Demise Of The Secular Turkish Republic

Turkey has given its verdict in the referendum paving the way for a powerful Tayyip Erdogan presidency. Although the margin of victory is close and is contested by the opposition, but it does not really matter. Erdogan has gotten what he wanted.

In Turkey’s case, the referendum is another step in the process of the personalisation and enhancement of power which has been in motion since 2003. What has happened in Turkey is a democratic collapse, parallels of which could be found in Germany in the 1930s and in countries like Venezuela in modern times. In such cases, a democracy increasingly adopts a populist and then authoritarian character, often with the backing of the majority population. With time, democracy loses its liberal characteristic, which protects individual liberty against majority, and simply becomes a vehicle for establishing a majority-backed quasi-authoritarian regime. This transformation also shifts power away from multiple institutions to a single individual. In many ways, this kind of transformation is worse than a military dictatorship because it has democratic semblance, which gives it some legitimacy and hence durability.

The presidential system which Erdogan is going to head is way out of sync with other presidential systems such as that of countries like France and the US. In these countries, although the president is the head of the executive, he is nevertheless constrained by other branches of the government such as legislature and judiciary. In the case of Turkey, the new presidential system actually puts the president above the other two branches by giving him the authority to appoint senior judges and dissolve the parliament.

The implications of this for a liberal form of democracy are obvious. By placing so much power with the head of the state, Turkey has moved away from a model of checks and balances and has adopted what could be called democratic authoritarianism. In fact, it would be correct to say that Turkey is no longer a republic.

In the near future, and considering the fact that the win is actually narrow, Erdogan is likely to push even harder to use his new-found authority to quickly entrench himself in an extremely powerful position. Ironically, if he had won by a comfortable majority, he would not have been pushed to move quickly. However, given a close win and doubts over the legitimacy of the results, he is likely to quickly start using his extensive powers to change the institutional and political landscape. After the coup, the purge went way beyond the coup plotters and targeted schools, media and all the salient government institutions. With these powers and the need to quickly stifle dissent, worse is feared.

But an even greater potential impact is on the future of secularism. For years, Erdogan-led governments have been pushing Islamisation in the public sphere through various measures such as building thousands of mosques and religious schools, introducing changes in the educational system, and using religion as election rhetoric. Moreover, he also invited the exiled Muslim Brotherhood leaders into Turkey and has allowed Hamas to set up its international headquarters in Istanbul.

His has also tried to use religion to justify patriarchy and discrimination against women. In one of the most controversial quotes he said,

“You cannot put women and men on an equal footing. It is against nature. They were created differently. Their nature is different. Our religion (Islam) has defined a position for women: motherhood. Some people can understand this, while others can’t. You cannot explain this to feminists because they don’t accept the concept of motherhood.”

With this referendum, the next move could be to bring religion into the direct affairs of the state as well by introducing changes in the legal code and the constitution. The present constitution was drafted in 1982 after the coup and reflected several of the secular principles on which Mustafa Kemal Ataturk had founded the Turkish republic in 1923.

Over the years, there have already been calls by some members of the ruling party that the secular constitution be amended to reflect the Islamic identity. As I argued in my last article, secularism in Turkey largely represents an elite consensus, historically safeguarded by the Turkish military. With the society no longer secularised, there was always a danger that a populist wave could subvert secularism. Historically, the military used to step in to safeguard secularism, but now with the military rendered completely impotent after the failed coup and the subsequent purge as well as Erdogan becoming a powerful president, the transformation of Turkey into a fundamentalist religious state is a very real possibility.

If this happens, then the question will arise – can secularism and liberal democracy actually survive in Muslim majority countries? In the past, Turkey used to be our standard answer. After Turkey’s impending demise as a secular republic, I am struggling to find an answer.

A slightly different version was originally at Express Tribune.