One of the tricky things about democracy is that we think of it as being an end-state that a country can hopefully achieve and maintain – hold regular elections with peaceful transfers of power, establish rule of law, incorporate and protect civil rights – but the pathway to getting there matters. It matters for two main reasons. First, democracy is not only about substance, but also about procedure. Countries that have hollow democratic institutions, where you have parties and elections but ones that are rife with corruption, patronage, irregularities, may look democratic from the outside but are not because their process is fundamentally undemocratic. Elections themselves do not magically confer democracy. Second, people and governments are not inherently democratic. Democracy generally emerges as a way out of a political stalemate or as a compromise between parties who are not powerful enough to impose their will on everyone, and as democratic behavior is repeated and becomes habituated over time, genuine democracy takes hold. In other words, behaving democratically is not innate, but it becomes second nature as it is carried out.
The idea that process matters is enormously important in order to understand what is taking place in Turkey, and why the AKP’s constant drumbeat of claims about the high quality of Turkish democracy must be taken with a huge dose of skepticism. Almost everyone agrees that one of the AKP’s benchmark achievements has been to bring vertical accountability to Turkey, meaning that no unelected entity – in this case the military – wields ultimate power. It is for this reason that Iran is not a democracy no matter how many elections they have and no matter how free and fair they might be (not that they are), and very few people except a band of the most hardcore secular Kemalists would dispute that taking the army out of politics is a good thing and that power should be vested in those who win elections rather than those who carry guns. So the AKP’s campaign to bring the military to heel is an unqualified victory for democracy in Turkey, right? Except that it is not quite that simple, since the way the military was brought under control was through two investigations and trials, known as Ergenekon and Balyoz, that were fundamentally flawed and involved everything from detentions without trail to blatantly forged evidence. Nobody believes that these trials were victories for the rule of law, even if the ultimate end served democracy. Officers were subject to a witch hunt and the army was the victim of a campaign of recrimination in retaliation for its own decades of hounding Islamists and religious Turks, and so while it is an unqualifiedly good thing that the army will no longer be intervening in Turkish politics, nothing about the way that this result was carried out was model democratic behavior. All it did was reinforce the idea that Turkish democracy means winning power through elections and then using that power to act in fundamentally undemocratic ways.
Looking at what is taking place now as the AKP purges thousands of police officers and prosecutors in the name of subverting a coup attempt, you see a similar dynamic. The AKP talks about the Gülen movement as an undemocratic “parallel state” whose power needs to be curbed, and much like the move to curb the power of the military, there is truth in this. After all, it was the Gülenists who were responsible for the shady military trials, and to mistake them for pure democratic actors would be rank naiveté. Yet even taking the AKP’s claims about their former friends at face value, and granting that the Gülen movement uses its influence in the judiciary and the police in unsavory ways and that there needs to be some sort of check, the process here stinks to high heaven. Reassigning hundreds of police officers at once because they arrest people suspected of corruption, nakedly trying to remove all separation of powers and subordinate the judiciary to the power of the government, sending envoys from the prime minister to personally threaten the lead prosecutor of the graft cases, prosecuting eight television channels for reporting about the graft and corruption investigations…there is no way to justify this on democratic grounds, and yet this is precisely the gambit that Erdoğan and the AKP are attempting. By claiming that there is a coup attempt underway and that extraordinary measures must be taken in the name of protecting Turkish democracy, Erdoğan and his government are simply demonstrating that they don’t know the first thing about democracy or how it works.
It is a classic authoritarian gambit to use the powers of the state to go after your enemies and to claim that it is all being done in the name of security and democracy. The fact that the Gülen movement used this tactic to go after the military does not make it acceptable to use the same tactic to go after the Gülen movement. The notion that the corruption investigations constitute an attempt to carry out a coup and overthrow the government would be laughable if what was taking place in Turkey right now wasn’t so damaging to Turkey in the long term. When a government violently cracks down on protestors, fires prosecutors and police who dare to investigate allegations of gross misconduct, introduces legislation to eviscerate judicial independence, and darkly talks about foreign conspiracies supporting domestic terrorists without any shred of evidence, and does all of this in the name of “protecting democracy” and fulfilling the will of the people – people who, if the latest polls are correct, overwhelmingly condemn Erdoğan’s move to block the investigations and purge the police – it has taken an Orwellian turn for the worse. This goes double when hints of changing party rules midstream to allow Erdoğan to run for a fourth term are portrayed as being democratically necessary rather than extraordinary manipulation.
Process and procedure matter. Rule of law is not something to be subverted in order to arrive at democratic ends, because the process of implementing rule of law is itself the mark of democracy. The more that Erdoğan and the Turkish government do whatever they please because they have won elections, the more Turkish democracy withers. The only way for democracy to really take root is to have democratic behavior become repeated ad infinitum until it is routine. As Steven Cook so aptly points out today, the AKP is trying to manipulate Turkish political institutions to achieve its own ends, and Erdoğan’s and the AKP’s “fealty to democratic change extends only so far as it advances their interests.” For those still desperately clinging to the vestiges of 2002 through 2007 and the conviction that “Turkey has never been more democratic than it is under the AKP” despite all recent evidence to the contrary, the repeated and by now habitual flouting of democratic process is not something that Turkey will be able to just shake off when the AKP decides that it is time.