Democracy divides Turkey’s two souls

If further proof were needed that majoritarian democracy is not a friend of liberal values, the election in Turkey this week provides it. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s march toward autocracy was affirmed by nearly 53 percent of the vote for his continuing role as an all-powerful president. His Islamist Justice and Development Party (AKP) will once again dominate parliament, now in a coalition with nationalist, anti-Kurdish allies. The other half of society, which mobilized to defeat the turn away from liberal constitutionalism, has essentially been disenfranchised even though they voted.

It seems the return of the repressed from Turkey’s military-enforced secular past keeps on returning at the polls. Today, majoritarian democracy has traded places with the role once played by authoritarian military rule.

“There have been so many authoritarian politicians over the years trying to impose one soul on Turkey, one way of life or mode of being,” Nobel laureate Orhan Pamuk told me in 2005, not long after his novel “Snow” was published. “Some wanted to impose Western secularism by military means; some wanted Turkey to be eternally traditional and Islamic. This approach destroyed democracy in Turkey. It was responsible for the coups in the 1980s.”

At that time, as Turkey still sought to join liberal Europe while consigning the military to its barracks, Pamuk expressed hope in the country’s fledgling democracy. “To have two souls is a good thing,” he said. “That is the way people really are. We have to understand that, just like a person, a country can have two souls. These souls are continuously in dialogue with each other, sparring with each other and changing each other. To have democracy is precisely to have this dialogue between these two souls.”

It turns out that democracy itself has now ruptured that dialogue.

In an interview with The WorldPost this week, Turkish novelist Elif Shafak places the election in a historical context and assesses what it means going forward. “Turkey, just like Russia, comes from a ‘strong state’ tradition,” she says. “This goes all the way back to the Ottoman Empire. In a strong state country, the state is always prioritized at the expense of individual freedoms and civil society, and it is easier for the political elite to willingly confuse ‘democracy’ with ‘majoritarianism.’”

In reality, she continues, these are quite different. “For a democracy to exist and survive, you need more than the ballot box. You need rule of law, separation of powers, free and diverse media, independent academia, women’s rights, minority rights and freedom of speech. In Turkey, all of these components are damaged or broken after 16 years of the increasingly authoritarian rule of the AKP. How then can we call this a democracy? It is not. Once majoritarianism had been consolidated, it was a very swift fall from there into authoritarianism.”

Shafak concludes: “It is a dark tunnel that my motherland has entered with this election.”

Suat Kiniklioglu sees a permanent polarization consolidated by majority rule displacing civil sparring between souls. “This election has once again underlined how culturally and politically divided Turkey is,” he says. “The country is split down the middle like an apple, with half of the country for Erdogan and the other against him. Tension around crucial issues such as secularism, education and freedom of expression will continue to strain society.”

The advantage in this ongoing battle resides decisively with Erdogan’s majority. “Erdogan now has all the levers of political power at his disposal: absolute control over the legislative body, the judiciary and, of course, the executive office,” writes Omer Taspinar. “Power has not been so centralized and personalized in the hands of one man since Mustafa Kemal Ataturk founded the republic in 1923.”

As for the opposition that lost yet another election to Erdogan’s majority, faith in democratic competition is waning. “Hope is a dangerous feeling in politics because it exacerbates frustrations. But hope is also what makes democracies function,” Taspinar warns. “Every election is a new hope for contenders. But when your hopes are repeatedly crushed, you lose faith in politics. Even worse, you lose faith in the legitimacy of the system. I am afraid this is the point we are perilously approaching in today’s Turkey.”

For Taspinar, the already fragile dialogue between secularism and Islam has been broken by an overweening nationalism in line with other populist revolts across the democracies. “The real victor of these elections is not Erdogan but an angry Turkish nationalism with all its anti-American, anti-Kurdish and anti-Europe characteristics,” he concludes. “What we are witnessing in Erdogan’s Turkey is not an Islamic revolution. It is an alarmingly big step toward nationalist fascism.”

The threat to liberal values comes not only from governments but also from social movements, as another Nobel novelist, Mario Vargas Llosa, alludes to in an interview titled “Reading ‘Lolita’ in the #MeToo era.”

“Recently we have had a big debate in Spain when a group of feminists attacked Nabokov’s ‘Lolita,’ which I think is one of the greatest 20th century novels,” he recounts. “They attacked it because they claim the main character is a pedophile. With this criterion, literature will disappear. It is grotesque! If you respect literature, you must accept not only the very idealist, altruist vision of human beings but also the infernal vision of them.”

Vargas Llosa continued: “Georges Bataille said that in human beings, there are angels and devils. Sometimes the angels are important, but for literature, devils are important too. Literature is a testimony of what we want to hide in the real word. This is the raison d’être of literature. You cannot attack literature for our vices and prejudices and stupidities. I think this is very important because I am convinced that the feminist movement’s voice should be heard, but I don’t accept this idea of censorship for literature or for culture in general.”

There is a truth in all this that bears pointing out. Democracy by majority rule is not a novel. If novelists faithful to reality, like Pamuk or Vargas Llosa, are compelled to chronicle the whole of human experience — its many souls with characters both saints and devils — democratic culture these days has become the opposite. It is about dividing that experience into “us versus them.”

This is the weekend roundup of The WorldPost, of which Nathan Gardels is the editor in chief.

This was produced by The WorldPost, a partnership of the Berggruen Institute and The Washington Post.

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