RECEP Tayyip Erdogan has won a referendum which would change Turkey from a parliamentary to a presidential democracy. Right? Not quite. Parliament would still have considerable powers. Nevertheless with the abolition of the post of prime minister and the authority to appoint ministers, members of the highest judiciary and to dissolve the national assembly, the powers of the president would be very significantly enhanced.
Erdogan will still need to win the 2019 elections. Given the closeness of the result this may not be a sure thing. His decision to restore the death penalty is also a clear signal that he has downgraded the priority of applying to join the European Union. This may please a right-wing Europe but it will disappoint many Turks.
The margin of Erdogan’s ‘yes’ vote over the ‘no’ vote was around 1.3 million votes and more or less equal to the number of votes that were not stamped by the electoral authorities. This could become a problem for Erdogan similar to the one that has dogged Nawaz Sharif since his election in 2013. Moreover, there seem to have been a number of divides: an urban/rural divide; a borderlands/ central lands divide; a Kemalist (secular)/ conservative (Islamic) divide; a civil/military divide; and an internationalist (pro-West)/nationalist (Turkey first) divide.
Are these divides deep-rooted? Do they threaten national unity? Not necessarily. With good and inclusive governance they can be transcended and reduced to the normal range and variety of political opinions to be found in any functioning polity. But here comes another divide: does such governance need to meet Western criteria of democracy which reflect the historical development of responsible government? Or does it require a much stronger and transforming executive functioning within the parameters of the rule of law and a constitution that politically privileges and institutionalises the rights and entitlements of historically deprived segments of society — the poor, women, minorities of all kinds, and, yes, political and non-violent dissidents?
Can Erdogan now become the leader who implements a reconciliatory strategy?
Lee Kuan Yew noted that democracy is like a Rolls Royce. If you can afford it, the Rolls is the best car on the road. If you cannot, it will be the worst investment you ever make. Similarly with democracy. Bill Clinton got it wrong when during his vanishing visit to Pakistan he said the answer to less democracy (ie bad governance) is more democracy (ie good governance). A system of ‘less democracy’ represents a major systemic obstacle to politically evolving towards ‘more democracy’. Bad governance always seeks to preserve and strengthen itself through a whole range of political deception including the illegal use of force. It does not seek to replace itself with its negation, ie good governance.
To be fair to Clinton, he was making a point against Pakistan’s military-led democracy which is the essence and guarantor of bad governance.
After the failed Turkish military coup against Erdogan’s government last July and the Turkish demand that the US hand over Fethullah Gulen for his alleged involvement, I wrote an article (Dawn, July 23, 2016) in support of Erdogan which upset some of my Turkish friends. They felt I had ignored the central political fact of Turkey that the great Ataturk’s secular principles were the only way forward towards modern, democratic and stable governance. They felt Erdogan had jeopardised these secular and democratic principles with his increasingly authoritarian, divisive and religion-based governance. He was, accordingly, risking the extraordinary achievements of modern Turkey since the Kemalist revolution almost a century ago. I felt such fears were overdrawn.
Nevertheless, I wrote “Erdogan now risks endangering his political triumph (against the coup attempt) and the still fragile plant of inclusive and institutional democracy… if he insists on imposing his will and too sweeping a clean-up on a deeply divided society”. I concluded with an emphasis on the need for “a long-term strategy to evolve a Turkish consensus on reconciling two different dynamics” in Turkish modern history and its current politics “instead of pitting one against the other in a self-destructive zero-sum game”.
Can Erdogan now become the leader who implements such a reconciliatory strategy? That would make him a true successor to Ataturk and an inspiration for the Muslim world. This is, of course, a question primarily for our Turkish brethren to consider. But given the grotesque realities of the state of the Muslim world today and the talents and sensibilities of the Turkish people, Erdogan will need to have the political imagination to address Turkish concerns about his style of governance and the political implications of his latest if hotly contested triumph.
For Pakistan, the question of a presidential or parliamentary form of democracy is vital. So far, the fake democracy we have suffered, when we haven’t laboured under outright autocratic military rule, has been based on (a) an elite hostility towards the fundamental rights and basic needs of the people, and (b) a consistent contempt for the judiciary, the rule of law and good governance. Our parliament has by and large been a perfect illustration of such a system in action.
The despair of the Senate chairman is just the latest confirmation of a perennial political pathology. Pathetic debates about reform in every aspect of national, provincial and local governance fill the media and other forums for political discussion — including parliament. These discussions are rendered sterile because they focus on so-called ‘leaders’ and parties without ever entering upon a serious consideration of how to initiate, build and sustain effective people’s movements for the people’s priorities.
There are no media or political ‘ratings’ for serious status quo-challenging discussions in a status quo system despite much ‘emotional’ rhetoric — both secular and religious — in the name of the people. Moreover, the class structure of the political system is such that ‘mainstream’ political leaders find it inconvenient or impractical to be seen by upholders and guardians of the status quo as threatening their interests. After the Quaid, no major political leader in Pakistan has been a consistent friend of the people. We could do with an Erdogan.
The writer is a former ambassador to the US, India and China and head of UN missions in Iraq and Sudan.
Published in Dawn, April 18th, 2017