The foiled coup against Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey this past weekend reaffirms the adage that no democratically-elected government can countenance efforts to depose it through the use of force. At the same time, this event raises serious questions about the thin line dividing democracies from dictatorships. How do governments brought to power through the ballot box devolve into coercive instruments that service the rulers at the expense of their citizens? Can these processes be averted? And what mechanisms may be put in place to ensure a modicum of democratic stability in the fluid political ecosystem of the second decade of the 21st century?
Turkey’s unique democracy has developed over the years within the framework of a particularly strong state backed by armed forces widely viewed as the guardians of constitutionally- anchored secularism. Erdogan’s rise to national political dominance as the head of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) in 2003 coincided with a crackdown on opponents which gathered momentum after his victory in the 2014 presidential elections. Since then, in an effort to impose an executive presidency, he has used his largely symbolic position to hound critics, constrain civil rights, systematically harass the independent judiciary, suppress the free press and periodically block access to the social media (including Facebook, Twitter and YouTube which, ironically, he utilized most effectively to thwart the attempted coup). Charges of large-scale corruption and electoral fraud have been met with widespread attacks on critics, many of whom have fled the country in despair. Even some of his staunchest supporters at home and abroad have found themselves hard-pressed to define his latest moves as democratic in any sense of the term.
The failure of the military uprising has no doubt strengthened Erdogan’s hold on power. However, his sweeping dismissal of more than 2,700 judges and the massive arrest of military officers over a period of no more than 24 hours do not bode well for the country’s democratic prospects. What is taking place in Turkey compounds the paradox apparent in other countries as well: while military intervention in politics upends democratic rule, measures invoked to quash such interference may yield precisely the same result.
Contemporary processes of de-democratization — hardly unique to Turkey today — stem from a growing tug-of-war between formal and substantive approaches to democratic government. All democracies share certain procedural characteristics, including the supremacy of the rule of law, the provision of opportunities to replace leaders via the ballot box at regular intervals, compliance with the principle of majority rule, institutional checks and balances, and basic safeguards on individual rights. Over the course of the last two centuries, these outward attributes have frequently been imbued with liberal contents. Substantive democracies place special emphasis on civil liberties (with particular attention to freedom of speech and association), minority rights and social inclusion (together with its key corollaries: tolerance and mutual respect).
The differences between liberal and electoral democracies are best manifest in the extent to which democratic precepts of equality, justice and liberty permeate broad strata of society and are articulated structurally through robust and diverse civil societies. Needless to say, the social foundations of liberal democracies are more profoundly entrenched in states with protracted democratic experience (and often involve big government); newly-formed democratic regimes frequently lack this societal depth. But even in the most veteran democracies, the strains between formal and substantive democracy have increased as extremism has flourished in a globalized world in which all sorts of information and opinions are transmitted instantaneously with a push of a button.
With uncertainty and insecurity on the rise, many democratic leaders have allowed the more liberal trappings of their democratic rule to lapse, sometimes endangering its very existence. This is exactly the dynamic that glorifies narrow nationalism in parts of Europe and links it to growing xenophobia. It is also the thread that fuels suspicion of elected leaders in many parts of the globe while encouraging new forms of populism in democratic countries as diverse as the United States and Israel. Ongoing fears and paranoias have fomented distrust of the other and nurtured demonization of real and imagined enemies, facilitating the centralization of power and promoting personal rule (as the Turkish example illustrates so blatantly — albeit not exclusively). In extreme cases, the lack of stability and the challenges of governability have thus fomented — under the guise of democracy — a creeping, subtle and unquestionably pernicious move away from democracy itself.
In this world of multiple democratic traditions and forms, it is therefore not only possible but absolutely imperative to define the fault lines between democracies and dictatorships. Five inviolable principles underlie democratic governments. The first is that leaders can rule only at the will of their citizens, who have the incontestable right to confirm or remove them in regularly scheduled elections. The second is that citizens are protected from intrusions into the private realm (variously defined in specific countries). Any infringement of this precept is considered an untenable abuse of power. Third, checks and balances exist to preclude such transgressions, thus institutionalizing the understanding that freedom is a function of consensually-defined boundaries of self-restraint. Fourth, there is no room for violence in political interactions or confrontations, which must be conducted through persuasion according to commonly accepted rules. And finally, and most essentially, democratic government presumes that disagreements are the norm and consequently the presence of alternatives to current policies and directions is both natural and necessary. Any effort to curtail the development of these options or to constrain their proliferation undermines the bedrock of the democratic ethos.
According to these most elementary criteria, democratic slippage is occurring in too many ostensibly democratic states, leading to the creation of what can best be termed “democtatorships” which sustain increasingly dictatorial patterns under the cover of electoral democracies. This trend can be effectively avoided if some of the lessons intrinsic to the Turkish case are internalized in other marginally democratic countries.
The most obvious is the institution of term limits which, by definition, preclude the accumulation of power in the hands of any one individual or group, encourage the blossoming of ideological and personal alternatives to those in office and assure rotation at the helm of government when the majority challenges the will of their leaders (vide the smooth change in government in post-Brexit Britain). In the same vein, insisting on the separation of powers and accompanying checks and balances continues to be a critical means of averting egregious abuses of power. Prevention of violence — both physical and verbal — in the public arena is especially important in these circumstances. Perhaps more difficult — but by no means less critical, is an insistence on the maintenance of the free flow of information that assures vigorous public debate (while at the same time drawing a clear line between free speech and its destructive underside — incitement).
Ultimately, however, the key to democratic vibrancy lies in its very roots: in the continuous reiteration of the vitality of the human spirit in the face of those who wish to curb its articulation or control its various expressions. Those who defy this precept in the name of democracy not only wreak untold damage on democratic viability, they actively promote extremism and its accompanying chaos.
This is the true message emanating from Turkey today. Those determined to stem dictatorial propensities or deter anarchical trends in their own fragile democracies would do well to take note and act accordingly. Contending with the fallout of failed democracies is far more costly than dealing with the complex challenges critical to democratic perseverance.