Politics in Turkey, especially after the recent earthquake disasters, have become very tense. Is there any way out of this jam?
Of course, we may get out of this jam, but how? In order to understand and evaluate where we are today, we need to start by understanding the ‘Sultanism Regime’ that was established in 2018, after the 2017 referendum. The main characteristic of this regime is that it has made it possible for Turkey to be governed according to the personal decisions of a single person. It does not recognize any constitution, law, rule or institution. If it did, government based on the personal decision of a single person would not be possible.
This is a problem, because rules and procedures are exactly what this tumultuous period needs. But rules are not possible under Sultanism, which I define as government based on the personal decisions of one person. But there is no question of Sultanism changing. As a result, there is a great instability.
Article 8 of the constitution abolished the executive branch. Instead, it recognized that the executive branch consists solely of the President. In other words, there is no executive in Turkey, or, the executive has been made entirely personal.
In such a situation, it is not possible to make a prediction. This is not a democracy; it is a hybrid regime. Since there is no democracy in a hybrid regime, the rules of democracy do not work either.
There are elections in democracies. (But) Elections are organised in accordance with certain rules and qualifications. In other words, elections have to be free and fair. We do not have such an election system. There is no environment of freedom.
The media is monopolised…
Not only that. There is censorship of publications in the media as a whole. There is also self-censorship. Because very heavy financial strains are imposed on the media.
In this situation, is it possible to make a free choice in Turkey?
There are annual reports by Reporters Without Borders; in these reports, Turkey has been counted among the world’s largest jailers of journalists for about ten years. Moreover, Freedom House has defined Turkey as not free—an authoritarian country—since 2016. According to the World Justice Project’s 2022 data, Turkey ranks 117th among 139 countries.
In other words, it has fallen below even the most authoritarian countries; it has lost the characteristics of being a democracy. Therefore, a free election is not possible.
In short, we have fallen back from the line of holding free and fair elections in a free and liberal environment as agreed upon by the Democrat Party (DP) and the Republican People’s Party (CHP) in 1950.
So, what you have told us, should we say that there is no way out?
If, despite all these constraints, the electorate overwhelmingly rejects this system of government as a regime, which has been in place since 2018 and has been floundering in many areas and imposes great costs, then we will find a way out.
You often talk about the “individualism without morality” that permeates our society. How can a solution be found with a moral individualism?
According to some anthropologists’ theories, in places where poverty and deprivation have been going on for centuries and have now become entrenched, this deeply affects a society; people determine a survival strategy in accordance with these conditions. In this strategy, thinking about others, and assuming that one lives in a society with others, and acting in consideration of others’ rights, become crucial problems.
As such, selfishness becomes essential. You tend to think as an individual. Society as a whole does not concern you and you look for ways to utilise everything around you in order to have your own existence preserved.
The anthropologists who put forward this theory claim that for these people, the interests of their families may also have become an important part of this life strategy. In English, it is called ‘immoral householdism’.
The number of such people in Turkey is high. But we are not in a position to know how many of them there are out there. Is it the dominant or the main factor? It is not possible to say. Enhanced by urban migration and urban poverty, this phenomenon has become rather intense in cities.
Around 2006, Prof Ali Çarkoğlu and I conducted a field study on values in Turkey. We investigated what the most common mentality is. We came up with a very interesting result. We found that the characteristic that determines people’s behaviour is ‘anomie’. In a book on anomie, French sociologist Emile Durkheim argues that during the dissolution of a society, the existence of rules disappears. Old ties no longer bind people, old rules are abandoned, and new ones are not introduced. In other words, the anomic person behaves as if he does not know the existence of rules. We used the measure used by social psychologists. In the study we conducted, we found that Turkish society is incredibly anomic.
So Turkish society has no tolerance for rules?
Not at all. In traffic, construction, education… Isn’t it obvious how anomic we are in these matters? We act as we please. We see this as a natural right in ourselves.
At the time of the 1950 elections, 25 per cent of Turkey’s population lived in urban areas and 75 per cent in rural areas. Today, only 7 per cent of Turkey’s population lives in rural areas. This is a huge change. In other words, rural society has almost disappeared. In its place there is now a new urban society. We are also faced with a population that sees the city only as an opportunity, and does not embrace it as its hometown. Consequently, a new urban culture has been born. A population has emerged that is made up neither of urban nor small town dwellers, but somewhere in between. This causes difficulties and challenges for us.
In this age of advanced technology, do you think that the younger generation of this new urban population can shift to adopt a conservative structure?
They are not conservative, they are anomic. That is, they do not recognize rules. Anomie alone makes conservatism a problematic concept. Because in anomie there is no structure to protect, there are no rules. You do as you please. There is no etiquette there either. You can swear very easily. You can insult others.
We already witness such behaviour every day…
Right, and this behavior aims to change the urban culture and establish its own culture. The shortest way to do this is through politics. At one point they seem to have acknowledged with deep regret, that, “we couldn’t produce our own culture.” But that is not something that can be produced easily. It requires a serious change of mentality and philosophical depth.
Can politics replace what is referred to as urban culture?
Urban culture has a serious scientific background, philosophical perspective and pluralism. There are people to whom pluralism offers certain areas of freedom. But areas of freedom also have limits. What is unlimited is anomie. The question is, will anomie replace freedom? We don’t know that. I think it is not possible. Anomie does not lead you to a pluralistic society, but to an anarchic one. It is a question of using it to ensure and consolidate the power of a certain political leader and his staff. All populist parties and administrations have these characteristics.
Didn’t this feature emerge in our country with the Democrat Party government during 1950’s?
Yes. Then it continued with the rural-based Justice Party (Adalet Partisi led by Süleyman Demirel, ed.) and other parties. And so far as the AKP is concerned, something else has emerged. The AKP base is urban, because the majority of the Turkish population now lives in the city. Most of them are unemployed, some of them are lumpen; they have come from the countryside and have not been integrated into the city. And, this is the largest voter block in Turkey. Forty per cent.
There is this mass with a very low level of education, unemployed and unable to work in any job. [They are part of] a block now called the People’s Alliance, formed by the AKP, MHP and BBP, which is working to eliminate the status of the real urban, highly educated, employed segment of society by mobilizing this mass through religion and nationalism. They act in a very populist manner and act together with the low-income, uneducated voter bloc.
Can the earthquake disaster disrupt the tactics of this bloc?
The roots of poverty in Turkey go back to the discovery of the American continent. The discovery of the American continent and the flow of precious metals from there to Europe confronted Europe with a very serious inflation problem from the 1520s onwards. The impact of that inflation on the Ottoman Empire was devastating. [Its] economic structure gradually deteriorated, and [the Ottomans] did not realize that this was an economic problem. While Europe was rapidly industrializing, the Ottoman Empire … shrunk and collapsed economically, [and] gradually closed in on itself.
This poverty, which has existed for 600 years since the Ottomans, has become deeply entrenched.
There is also a dependent relationship between the politician and the electorate in Turkey. The power lies with the elected, not the electorate. This creates major problems in the functioning of democracy. Because in a democracy, it is essential that the representatives of the people are held accountable by the people. But it is irrational for these people to ask for accountability in the boss-contractor relationship.
In democracies, the power lies with the people. Representatives are proxies. Like lawyers, they have to fulfill the wishes of the people. They must be held accountable to the people for how well or how badly they have done. But this assumption is almost impossible in Turkey.
There are also interest groups: civil society organisations and sometimes pressure groups. These groups can mobilise votes from the masses for certain political parties.
Like the religious cults, sects and orders?
This is not the case with us. It is based on political and economic interests. But not only sects. Right-wing and left-wing trade unions also work in this way. Associations such as TÜSİAD and MÜSİAD operate in the same way. They establish interest relations with certain voter groups on different bases.
Speaking of NGO’s, what do you think about the fact that the Red Crescent, which is obliged to provide free aid to the society especially in times of disasters, sells tents to AHBAP, an external aid organisation, at very high prices?
They have turned the Red Crescent into a network of AKP holdings. It has become not a civil society organisation, but a capitalist corporation, a company intertwined with the political interest groups of the Islamist movement. It no longer represents the public interest. It represents only the interests (private interests) of the Islamist movement.
It is clear that domestic politics cannot be analysed independently of international relations. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken visited Turkey for the first time in two years since he took office. It was said that he came for the earthquake disaster. Do you think that Blinken came only for the earthquake?
No. He probably discussed many other issues. For example, the enlargement of NATO, the NATO membership of Sweden and Finland, Turkey’s foreign policy on the war in Ukraine, which is neither here nor there.
There are issues on which we cannot agree, on which we have very deep differences. But before, the message was that the Biden Administration was not favorable to Turkey and would not get closer to Turkey because of Turkey’s problems with democracy. Now it seems that the earthquake disaster has [served] as a reason to discuss problems face to face in Turkey.
Turkey is very close to many [international] political developments. There are long-standing wars in our south. Iraq is in turmoil. There is a serious friction between Iran and the US. In the Eastern Mediterranean, we have serious points of conflicts with Greece, Southern Cyprus, Egypt and Israel that have not yet turned into conflicts. Turkey has become largely isolated in Eastern Mediterranean policy. There were those who defended this as a virtue.
Is it the Blue Homeland that we’ve jumped on like it’s a find?
Not only the Blue Homeland, but also the so-called ‘precious solitude’. There is nothing valuable about loneliness. Loneliness is very costly. Only a few countries can afford to be alone.
Another catastrophe is taking place to our north. There is a Russia that is attacking Ukraine very heavily. Moreover, on Russia’s TV channels, Poland is also threatened. Since Poland is a NATO ally, it affects us directly. There are problems with the Serbs in Bosnia. When the crisis between Armenia and Azerbaijan in our east and Russia’s problems with Georgia are added, it is clear that we are surrounded by problems on all sides.
Since its foundation, Turkey, with its policy of “Peace at Home, Peace in the World”, has endeavored to keep its relations with the Caucasus, the Middle East, the Balkans, the then Soviet Union in the north, now Russia, Ukraine and others as separate from each other as possible; to maintain its relations with one without affecting the other, taking care to ensure that they do not turn into serious alliance threats that it cannot cope with. I think we have neglected this recently, and therefore it seems that we are facing increasingly intense problems.
Erdogan’s special relationship with Russian leader Putin has become increasingly uncomfortable in the West. How does this situation affect domestic politics in Turkey?
It affects not only politics but also the economy. On 19 April 2015, a person named Vladimir Frolov wrote an article titled ‘Our Man in NATO’ in the Moscow Times (Russia’s propaganda organ published in English).
As you might guess, their man in NATO was Turkey. The article starts as follows: ‘Putin has taken an ingenious strategic step: without firing a single bullet, without moving a single tank, without bombing a single aeroplane, and on top of that, without taking $2.5 billion, he has made an ingenious move to collapse NATO by selling the S 400 to Turkey.’
As far as I know, there has been no official reaction from Turkey to this article, even though it has been almost four years since it was published.
What could our NATO allies have thought when they read it?
That Turkey would divide NATO from within, prevent it from functioning, destroy the solidarity of the alliance.
In view of the recent developments, doesn’t it seem as if this is happening?
Putin probably calculated this. He failed. He must have said to himself, ‘This is how I disrupted NATO, I can prevent NATO from working by using Turkey, and if I attack Ukraine, NATO will not be able to do anything’. But it didn’t work out.
Do you agree that Turkey could continue to veto the NATO membership of Sweden and Finland?
With Sweden and Finland, so far there has been ‘success’. But for how long? Turkey has been facing serious economic problems. Although it is denied, there is a deficit of at least 45 billion dollars in the Central Bank.
Turkey has started to lose due to the economic crisis in a very serious way. Turkey has never lost income for seven years in a row, including both [the crash of] 1929 and the Second World War. [But] from 2014 to 2021, it has been in a constant decline in income – a record fall. In these seven years, our per capita income dropped from $12,500 to $8,500. Now we hear that per capita income has risen to $ 9,500. We do not know how true this is.
The Sultanism regime we live in produces poverty. Many companies have left Turkey due to the deterioration of foreign relations. Companies like Volkswagen, which wanted to invest in Turkey, have given up.
Speaking of the love for Russia, how do you react to the complete abandonment of Akkuyu (nuclear plant in construction, ed.) to Russia?
This is a great dilemma, and the irony of a government acting with the romanticism of Neo-Ottomanism. I wonder if Russia will ever leave. As you said, Akkuyu is completely abandoned to Russia. Akkuyu has completely become Russia’s base and harbour. It is a very grave situation. But no one is concerned about this.
As of the 18th century, we are a country that is the continuation of the Ottoman Empire, which suffered a lot due to Russia. Despite this, they do not see Russia as a problem in any way. On the other hand, the USA is seen as a problem, which I find odd.