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Turkey’s Totalitarian Democracy

Reflections on the emerging totalitarian form of Islamic democracy.

Credit: thomas koch Shutterstock.com

Takeaways


  • Erdogan wants to transform Turkey from a state with a Western identity into a state with an Islamist identity.
  • Erdogan’s vision is that of a mobilizational regime that brings masses angrily onto the streets on its own behalf.

As the purge in Turkey keeps expanding, and now includes a wave of early Soviet Union-style expropriations, the global debate about Mr. Erdogan is turning to whether Turkey is still a democracy or an authoritarian dictatorship.

This debate misses the key point. Turkey has been moving toward a form of democracy that is both totalitarian and Islamist for at least half a dozen years already.

In the aftermath of the coup attempt, a “gift from God,” according to Mr. Erdogan, his regime has shed virtually all of the restraints it had previously still observed. It is now consolidating and crystallizing its power on a totalitarian democratic trajectory.

This makes it important to understand what the “totalitarian democracy” is – and how its dynamics work.

Yes, there is such an animal as a “totalitarian democracy.”

Totalitarian regimes are sometimes hard to recognize, because democracy is their preferred modus operandi.

Quite astonishingly, totalitarians have no inhibitions about claiming the title to true democracy for themselves. They do so as a reflection of their love for arousing popular democratic passions for their ulterior purposes.

Consider the symbolism of Mr. Erdogan’s latest moves. He stands in front of a vast sea of red flags. And he loves to bathe in the emotions of his people, joyfully declaring himself bound by their wishes.

A form of tyranny

The concept of “totalitarian democracy” was developed in the last century to help us understand how Communism could combine both totalitarian and democratic features.

Its distinguishing criterion is that it is a category of tyranny that includes elements of democracy.

Its democracy is actively participatory and mobilizational, not merely representative. It is led by a movement-party with an elaborate ideology, one that deals with just about everything.

The party rules through the movement as well as through the government. Its ideology divides the entire world into two camps — friends of the movement-regime and enemies.

Erdogan’s response to the coup attempt, curiously bungled as that coup was, is a clear indication of his intention to transform Turkey away from its 20th century identity as a state with a Westernizing identity into a state with an Islamist identity.

The events of the past few weeks have put the Erdogan brand of totalitarian democracy on full display. Erdogan’s vision is that of a party-state, an ideological regime, and a mobilizational regime that brings masses angrily onto the streets on its own behalf.

The West has contributed to the totalitarian trend in Turkish democracy. It has done this inadvertently, but massively. It has pressured Turkey to transform itself into a more formally robust democracy.

Playing with democracy

Erdogan has been able systematically to eliminate the checks and balances that had kept Turkey on a basically liberal and democratic track, aided by the fact that the truly effective checks were those of a pre-democratic nature — mainly, the military.

All of this happened not least because the West felt ashamed of its longstanding support of Turkey’s military-guided liberalism.

In the name of democratic principles, the U.S. and EU have for 15 years promoted the fuller submission of Turkey’s secular military and state institutions to democratically elected rule — which now fully reveals itself as a path to Islamization.

To his credit, Mr. Erdogan can rightfully say that, except for brief interludes, he never made a secret of his long-term intentions.

Using the mechanisms of democracy has always been a tool for him to reach his ultimate goal – an Islamist republic, a Turkey in which a sledgehammer has been applied to Atatürk’s legacy.

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About Ira Straus

Ira Straus is the Chair, Center for War/Peace Studies and U.S. Coordinator, Committee on Eastern Europe and Russia in NATO.

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