Turkish people's sacrifices cemented their democratic future, ensuring only elected representatives would control the state
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. --That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed…”.
-- From the American Declaration of Independence, 4 July 1776
“We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”
-- The opening sentence of the U.S. Constitution
“… popular sovereignty holds that the will of the people is the sole source of legitimate authority”.
-- James T. Kloppenberg, Toward Democracy: The Struggle for Self-Rule in European and American Thought, p. 6
The 1976 bicentennial celebrations of the American declaration of independence from Britain are one of my earliest childhood memories.
At the time, my family lived in Ketchikan, Alaska, a small town nestled on a foggy island covered by dense temperate rain forests in Alaska’s southeast “panhandle.” Even in a place as far removed from greater U.S. society as Ketchikan, there was a 4th of July parade. I remember reaching for the candy tossed from the parade vehicles going by.
The American Revolution and the innovative Constitution that it gave birth to -- the modern world’s first democratic constitution and inspiration for countless successors -- is a foundational political event of the modern era. Americans have justly celebrated this accomplishment for the following 241 years.
When America’s system was established, “democracy” was still conceived of as something like mob rule or anarchy by most educated people, but the success of the American democratic experiment has made democracy the ideal for essentially all political systems. So much so that even some of the 20th century’s most closed and dictatorial political systems labeled themselves “democratic republics”.
Turkey is one of those societies deeply influenced by the American democratic example. During the 19th and into the 20th century, French political templates were more important for Turkish elites. But following World War II and the rearrangement of the global political order, the Marshall Plan, and Turkey’s inclusion in NATO, the U.S. became the predominant influence on Turkish society.
At that time, however, Turkey’s political system was not actually democratic.
Until 1950, Turkey’s elections were not conducted according to democratic standards. After Turkish electoral regulations were changed to make ballot-marking private and tabulation public, state institutions remained outside the control of Turkish citizens’ elected representatives.
This was not only an issue of the military, the force which preserved the Ottoman Empire’s sovereignty in the aftermath of World War I and made the Turkish Republic’s foundation in the early 1920s possible, but which has also interfered in Turkish politics on numerous occasions.
All Turkish state institutions lacked democratic oversight, transparency and meritocracy, and resisted the imposition of those standards. Every time Turkish politicians threatened the state institutional status quo by exercising their rightful political influence over state institutions, the response was a military intervention that aimed, ultimately, to preserve and strengthen the non-democratic arrangements that had existed since the republic’s foundation.
Only in the past decade did that situation begin to change, and that is the fundamental reason why Turkey will permanently mark 15 July as Turkey’s democratic commemoration.
Ten years ago, in 2007, Turkish society entered a political process, the direction and essence of which no one foresaw. At that time, most observers understood that, in order for true democracy to emerge in Turkey, the military had to permanently withdraw itself, or be forcibly removed, from politics.
The end of military involvement in politics was realized in 2007-2008, and most of us thought that Turkey would finally be able to go about the process of reforming state institutions democratically.
But the end of military tutelage left another force, Fetullah Gulen’s cult-mafia, in powerful institutional positions, and possessing the wherewithal to increase, even exert, their influence. It must be emphasized that the traditional non-democratic and non-transparent nature of Turkish state institutions is what made it possible for Gulen to penetrate those institutions starting from the early 1980s at the latest.
And almost all of those who were warning about Gulen’s ultimate aims in that 2007-2008 period did so not because they wanted true democracy, but rather because they wanted to preserve the status quo. A number of exceptions, such as a journalist and a former police chief, have been accorded great esteem by Turkish society on account of their incarceration on trumped up charges after speaking up against Gulen’s organization at such an early point.
The consequent political upheavals, starting in February 2012 and culminating in last year’s defeated coup attempt, were the symptoms of a contest between a cult that saw itself as a political power, and the democratically-elected representatives of the Turkish people.
The sacrifices of the Turkish people cemented their democratic future by ensuring that only their elected representatives would remain in control of their state institutions. Nearly 250 people gave their lives to that cause, and more than a thousand sacrificed their physical well-being.
So on 15 July, foreign observers should remember: those who gave life and limb last year are Turkey’s equivalent of the American Revolutionaries who fought the British. I recommend to all foreign observers that they not only get used to this understanding, but that they also devote serious effort to comprehending why 15 July is the Turkish equivalent of America’s 4th of July or France’s Bastille Day.
15 July is the day that Turkish citizens asserted command of their own destiny. In Turkey’s case, this had to be done twice -- once in 1919-1922, when the Turkish nationalists fought to preserve the Ottoman state’s sovereignty -- and again last year, when Turkish citizens resisted rifles, tanks, helicopters, and F-16s with nothing but their hearts and spirited determination.
Like the American citizen-soldiers and the Paris masses, they embodied a people, a nation, taking responsibility for their own political fate.
What I hope is that, 200 years from now, Turkish children will reach for candies tossed from 15th of July parade vehicles (or whatever the equivalent will be in a world where technology changes with increasing rapidity) marking Turkey’s definitive establishment of democracy for all of its citizens. Turkey’s democratic future, even distant future, is what its citizens sacrificed their lives for last year.