Dr Didem Buhari-Gulmez (co-editor of ChangingTurkey.com)
Turkey’s single-party government formed by the Justice and Development Party (JDP) is in power since 2002. Its success according to many relies upon its claim to expand individual freedoms and reverse the Sevres syndrome, which refers to the establishment’s paranoia against foreign invasion and domestic threats –such as ethnic and religious minorities and political Islamists.
However, in 11 years, the JDP government has gradually ‘absorbed’ (for ‘absorption’ of veto players, see Tsebelis 2002:28) or invalidated the majority of the key veto players in the domestic arena such as the Presidency of the Republic, Constitutional Court, media, army, YOK and OSYM institutions responsible for national education, civil society, business associations, and Ombudsman. While the weakening of the military’s political authority was generally seen as a positive step by Turkish citizens, the European Union and the international community, the insertion of JDP members and supporters to Turkey’s Presidency, Constitutional Court, mainstream media, and YOK have created much controversy. Plus, the country’s EU membership prospects seem to fade quickly since 2005 after the EU’s decision to partially halt the accession negotiations until Turkey ‘normalizes’ its relations with Cyprus.
There are several reasons for the eruption and severity of the Gezi Park demonstrations which have quickly spread to other cities gathering thousands of people from all walks of life and ideological stances. Take for instance the widespread claims of fraud in municipal and general elections and in nation-wide tests that are used to recruit judges, policemen, teachers, and scholars in favour of JDP supporters. Add to this the JDP government’s insensitivity and intolerance to any criticisms against its urban policies and its political agenda (interpreted by many as ‘too Islamist’). Even, the EU’s loss of leverage on Turkey can be seen as a contributing factor. Overall, the eruption and development of Gezi Park protests can be explained as an inevitable consequence of the lack of efficient channels through which political dissent could be expressed in Turkey. Public outrage against the mainstream media which turned a blind eye to the demonstrations confirms this.
The press statements of the Turkish Prime Minister were unfortunately very similar to an infamous speech given by the son of Muammar Gaddafi during the public protests in Libya, known as ‘Rivers of Blood’ (20/2/2011, Al-Jazeera English). During his speech, Saif Gaddafi claimed that the protesters were drunk and ignorant young people who were instruments at the hands of foreign powers. Similarly, Erdogan chose to remain defiant and called the Turkish protesters alcoholic ‘bums’ before denouncing a foreign plot against Turkey. Social media which has significantly empowered Turkish citizens (who still continue protesting despite excessive use of force by police) has thus been identified as a key ‘trouble-maker’ by Erdogan who frowns upon foreign journalists asking questions about social media information that challenges the official accounts. Supporters of the Erdogan cabinet have already started to accuse the protesters for undermining Turkey’s international prestige and its attractiveness for foreign investment. Rather than focusing upon material gains and losses relative to the external world, the World Society approach developed by John W. Meyer at Stanford University emphasizes the significance of global legitimacy for national politics and society (Meyer 2010). If a policy is not legitimate in the global context, its practice is not possible no matter how much the national society sees it as an important tradition (for the case of female genital cutting –see Elizabeth Boyle 2002). International community may be weak in terms of material pressures (like sanctioning national governments which fail to guarantee human rights) but world society indicates the (de)legitimating authority of the global sphere. In this context, legitimacy is not reducible to a ‘policy consensus among great powers’ nor to Court decisions (Clark 2005: 16).
‘Auto-legitimation is an oxymoron –an actor can jump up and down, declaring loudly that his or her actions are legitimate, but if nobody accepts this, then they are not correctly described as such, even if he or she is making a legitimacy claim’ (Reus-Smit 2007: 159).
In a world which is increasingly interconnected, people in different parts of the world do care about the moral judgments of others about what are legitimate acts both in their own lands and on a transnational level (Etzioni 2011: 122).
We can talk about a global sphere that informs our legitimacy decisions about our own actions and those of others. It is notable that legitimacy is not exclusively driven by the external world; it takes into account ‘the experienced reality of the audience’s daily life’ (Suchman 1995: 582) because:
…the fragmented and often conflictual nature of the larger cultural terrain frequently creates gaps in which actors can select among pre-existing (but not necessarily consistent) logics (Suchman 1995: 589).
What we are currently witnessing is a struggle over (global) legitimacy between the Turkish protesters and the government authorities. By using social media, Turkish protesters try to reach the world society and secure global support against what they perceive as state authoritarianism. For its part, the Turkish government defends itself by saying that it is a legitimately elected government which pursues policies that are in compliance with globally accepted standards and that the protesters are misleading the international community. Pay attention to what the credible foreign experts on Turkey who personally witness the events are saying/tweeting/writing. They are likely to be the final ‘impartial’ authorities that will answer the question of who is legitimate in its claims and demands. The current picture suggests that in order to placate the rising concerns at both home and abroad, the governmental authorities will need to (1) revise their narrow understanding of democracy and human rights; (2) deal with the Sevres syndrome within their ranks; and (3) grasp that national governments in the modern democratic world are not only accountable to a domestic constituency but also to an external community that trespasses nationalistic understandings and boundaries.
Boyle, Elisabeth H. (2002) Female Genital Cutting: Cultural Conflict in the Global Community. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.
Clark, Ian (2005). Legitimacy in International Society. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Etzioni A (2011) On Communitarian and Global Sources of Legitimacy. The Review of Politics 73(1):105–122.
Meyer, John W. (2010) World Society, Institutional Theories, and the Actor. Annual Review of Sociology 36: 1-20.
Reus-Smit C (2007) International Crises of Legitimacy. International Politics 44(1):157–174.
Suchman, Mark C. (1995) Managing Legitimacy: Strategic and Institutional Approaches. Academy of Management Review 20(3):571–610.
Tsebelis, George (2002) Veto Players: How Political Institutions Work, Russell Sage Foundation, New York.