Last week’s (apparently failed) coup in Turkey highlights the failings of democracy there, and illustrates some pitfalls of democracy, here and elsewhere.
Ever since Mustafa Kemal Ataturk imposed secularization and the façade of democracy in the 1920s and 1930s, Turkey has had a prolonged struggle between a largely urban, educated, Western-oriented minority, centered in Istanbul, and a traditionalist, increasingly Islamist plurality, centered in the interior. Long after Ataturk’s death, the Western-oriented minority pushed Turkey’s modernizing turn, and the army intervened several times since 1960 to roll back electoral gains of the Islamists, in the name of the supposed secular essence of the Turkish republic. Turkey was a westernizing democracy led by a minority that was kept in power by the army.
But its democratic legitimacy depended on holding credible elections, which the Islamists kept winning. The current president, Erdogan, has been in power for over ten years and has increasingly resorted to heavy-handed repression against political opponents and the independent press. He is using his popular support as a mandate to concentrate ever more power in his own hands.
The twentieth century Turkish model of democracy was thus fundamentally flawed. It was marked from its Kemalist birth as a project to impose democracy on the Turkish people, and to transform their culture over decades to make them fit for a proper democracy.
This is the context for the latest coup attempt. Because the army has always been a force for secularization, Erdogan’s accusation, that the coup was orchestrated by one of his Islamist rivals, is implausible. But Erdogan will nonetheless use it as justification to arrest any of his rival’s supporters he can catch.
Democracy as it has evolved in Europe and America, as it has been copied and adapted elsewhere, has a distinctive balance between two principles: popular sovereignty and limited power. Popular sovereignty means that no government is entitled to rule unless it has an uncoerced popular vote behind it. Limited power means that even with such a popular mandate, there are limits to what any government may do. Those limits may be embodied in constitutional provisions, or in the distribution of legitimate authority to institutions the government may not control, such as the courts. This model of popularly elected governments with limited authority is called liberal democracy.
Nowhere in the model of liberal democracy is the military allowed to take over the government in the name of saving democracy. The twentieth century Turkish model of democracy was thus fundamentally flawed. It was marked from its Kemalist birth as a project to impose democracy on the Turkish people, and to transform their culture over decades to make them fit for a proper democracy. We now witness its final failure.
But neither is the populist democratic model being developed by Erdogan a good fit for liberal democracy. Rather than accept limits on his authority, he is increasingly moving to concentrate power, to destroy or coopt any rival centers of power. The popular mandate justifies everything. This is Illiberal democracy: still democratic in the fundamental sense that the legitimacy of the government derives from its popular electoral support (compare Saudi Arabia’s monarchy, or Iran’s theocracy), but without effective checks on the ruler.
Such populist democracy is not limited to Turkey. One may find it in countries as varied as contemporary Venezuela or Russia or Zimbabwe. It is a temptation everywhere for leaders who have popular support to use that support to justify suppressing opposition. Populist democracy allows the popularly-supported ruler to push through whatever radical reforms may be desired, without having to worry about checks and balances.
But populist democracy is fundamentally unstable precisely because of this absence of checks on authority. Unlike liberal democracy, populist democracy allows no way to stop the government or to remove it, except insurrection.
That is why liberal democracies endure and populist democracies do not. But liberal democracies are always subject to the populist temptation, precisely because their rulers are limited.
This is where Trump meets Turkey. Everything about his campaign is about him, and his supporters seem entirely supportive of the idea that he can, single-handedly, fix every problem. If the larger electorate decides he isn’t a turkey, we could be Turkey.