Dictatorship in between theory and practice

Turkey’s modern history can be properly described as an adventure in attempting to achieve true democracy over the past 94 years — using the opening of Parliament on April 23, 1920 as the start of this adventure. Actually, the beginning of this adventure can be dated back to the declaration of the first constitutional monarchy in 1876 or the second constitutional monarchy in 1908 during the Ottoman era.

We may use this or that date as the beginning, but can we say that in this time Turkish people have finally fulfilled their goal of achieving a true democracy? To what extent have we been able to fulfill the slogan on the wall of the general assembly room of Parliament: “Sovereignty is vested fully and unconditionally in the nation”? To what extent have the people who held the helm of this country, particularly Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of the republic and the first parliament speaker, stuck to this principle? For instance, which description better fits Ismet Inonu, the second president of the country, publicly known as the “National Chief,” based on historical facts? Was he a democratic leader or a consummate dictator like many of his European counterparts?

Can we say that the Democrat Party (DP) and its leader Adnan Menderes provided the country with a true democratic experience during the 10 year after he came into office, thanks to the introduction of a multi-party regime due to international pressures at that time? Which end of the political spectrum is the regime that was established in the wake of the May 27, 1960 coup closer to — with one end being democracy and the other dictatorship? The attempt to reshape society and politics with the military memorandum of March 12, 1971; the coup of Sept. 12, 1980; and the Constitution of 1982, drafted in the wake of the coup and which we cannot get rid of even today — should we place these in Turkey’s democratic or dictatorial experiences?

Likewise, it is not an easy task to differentiate the post-modern coup of Feb. 28, 1997, which generals thought would continue for 1,000 years, from typical dictatorships. What is the position of the electronic memorandum of April 27, 2007 on the scales of democracy and dictatorship? What about the experience of the Justice and Development Party (AKP), which increased its value by placing its weight on the democracy scale following the 2002 elections? How should this party be remembered in history: with its democratization performance during its first two terms or with its performances resetting its democratic achievements in its latest two terms, pushing itself toward the dictatorship end of the pendulum? How will we remember the dispiriting experience of the last few years: as an indispensable phase in the struggle for democracy or as an interregnum we have to go through as a new and tyrannical dictatorship is being built?

These questions based on real life experiences will eventually be answered. But we don’t have to wait in order to get a clear answer. By comparing our painful experiences with the theoretical framework developed to this end, we can precisely describe Turkey’s current political system. How so? Easy… We just need to use the theoretical framework Fathali M. Moghaddam developed based on the experiences in Iran, China, Russia and other countries in his book, “The Psychology of Dictatorship.” The best thing to do, of course, would be to read this book. But I would like to quote from this precious book in order to help you to decide whether our country is a democracy or if it is heading toward a dictatorship.

In the book, instead of drawing certain categories for dictatorship and democracy, Moghaddam opts for treating these two concepts as two extremes of a pendulum. He believes that societies are positioned somewhere between these extremes. Some are located closer to pure dictatorship and others to pure democracy. Yet societies are not static; they are under constant change. Therefore, their positions on this pendulum may change over time and some changes may have dramatic consequences. Moghaddam says that the main message of his book is that societies continually swing between the two ends of the democracy-dictatorship pendulum. He says that all societies, including capitalist democracies such as the US, may shift toward dictatorship at any time.

For Moghaddam, in dictatorships, there is no independent legislature or judiciary, and applicable laws turn a blind eye to society’s demands, but focus instead on responding to the unfettered demands of a dictator or a dominant faction. Unprecedented levels of control and even censorship are exerted on education, press, communication and IT systems, and the society’s movements are controlled so as to ensure the survival of the regime.

The author describes three phases for the emergence of a dictatorship and argues that the first two phases serve as a springboard to dictatorship. He lists these phases as follows: (a) exaggerating the threats to secure increased support to the dictator, (b) glorifying the dictator as the solution to the current problems facing the society and (c) emergence of a dictator who will use this springboard to dictatorship.

Thus, he argues that dictatorship will be possible if there is a candidate dictator who is willing to seize power without approval of the majority. Accordingly, the Soviet dictatorship needed Joseph Stalin and Nazi Germany needed Adolf Hitler. Furthermore, he suggests that the environment that creates the dictatorship and the dictator emerge out of interconnected and interrelated conditions. Therefore, the conditions may be available for the emergence of a dictatorship, but the dictatorship will not be established if there is not a self-seeking dictator who will make use of the opportunities.

Examining the tactic of implementing aggressive policies against target groups and exaggerating external threats, Moghaddam asserts that this tactic seeks to reinforce nationalism and bellicose policies — militarism — and solidify interest groups. In an atmosphere of ultra-nationalism and militarism, where the fears of impending enemies are kept fresh at all times, blind obedience and submission to rules may peak and individuals may be forced to adapt to the desired society template. The dictator and his supporters continually create internal and external enemies by channeling attacks against the target groups defined as “others,” and they forcibly tame society according to their governance strategies.

For Moghaddam, unconditional submission and conformism constitute the very basis of all dictatorships. Submissive behavior emerges when the public obey rules unconditionally while conformism is on the ascendancy in the face of real or imaginary group pressures.

Moghaddam indicates that studies find authoritarian personalities to be extremely biased against other groups and suggest that these personalities tend to perceive people with diverse views as threats. Also, according to these studies, short-sightedness — bigotry — in the form of the need for psychological isolation is another leading characteristic of closed societies. Instead of leaving questions unanswered or regarding other answers as possible, bigots favor hearing preferred answers.

For Moghaddam, it is delusional to assume that globalism will lead to open-mindedness and contribute to the spread of democracy. This assumption runs parallel to the expectation that the world will evolve toward democratic capitalism, he maintains, and these are naive beliefs. Indeed, there is no such thing in history as the inevitability of the direction of change.

Moghaddam likes to treat dictatorship as a political system rather than a personal behavioral style, suggesting that even some great scientists and thinkers may evolve into small dictators when they find the opportunity. On the other hand, in a dictatorship, ideologies have a vital role when defined in a careful manner. False awareness and false ideologies that help to legitimatize the dominant powers will certainly be critical for keeping the members of the powerful elite together. Moghaddam adds that the role of the ideology in a dictatorship is to band ruling elites together so that they can justify the use of brute force in keeping society under tight control.

Underlining the fact that a dictatorship rests upon the powerful elite feeling solidarity due to a common ideology, he notes that the collapse of the system follows the same path. For Moghaddam, to get rid of a dictatorship, any method that would challenge the ideological solidarity among the powerful elite or that would facilitate the disintegration of this group should be attempted.

It is really tragic for me to talk about dictatorship on the 94th anniversary of the opening of Parliament. But the disgrace belongs to those who waste the opportunity given to them by a society that hopes for democratization, by growing more authoritarian every day. The following verse from Shakespeare, quoted by Moghaddam, describes our great disappointment in the best way possible:

“For sweetest things turn sourest by their deeds;

Lilies that fester, smell far worse than weeds.”