This obsession with personalities can fuel the very passions and tensions that such individuals feed on, and obscure the underlying factors that explain their rise in the first place.
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By Karabekir Akkoyunlu
At a time when loud, angry and divisive men (and a few women) dominate politics and defy established norms of public discourse and diplomacy, it is no surprise that popular attention becomes fixated on the character traits, appearances and speeches (or tweets) of these individuals. Yet shaped by the modern celebrity culture, 24-hour reality shows and image-driven social media platforms, this obsession with personalities can fuel the very passions and tensions that such individuals feed on, and obscure the underlying factors that explain their rise in the first place. For scholars who both live in and aim to understand these unsettled times, the challenge is to deconstruct the larger-than-life portrayals of these individuals and place the period under scrutiny in its proper comparative, historical and geopolitical context.
This is a particularly difficult – albeit no less urgent – task for scholars who try to make sense of Turkey’s fast-paced decline into authoritarianism, at a time when critical thinkers in general and academics in particular are directly targeted by President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) government. But despite Erdoğan’s tightening grip over the country’s politics and institutions, we cannot explain Turkey’s dramatic exit from democracy by pointing to one man’s hubris and single-minded pursuit for power. The larger fact is that, with its geopolitical centrality, resource-poor economy, fragile and contested institutions, and layers of entrenched societal tensions, Turkey has been exceptionally exposed to – and in turn, embodied – the fluctuating currents of global change throughout its modern history; and the present current is a particularly low one.s
Turkey is a country forged out of the genocidal destruction of multicultural empires in the age of modernisation and nation building, and carries in its social and institutional fabric the scars, the traumas and the insecurities of this formative period. It has been part of all three major waves, and subsequent counter-waves, of democratisation in the modern era: the constitutional reform movements of the late nineteenth and the early twentieth century gave way, via a decade of warfare and ethnic cleansing, to the consolidation of secular nationalist dictatorship in the interwar era. Its transformation to multiparty democracy in the post-WWII period was truncated by the emergence of military tutelage in the 1960s. And some of its most remarkable democratic reform initiatives, which came at the height of the European Union’s normative influence in the early-to-mid 2000s, are being reversed just as liberal democracies everywhere face existential crises.
Turkey’s socio-political fortunes have also been tightly intertwined with the ebbs and flows of the global economy, to which it has been deeply integrated since Ottoman times. We cannot fully grasp why Kemalist Turkey abandoned early attempts at economic liberalisation in the 1920s for a decidedly statist path in the 30s without taking into account the limited options facing the young republic in the wake of the Great Depression; nor why it reverted to a capitalist (and pro-western) direction in the late 1940s without reference to the economic crisis of 1946. The labour disputes, ideological tensions and political violence of the 1970s took place in the context of global oil crises and Arab-Israeli conflicts. Likewise, the meteoric rise and the subsequent descent into paranoia and authoritarianism of both Adnan Menderes, the populist prime minister of Turkey during the Democrat Party era, and Recep Tayyip Erdoğan are closely linked to the boom and bust cycles in global liquidity, and the capitalist growth strategies their governments pursued in the 1950s and 2010s, respectively.
Finally, Turkey’s geopolitics simply renders isolation impossible, as Anatolia has time and again become the passageway, the destination and the source for migrants and refugees. The arrival of millions of destitute Muslims from the Balkans and the Caucasus into the Ottoman Empire at the turn of the twentieth century heightened existential insecurities among the Ottoman Muslim elites and arguably paved the way for the destruction of the empire’s non-Muslim communities. The influx of half a million Iraqi Kurds fleeing Saddam Hussein’s atrocities in 1991 – itself an outcome of the First Gulf War – provided a fresh recruitment base for the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) ahead of some of the most violent years of conflict in Turkey in the mid-90s. The arrival of more than three million Syrians since the outbreak of war in that country in 2011 is sure to have an even more profound, multifaceted and lasting impact on Turkey’s demographic, socio-economic and political dynamics.
None of this is to suggest, in the deterministic spirit of Heraclitus or Ibn Khaldun, that Turkey’s fate is preordained by history and geography, and that its political actors possess no agency or responsibility to chart the country’s course. The point, rather, is to emphasise the perseverance of structure and the symbiotic relationship between individuals and their environments, at a time when actors’ roles tend to be blown out of proportion. Structural factors, as thinkers from Bourdieu to Giddens have noted, do not only help form individuals’ habitus – their socialisation, worldview, ambitions and expectations – but also affect and constrain the options available to them. In turn, the decisions made by key political actors at critical junctures of history can set the path of a country for years or even decades, thus reshaping structure.
It was İsmet İnönü, Turkey’s oft-maligned second president, who chose to keep Turkey out of the Second World War, just as it was Erdoğan, together with his former foreign and prime minister, Ahmet Davutoğlu, who drove Turkey into the quagmire of the Syrian war. It was İnönü who accepted defeat in Turkey’s first democratic election and handed over power peacefully in 1950, while Erdoğan chose to ignore defeat and refused to share power following what may turn out to be the country’s last democratic election, at least for some time, in June 2015. Both sets of choices have been fateful for Turkey’s stability and democracy. Despite their dominant political positions at the time, neither İnönü nor Erdoğan possessed the power to dictate the forces of change inside Turkey, let alone in the wider region. But it seems only İnönü was aware of this reality.
In the measured realism induced by paying attention to structure, there might be a lesson not only for decision makers, but also for those who try to make sense of Turkey, while hoping and striving for it to one day become a tolerant, pluralistic society. For much of the 2000s, and indeed up until the June 2015 election, many of these observers-cum-activists (this author included) held steadfast to the belief that a truly democratic transformation was within Turkey’s grasp. It appears, in hindsight, that in our enthusiastic idealism we grossly underestimated the astonishing capacity of the Turkish state to categorically annihilate dissent; a capacity that Kurds, Armenians or Alevis know full well, but which secular middle-class Turks have been discovering only recently.
Many of us, both in and outside the country, also miscalculated how viciously this capacity could be unleashed at a time of extreme existential angst and insecurity triggered by the dual crises of liberal democracy in the West and state failure in the Middle East. With such hopes crushed and expectations shattered, there is now a new – and equally dangerous – tendency to resort to nostalgia and fatalism, essentialising Turkey either as a hopeless cause from the outset, or a secular paradise lost in the hands of an Islamist strongman.
Ultimately, both the impatient optimism of yesterday and the despondent pessimism of today stem from a presentist approach to politics and a teleological understanding of history; expecting imminent change, wanting to be a part of it, and abandoning hope when it does not happen. Paying due attention to the deeper structural dynamics at work can have a moderating effect on both dispositions. The revolution may not be coming any time soon, but history is not ending either, and there will be a tomorrow for Turkey.
Karabekir Akkoyunlu is an assistant professor of Modern Turkey at the Centre for Southeast European Studies, University of Graz. His latest work is a co-edited special issue (with Kerem Öktem) on Turkey’s exit from democracy, published by the Journal of Southeast European and Black Sea Studies, November 2016.
This article was originally published by OpenDemocracy and is available by clicking here. The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of TransConflict.