Debate over national will misinterpreted in Turkey

As Turkey celebrates the 94th anniversary of the establishment of the Turkish Grand National Assembly on April 23, the term “national will” has continued to be employed as currency, though with misinterpretation, particularly by the ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Party).

The opening day of the Turkish Parliament on April 23, 1920, has been celebrated as an official holiday titled National Sovereignty and Children’s Day. On this anniversary, which symbolizes the significance of national will, Today’s Zaman analyzed what is understood by this ubiquitous term that is used especially by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

The right-wing political parties are traditionally fond of the term national will as a tool to fight against the dominance of the bureaucratic authoritarian system in the country. According to Professor Sabri Sayari, a political scientist, usage of this term dates back to the 1950s. The prime minister at the time, toppled by the 1960 military coup, used “national will as a tool of support for his increasingly authoritarian regime,” Sayari pointed out. Adnan Menderes and his Democratic Party (DP) had come to power in reaction to the long one-party rule of the Republican People’s Party (CHP) with the slogan “Enough! The nation has the say now,” which became very popular as a symbol of the “national will.”

Another political scientist, Professor Umit Cizre also says that although the concept of national will is popular nowadays, it has always been used and misused by the “mainstream” political parties in Turkey. With the concern to avoid generic explanations on the subject, Cizre says these are analyses that everyone agrees with since “national will” is misinterpreted mainly because we have a “problematic” democracy. “It saddens me that we are not able to go beyond a minimalist understanding of democracy,” she says while noting that, in terms of what is understood by “national will,” Turkey has not made any progress.

In Turkey, there is a growing tendency to equate “national will” to “the government.” Professor Sayari says that although it is “technically” true the results of elections determine the national will, a majoritarian approach without taking checks and balances into account is not sufficient. According to Sayari, since the establishment of democracy in, for example, the United States, similar debates have been had.

A politician from the main opposition CHP and a former minister of culture, Fikri Saglar told Today’s Zaman that Turkey is today experiencing the “dictatorship of the executive” amid debates of national will as he adds that national will cannot equal the government. According to him, because the opposition, the majority, is fragmented, the government ignores the 55 percent in reference to the people who did not vote for the AK Party in the last elections on March 30.

The media over which the government has great dominance has its share of responsibility in the misinterpretation of the national will. Professor Sayari says the media is today used completely as a “tool of propaganda.” “Even if the ruling party had received 30 percent of the vote, it would have displayed it as ‘the national will’,” he commented.

As Turkey approaches another election in August, one in which the president will for the first time be elected by popular vote, the ruling party is leaning toward labeling dissent not only as going against the national will but also as not nationalistic. For example, a decision of the Constitutional Court to remove a ban on Twitter was termed as “not national” by Prime Minister Erdogan. According to Professor Sayari, such an approach is absurd because the judiciary has an institutional duty.

In terms of elections and basic institutions, Turkish democracy is not new. However, given the immature debate revolving around the national will — as Cizre argues its definition is wrong and incomplete — there is a long way to go for a consolidated democracy.