Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Modes of Democratic Participation

PHOTO from Reuters

A recent poll conducted by by, a project of the Program on International Affairs Attitudes at the University of Maryland, suggests that Turkish citizens have strong democratic proclivities for representative government. However, most striking was that although the poll found that 87 percent of those Turkish citizens polled support the idea that their government should be guided by the will of the people (a principle enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights), an overwhelming 53 percent of those polled thought that elections should be the only time when the government should be influenced by the will of the people.

Respondents were asked whether they thought that "elections are the only time when the views of the people should have influence, or that also between elections leaders should consider the views of the people as they make decisions." Majorities in 14 out of 17 nations asked this question say that leaders should pay attention to the views of the people between elections.

On average 74 percent endorse the view that the public should have ongoing influence and 22 percent hold the "Burkian" view that elections are the only time the public should have a say in the government's decisions.

In just one country do a majority favor the view that elections are the only time the public should have influence: 53 percent of Turks. In India a plurality favor this view and in the Palestinian Territories views are divided.
The 53 percent figure raises an interesting question about how Turkish citizens conceive of democratic participation and representation. In short, Burke wins and Mill loses. However, contra Burke, 83 percent also believe that government leaders should pay attention to public opinion polls when making an important decision to help them get a sense of the public’s views. The country-by-country results indicate that Turks are unique in this position. Significantly, the result suggests that most Turkish citizens do not adopt a purely trustee view of representation, but think that representatives should be continually responsive to the will of the people. A better conclusion can be drawn when both figures are combined: Turks feel the government should be responsive to public opinion between elections, but that input from citizens should be sought by the government and not brought to the government by the citizens themselves.

The attitude that elections are the only time in which citizens should attempt to influence the government is interesting insomuch as it suggests that a majority of Turkish citizens are not apt to influence or challenge their government outside of elections. The implication is that the dominant conception of representation in Turkey is largely based on the idea that the elected representative is a trustee of their constituents and that elections are thought by many to be the key mode of democratic participation. Election turnout in Turkey is quite high and in the July 2007 parliamentary elections was 80 percent.

The poll sampled 17,525 respondents in 17 countries between Jan. 10 and March 20 and attempted to gauge both citizens' normative conceptions of government and their level of satisfaction with their current government.

Not surprised by the survey results, I have to say that I have observed political participation on quotidian level to be quite low. Most people do not join or participate in civil society organizations and community activism is quite low. For the most part, people trust state/municipal institutions to care for their concerns and dissent is kept to a minimum. If a particular policy or procedure is frustrating, most people seem competent and proud to "work around it." This usually means finding solutions on an ad hoc basis rather than trying to attempt to reform policy or procedures so that they might work better for all in the future.

As to daily enactment of political discourse, it is quite low and the sort of lively political argument that might be expected in other countries simply does not occur in Turkey to the same degree. When people do talk about politics it is often in a seemingly distanced fashion. Two days ago I was having a discussion with three friends about their disenchantment with AKP and was struck by the passivity of their resignation. They were displeased with AKP's recent actions in regard to the quick lifting of the türban ban, the policies of AKP municipalities toward alcohol, and the parties recent attempts to save itself from closure, but two of the three thought thought AKP was still the best chance for further democratization in Turkey and hoped that the party finds direction. However, rather than writing letters or telephoning the politicians with whom they are displeased or taking a more European approach to mass politics, all three of my friends were content to simply hope that AKP "finds the right path." Finding the right path is up to politicians, not the people. Like the vast majority of people to whom I have talked, politics is very much something that happens to them; it is not something they personally affect. Indeed, politics is almost like a spectator sport.

The historical, institutional, sociological, and cultural explanations for these attitudes are manifold. Since the 1960 coup, Turkish politics have been organized around political parties. The political parties tend to monopolize politics and centralize political activity in Ankara. The parties themselves are quite hierarchical and often administered by a few top officials and interactions between parties generally occur in the upper echelons of government. Within the party, power is concentrated at the top of the party structure and decisions flow downward, not upward. Parties maintain strict control of election slates and politics within the party is rarely public. As organized political activity outside of the party structure is rare and often held suspect and as opportunities for input at the lower levels of government are minimal, political participation at the grassroots is minimal.

As to politics as sport, from the birth of high-party politics in the 1960s, politicians have become a fascination and their actions a drama. When people do talk about politics, it is more often than not of the politicians. This no doubt has a lot to do with the fact that Turkey's political history since 1960 has been a story of the same politicians entering and re-entering parliamentary politics as coalitions come and go and often with the overhanging threat of a military coup should any coalition move too far out of bounds. These imposing figures in gray suits and equipped with booming voices—some more booming than others—take on all sorts of personality traits that the discussants might or might not find favorable. Courage is always an important trait and hypocrisy the ultimate sin. Stubbornness can be good or bad, depending on the situation, but if accompanied by courage, it is always a good thing. Above all is honesty, and it is no doubt that ongoing problems with corruption put this trait often first and foremost in several Turkish minds. While the political elite retain the power to enact decisions and negotiate with their cohorts in the halls of Ankara, Turkish citizens wait patiently and eagerly watch politicians use these traits like acquired superpowers, shifting in and out of parliamentary compromises and closed door machinations. I don't blame their fascination, and must admit, share it myself. However, it is more often than not an encumbrance to democratization.

Lack of participation between elections also has a lot to do with the fact that when individuals have challenged a government in between elections, they have often been deemed agitators or radicals. The 1980s coup and the violence that ensued in the months after are still very much in peoples' historical memory and I have met at least two people here who had parents who were indefinitely detained and tortured. Following the 1980s, leftist and/or Islamist political activity were seen as serious threats to political stability and the solutions military and police officials imposed were often in heinous violations of human rights and cultivated a climate of political fear that indubitably increased the risks for political activity. Clandestine deep state groups like Ergenekon and the frequent denial of civil liberties are still significant impediments to participation.

Further, on a sociological level, political action requires individual risk-taking. While it is unfair and inaccurate to say that Turks do not take risks (crossing the street can be a serious risk!), it does seem that Turks are very careful to tend to personal relationships and place a paramount importance on family and friends. From talking with people about the role politics plays in their personal lives, it is obvious that the impact of this cultivation and careful maintenance of familial and personal relationships is that rarely do people discuss polemical topics that might cause divisions or weaken these bonds. There is a tremendous amount of sensitivity concomitant with political discourse and I, too, find myself horribly conflicted when talking about politics (esp. the Kurdish question). For this reason, I have found political discourse to be limited in that the sort of interplay of ideas that takes place in argument—especially in regard to highly-explosive issues, opinions about which are often quite categorical and polarized—is simply not a common occurence. The frequent 301 prosecutions of critics accused of "insults" evidence how sensitive political discussion can be and how reactionary some people are in responding to criticism or engaging in debate on a topic in which their view is simply not to be compromised or negotiated. One of the functions of trusting politics to "the politicians" is that personal relationships that might otherwise be jeopardized when politics are at their most divisive are protected in that politics rarely becomes personal, but rather remain a distant a drama in which people differ on their favorite characters.

Political attitudes in Turkey are not necessarily generative of the political system in Turkey, but do perpetuate it. A lack of interest and opportunities for participation between elections is of re-inforced by the risk of state repression that might when individuals and groups assume political roles outside of the state structure and/or engage in speech actions with which state officials are not comfortable. Additionally, participation is much more indirectly repressed by attitudes about personal relationships and sociocultural factors that make quotidian enactments of democratic citizenship a great risk. If I am reluctant of the state's currently policy toward Kurds in the southeast, I am not going to say anything about my views if I think that other people are going to bale me a "terrorist" or a "PKK sympathizer" before they even hear the nuance of my opinion. As risk-taking becomes more acceptable and argument less of a risk, the country will certainly become more keen to discuss politics. Most important to changing attitudes about political participation between election is that as Turkey continues to develop a stronger intermediate sphere between the state and the individual, opportunities for enactments of citizenship will increased and citizens will likely demand more input in politics between elections.

Before concluding, I want to stress that these thoughts are very much rough and developing in my mind. The sketches provided should also be recognized as generalizations and do not mean that significant periodic political dissent does not take place (as with the türban protests) or that there are not a number of activists in Turkey who challenge state institutions and the elected government (and often at great sacrifice). However, it does suggest that for the majority of Turkish citizens, politics is greatly distanced from everyday life and that quotidian modes of participation are basically non-existent.

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