Authoritarianism is changing the very fabric of society


Nathan Gardels is the editor-in-chief of Noema Magazine.

Elif Shafak is a Turkish novelist and essayist whose celebrated works include “The Bastard of Istanbul” and “The Architect’s Apprentice.” She spoke with The WorldPost editor in chief Nathan Gardels following this week’s presidential and parliamentary elections in Turkey.

WorldPost: Turkey is one place where the populist revolt was not fueled by a bad economy or fear of immigration. Thinking it over these many months since President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s consolidation of power, what is the primary impulse carrying society in the direction of an autocratic strongman rule?

Elif Shafak: Turkey’s recent trajectory is sui generis in many ways. But in other ways, it has dark echoes of the populist movements we see elsewhere: the sharp loss of what little meritocracy there was; a “might-is-right” macho approach to politics; the erosion of separation of powers; vitriolic attacks on the media; the corrosion of the culture of coexistence; and the subsequent polarization of society, which eventually only benefits populist demagogues. It is exactly what they want.

In these and other respects, Turkey holds important lessons for progressives and democracies around the world, because what happened here could happen anywhere.

There are several important factors to underline here. Turkey, just like Russia, comes from a “strong state” tradition. 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,” whereas in reality these are two completely separate things.

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 Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (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.

Authoritarianism creates its own climate of fear, intimidation and self-censorship. When authoritarianism pervades every aspect of daily life and institutional structures, it changes not only politics and the state’s political apparatuses but also the very fabric of the society. Turkey now has a much more religious, nationalistic education system. Since 2000, the number of students graduating from religious schools has risen from 60,000 to almost 1.5 million today.

That said, we must never ignore the striking fact that despite the extraordinary powers given to Erdogan and his inner circle, especially in an almost perpetual state of emergency, at least half of the society continues to resist the monopoly of power and continues to actively push for democracy. In this sense, Turkey is not Russia at all.

WorldPost: When you overreach, you create space for those you reach over. I’m wondering if this might be true of Erdogan. In the wake of the failed coup and ensuing arrests, crackdowns and consolidation of power in the presidency, it seemed the long path toward liberal democracy in Turkey had come to an end. Now we see burblings of pushback — through the unification of the opposition in this election, for example. Do you see it this way, or does the picture remain bleak for the foreseeable future?

Shafak: The coup attempt was a horrible trauma for millions of people. It was completely wrong, unjustified and shocking, and there is no doubt it made everything worse. And then came the purge, in which thousands of people were unjustly sacked, detained, arrested or exiled.

There are so many personal stories of injustice in Turkey today waiting to be told. Ordinary citizens who have been unfairly arrested or stigmatized. Academics who have lost their jobs, passports and, in some cases, been detained just because they signed a peace petition. Turkey became the world’s leading jailer of journalists, surpassing even China. The whole situation is unacceptable.

One thing is clear: Turkey’s liberals and democrats want neither a military junta nor civil autocracy. What we need is a proper pluralistic democracy. The tragedy of countries like Turkey is that often in such places, members of civil society — or the majority of them — are far ahead of their government, and yet they lack the power to challenge the political elite.

After these elections, things are harder. Turkey has entered a new stage — a darker stage, I am afraid. It is full-steam ahead monopolization of power. Reporters Without Borders has shown that more than 90 percent of the media coverage in Turkey is pro-government. As the opposition candidate Muharrem Ince rightly warned, the country is now transitioning to a one-man regime.

WorldPost: Are there other realms where those on the losing end of Erdogan’s power are creating autonomous spaces that may well grow and even flourish in the cracks, perhaps one day even coming to flourish in the open?

Shafak: In countries with declining freedom of speech, social media remains an important platform to inform and connect people and challenge the singularity of the dominant narrative. Until recently, social media was one of those cracks in Turkey — not entirely autonomous, but at least with some limited freedoms and diversity. But that also has deteriorated and now there is more control there as well. More and more, people get sued for a tweet or a Facebook post.

What I am more hopeful about is Turkey’s women — and by this I mean women of all backgrounds. When a country slides backwards into authoritarianism, women have much more to lose than men. And Turkey’s women have been at the forefront of opposition rallies and campaigns. This is a very sexist, patriarchal country, and violence against women has been escalating, so it’s a vital moment that requires widespread solidarity and sisterhood.

But again, the question is, can women unite around shared causes, regardless of party lines? That’s difficult to achieve. And when women remain divided, the only thing that benefits from this is the status quo and the patriarchy itself.

WorldPost: Given how the election played out, what might we expect next?

Shafak: This was not a normal election. We need to highlight that. It was neither fair nor transparent. One of the leading opposition figures, Selahattin Demirtas, the head of the Kurdish-majority Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), had to conduct his election campaign from prison. So many local and national figures from HDP have been arrested, detained and censored.

Muharrem Ince, the candidate of the main opposition party, the Republican People’s Party (CHP), has emerged as an important, charismatic political leader. For the first time in years, he gave hope to millions of secularists and energized the masses, even though he did not get a fair share of airtime in the media. All the TV channels and newspapers kept covering Erdogan and allotted only a tiny amount of time for his opposition. But still, Ince managed to push back remarkably.

It is also important that opposition leaders, for the first time, managed to show solidarity. That’s why there was a considerable momentum of hope among secularists and democrats, and that’s also why we feel crushed today. That the Kurdish-majority party, which has the highest number of female politicians, was able to enter parliament is also an important achievement. Every analysis shows us that this was possible thanks to votes from the west of the country, not just the east. This is very positive.

However, Erdogan now has full control. As if that weren’t worrisome enough, we must bear in mind the key role that the ultra-nationalist, far-right Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) will be playing now that it is in coalition with Erdogan’s party. Such a coalition cannot initiate a peace process with the Kurds. Instead, we will see an increase in Islamism and nationalism as dominant ideologies, spreading through society and reshaping the education system. We will see an increase in tribalism and populist paranoia, and there surely will be more talk about the “great Ottoman past.” It is a dark tunnel that my motherland has entered with this election.

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