The simple answer is that, whatever one says from the ivory tower, polarization often obeys its own dynamics in the streets.
Nevertheless, understanding the roots of polarization can be helpful, and might also suggest possible approaches for limiting further polarization or even for the formation of new coalitions bridging societal chasms.
It is first important to understand that the polarization we are witnessing in Turkey has historical roots.
As we argued in this post, the history of the Turkish Republic has been largely shaped by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk’s project of state and elite control over society, spearheaded by the military, state bureaucracy and the Republican People’s Party, the CHP.
This project did transform and modernize Turkish society, in the process building state institutions and starting industrialization, albeit in quite a distorted fashion. But it also polarized Turkish society between elites and non-elites.
The elites came to see the rest of society as backward and incapable of participating in modern life and politics.
Religion gained a special place, because it became a particular language for the non-elites to resist this elite project. (Whether religion was also the reason why the non-elites would necessarily resist any sort of modernization effort is an open question).
Though the Turkish state and (part of) elites did exploit religion, for example, after a 1980 coup against leftist ideologies and groups, this chasm further opened in the 1990s.
In the intervening years, the military and state bureaucracy, now largely victorious against the left, increasingly came to define itself as the staunch defender of the secularist aspects of the Kemalist ideology.
The conflict deepened as religious-conservative parties representing the non-elites of Turkish society started gaining political power and prominence. The first salvo was the ousting from power of the predecessor of the AKP, the Welfare Party (Refah Partisi). The military also threatened action against the AKP in the 2000s as we discussed here.
Against this background, it is perhaps no surprise that many supporters and probably many of the leaders of the AKP came to view themselves as locked in an existential struggle against the remnants of the Kemalist elites, especially the military and parts of the judiciary. It is reasonable to interpret their actions, especially after solidifying their hold on power in late 2000s, as being determined by this perceived struggle.
In return, the Kemalist elites, already suspicious of the AKP, now had much to feed their suspicions: the AKP was indeed out to get them.
This all sounds very much like a textbook example of the spirals of mistrust and conflict (and partly of miscommunication) discussed by among others in Jervis’s Perception and Misperception in International Politics, though in the domestic rather than international setting.
The spiral goes something like this: Group A takes an action, which, perhaps unintentionally or perhaps because of some other political calculations, looks aggressive to Group B, who then infers that Group A is likely to be aggressive in nature, perhaps harboring secret plans for destroying Group B. Given this perception, Group B acts aggressively. In response, Group A now thinks that Group B is truly aggressive. Group A then reacts aggressively against this perceived aggressive act. As this sequence continues, the conflict spirals and spirals.
How do societies break out of spirals?
There are several ways. First, one group may crush the other, restoring peace. This is neither a peaceful solution nor one that looks appealing for the Turkish context — Turkey needs a balance of power, not the domination of one group over the rest of society, and at the moment, thankfully, neither end of the spectrum looks strong enough to be able to crush the other.
Second, the two groups may become tired of fighting or the long spiral ultimately brings its own dissolution, for reasons that are developed in this paper (essentially, a very long spiral at some point becomes an informative about the true intentions of the other side, as both sides understand that they are likely to be in a spiral that may have started for some random or incorrect reason). But Turkey does not seem to be close to this threshold at this point.
Third, some leaders may have the vision and courage to take public actions that signal their peaceful intentions, thus paving the way for the formation of new coalitions. An illustrative example of this is Nelson Mandela’s meaningful and self-sacrificing gesture of wearing the jersey of the rugby team, Springbok, traditionally associated with the racist, apartheid state and repression against blacks. (see here).
With this courageous move, Mandela not only signaled his willingness to work with whites, but ultimately united the South African nation in its march towards democracy.
This would be the hopeful solution for Turkey.
There are two possible paths to this. The first is for President Abdullah Gül, who has so far taken the most conciliatory and mature attitude within the AKP both on this and other matters, or some other AKP leader to be able to change the balance of power within his party, while continuing to try to build consensus in Turkish society at large.
The second is for the protests to turn into a fully-fledged new democracy movement, and in the process, for them or their leaders, to publicly signal their willingness to work with the rank-and-file of the AKP — and most importantly that they do not represent the remnants of the Kemalist elites trying to sideline the non-elites from politics.
So bottom line: we badly need a Turkish Mandela.
Daron’s piece in the New York Times argued that the ongoing protests in Istanbul’s Taksim Square and several other cities may be a coming-of-age moment for a more participatory democracy in Turkey, but also that things are likely to get worse before they get better. The reason for this caution, even a bit of pessimism, was that Turkey is an already polarized society, and hard-liners in the AKP might use the protests to further polarize society. So far, Prime Minister Erdoğan has indeed taken a fairly uncompromising stance.
But there is probably one immediate benefit from these events: the end of Turkish presidentialism.
It was no secret that Erdoğan, who was supposed to step down in 2015 according to the AKP’s own rules, wanted to change the Turkish Constitution to create a shift from a parliamentary to a presidential democracy, with himself at the helm as the powerful executive president.
There is no consensus in the political economy literature on the costs and benefits of parliamentary vs. presidential democracies. The most influential work on this is Torsten Persson and Guido Tabellini’s book The Economic Effects of Constitutions. A summary and critical discussion is provided in this article.
Persson and Tabellini present cross-country evidence suggesting that presidential systems have smaller governments, measured as government spending relative to GDP, and also are better able to reduce the size of government following increases in spending during downturns.
Persson and Tabellini do not, however, focus on the longevity and health of democracy. The political science literature and in particular the work of the famous political scientist Juan Linz, has suggested that presidential systems may create more political instability and may have a harder time consolidating democracy, as exemplified by the frequent coups against the presidential Latin American democracies.
In fact, it may well be that presidentialism works very differently in societies with weak institutions. When other democratic institutions are weak, a presidential system can create greater concentration of power — with no checks and balances to speak of — ultimately empowering the politically powerful and further polarizing society.
This receives some support from the willingness of the weakest democracies to switch from parliamentary presidential systems. The list of countries that have done so includes: Burundi, Cameroon, Chad, Gabon, Gambia, Ghana, Ginea-Bissau, Kenya, Malawi, Mali, Nigeria, Senegal, Sierra Leone, Sudan, Tanzania, Zaire, Zambia, and Zimbabwe, as detailed and discussed in James’s paper with Ragnar Torvik, “Endogenous Presidentialism”.
What company for Turkey!
Indeed, the fear of many was that the presidential system in Turkey would engender a less conciliatory style of politics (not that the current system in Turkey is distinguished by its conciliatory style). In the extreme, presidentialism could pave the way for a more authoritarian type of democracy, without many of the liberal trappings and the checks and balances.
Before the recent protests Erdoğan seemed set to succeed in changing the Constitution. Not only was he likely to get another huge victory in the next elections (how could he not with the opposition he was facing!) , but he also was in the process of revolutionizing Turkish politics with recent overtures for a true peace in the Kurdish parts of the country —a move that, though met with hostility from the nationalist right and left wings of the political spectrum, was likely to increase his popularity in many parts of the country and also provide support from the Kurds.
But the Prime Minister’s uncompromising attitude and increasingly authoritarian style that have fanned the flames in the streets will likely give pause to many more Turks, even to those who have voted for him and may even do so again, when it comes time to supporting a transition to a presidential system.
So perhaps, Turkish democracy is already reaping the benefits of the protests.
As most know by now, what started as peaceful protests by some 500 demonstrators in Istanbul’s Taksim Square turned into a widespread (but still peaceful) protests against the Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) eleven year rule and could define and transform Turkish democracy.
Though the protesters have been peaceful, the same cannot be said of the authorities’ reaction, as shown by the following creative (but disturbing) video.
Given these events, it is high time to revisit these issues and what the protests and the government’s reaction portend for the future.
Tomorrow, we start with a New York Times op-ed by Daron.