has chosen the other major alternative: make a decision and use force to make people accept it. That this is fundamentally undemocratic is obvious. But this is also what many countries do, much of the time. Even within the United States, there is an increasing tendency for various political factions - on the left and the right alike - to advocate for forcing their solutions on everyone else, without listening to the views of the other sides. Turkey is not so different from us, as participants from Kent State and Zucotti Park will tell us.

Perhaps this will all be resolved soon in Turkey. Perhaps the Erdogan government will find a way to back down and participate in an open national dialogue. Absent that, I think that the Turkish government is kissing away its chances of being admitted to the European Union within the next generation or two. A warning sign of this came from the German Foreign Minister:
German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle said on Wednesday the Turkish government was sending the wrong signal at home and abroad with its reaction to protests, describing pictures from Taksim square as disturbing.
"We expect Prime Minister Erdogan to de-escalate the situation, in the spirit of European values, and to seek a constructive exchange and peaceful dialogue," Westerwelle said in a statement.
The temptation to use force - to believe in the rightness of our cause and to hammer that belief home on the unwilling and the unconvinced - has been the dark side of human politics for thousands of years. A few hundred years ago, drawing on a few ideas far older but largely untested, some folks decided that maybe this really is a bad idea, and that maybe the best way to govern is by restraint and dialogue, however messy and imperfect that may be.

Despite a widespread sense that "Democracy Won the Cold War" and is the only real governance game in town, it seems that backsliding is all too easy. Today it is Turkey's turn to teach this lesson; tomorrow, perhaps, it will be ours again. But if we really believe in the basic choice of democracy - rule by consent rather than rule by force - we need to keep learning it, over and over.

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