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.
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 adapted elsewhere, balances two sometimes conflicting principles: popular sovereignty and limited power. Popular sovereignty means that no government is entitled to rule unless supported by an uncoerced popular vote. 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.
In a liberal democracy the military may not 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 with the goal of imposing democracy on the Turkish people, and transforming 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. We see it in countries as varied as contemporary Venezuela or Russia or Zimbabwe. And, actually, leaders everywhere can be tempted to use popular 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 and balance of power within the government. Unlike liberal democracy, populist democracy allows for no way to stop or remove the government, except insurrection.
That is why liberal democracies endure and populist democracies do not. But we must remember that liberal democracies are always subject to the populist temptation, precisely because their rulers are limited. When political leaders choose paralysis (or worse, obstructionism) over collaborative problem solving, it is easy to think that the system is broken and we should just dispense with limited powers, in favor of taking quick action. But we can see from the situation in Turkey and from the short lifespan of other populist democracies that this will not lead to long-term solutions.