The Countermajoritarian Difficulty, Turkish Style

turkey_flag_large.bmpTurkish politics are interesting. One of the largest Islamic countries on earth, it is — by Middle Eastern standards — an extremely stable and even moderately liberal regime. You wouldn’t want to get too gushy about Turkey. They do all sorts of nasty things from time to time in the Kurdish regions of the country, for example. Still, they have regular and more or less contested elections and moderately smooth transfers of power from one party to another, not something that you can say about too many countries in their neighborhood. Things, however, are a bit more complicated than this. The recent election of Abdullah Gul to the presidency illustrates why. Gul is the standard bearer for the Justice and Development Party, a moderate Islamicist group. Back in the day, he was the foreign minister of an earlier Islamicst government that was deposed by a military coup. The question is whether the Turkish Army will now oust him from power.

The Turkish military does this from time to time. They see their role — when not suppressing the Kurdish minority — as safe-guarding the secular constitution set up by Kamal Ataturk after the fall of the Sultanate at the end of World War I. Accordingly, they feel fully justified from time to time in deposing duly elected governments that get too enthusiastic about political Islam. It is easy, of course, for Americans to get sanctimonious about such things. For all of the anxiety that some feel about the military-industrial complex, the American military does a pretty good job at maintaining political neutrality and subservience to civilian leadership. No one but conspiracy-theory wingnuts expects the Pentagon to mount a coup if they are unhappy with election results. How horrible, we say, that the Turkish military feels justified in thwarting the will of the people.


Except, of course, that we have our own undemocratic institution that can overturn the results of elections. Indeed, the Supreme Court has even been known to announce (admittedly not with great frequency of late) that its role is to insure that the American government doesn’t get too religious. I wouldn’t want to push the analogy too far; even the worst of Supreme Court decisions is not a coup, and losing litigants are seldom driven into exile abroad. Still, there is a very real sense in which our particular version of democracy rests on a powerful, countermajoritarian institution that we expect to place basic constitutional concerns above the will of people as expressed in elections. The Turkish Army, it seems to me, performs a very similar role in the Turkish polity, providing a technocratic elite supposedly committed to the maintenance of the political order.

The interesting question, of course, is to ask why we might prefer a technocratic elite of lawyers rather than soldiers to perform this task. Neither are actually trained as philosopher kings, although arguably law provides better training for high-politics than does, say, the study of logistics. On the other hand, courts tend to be rather neutered institutions, as is illustrated by our own history. One suspects, for example, that back in the day, the Cherokees might have preferred to have the U.S. Army on their side rather than the Marshall Court. The problem is even deeper today, where constitutional courts in much of the developing world are pretty impotent creatures. Does anyone think that Mubarak in Egypt, for example, would step aside if the Egyptian Supreme Court were to declare his opponent in the last show election the lawful winner? Still, I can’t help but thinking that the expectation of military coups breeds bad political habits, whatever its constitutional virtues might be. It is worth noting, however, that it is trying to fufill a certain constiutional role that Americans tend to assume lies at the heart of liberal democracy: constraining democratic majorities with constitutional norms.

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5 Responses

  1. Patrick S. O'Donnell says:

    I’m not at all troubled by the Supreme Court as a countermajoritarian institution myself, as the “will of the people” is sometimes dangerous and wrongheaded because irrational, too passionate, etc. But this is not an argument I want to pursue here as it is far too complex and time-consuming.

    Rather, I simply want to thank you for a level-headed and fair assessment of the situtation in Turkey today. If any CO readers are new to the religion and politics of Turkey and want to begin a systematic exploration of the subject, they could do worse than consult the following:

    Ahmad, Feroz. Turkey: The Quest for Identity. Oxford, UK: Oneworld, 2003.

    Barkey, Henri J. and Graham E. Fuller. Turkey’s Kurdish Question. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 1998.

    Berkes, Niyazi. Development of Secularism in Turkey. Montreal: McGill University Press, 1964.

    Bozdogan, Sibel and Resat Kasaba, eds. Rethinking Modernity and National Identity in Turkey. Seattle, WA: University of Washington Press, 1997.

    Gunter, Michael M. The Kurds and the Future of Turkey. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 1997.

    Hillebrand, Carole, ed. The Sultan’s Turret: Studies in Persian and Turkish Culture. Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1999.

    Houston, Christopher. Islam, Kurds and the Turkish Nation State. Oxford, UK: Berg, 2001.

    Howe, Marvine. Turkey Today: A Nation Divided Over Islam’s Revival. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 2000.

    Kayali, Hasan. A History of Modern Turkey. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2003.

    Kinzer, Stephen. Crescent and Star: Turkey Between Two Worlds. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2002.

    Kirişci, Kemal and Gareth M. Winrow. The Kurdish Question and Turkey: An Example of a Trans-state Ethnic Conflict. London: Frank Cass, 1997.

    Kucuk, Hulya. The Role of the Bektashis in Turkey’s National Struggle. Leiden: E.J. Brill, 2002.

    Lewis, Bernard. The Emergence of Modern Turkey. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 3rd ed., 2001.

    Liel, Alon (Emanuel Lottem, trans.). Turkey in the Middle East: Oil, Islam, and Politics. Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner Publ., 2001.

    Malik, Hafeez, ed. Russian-American Relations: Islamic and Turkish Dimensions in the Volga-Ural Basin. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2000.

    Mardin, Şerif. The Genesis of Young Ottoman Thought: A Study in the Modernization of Turkish Political Ideas. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 2000.

    Mardin, Serif. Religion, Society and Modernity in Turkey. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 2002.

    Olson, Robert W. The Kurdish Question and Turkish-Iranian Relations: From World War I to 1998. Costa Mesa, CA: Mazda Publ., 1998.

    Olson, Robert W. Turkey’s Relations with Iran, Syria, Israel, and Russia, 1991-2000: The Kurdish And Islamist Questions. Costa Mesa, CA: Mazda Publ., 2001.

    Özbudun, Ergun. Contemporary Turkish Politics: Challenges to Democratic Consolidation. Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner, 2000.

    Özdemir, Adil and Kenneth Frank. Visible Islam in Modern Turkey. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2000.

    Pope, Hugh and Nicole Pope. Turkey Unveiled: A History of Modern Turkey. Woodstock, NY: Overlook Press, 2000.

    Rubin, Barry and Kemal Kirişci, eds. Turkey in World Politics: An Emerging Multiregional Power. Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner, 2001.

    Shankland, David. The Alevis in Turkey: The Emergence of a Secular Islamic Tradition. London: Curzon, 2003.

    Tapper, Richard, ed. Islam in Modern Turkey: Religion, Politics, and Literature in a Secular State. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 1994.

    Toprak, Binnaz. Islam and Political Development in Turkey. Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1981.

    White, Jenny B. Islamist Mobilization in Turkey: A Study in Vernacular Politics. Seattle, WA: University of Washington Press, 2003.

    Yavuz, M. Hakan. Islamic Political Identity in Turkey. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2003.

    Zürcher, Erik. Turkey: A Modern History. London: I.B. Tauris, 1997.

    If anyone is interested in more historically oriented titles I can send along a short list upon request.

  2. I think there’s also the point that–because they don’t have military power–successful countermajoritarian action by the courts indicates that the population has internalized constitutional norms about the rule of law.

  3. Buck Smith says:

    Good post! In the US, the Supreme’s countermajoritarian power is checked by voters ability to amend the constitution. Amendments correctly require a super majority over a long period of time. I don’t know if a supermajority of Turks can amend their secular consitution to allow a people’s Islamic Republic, but if they do, they deserve what they will get 😉

  4. Greg says:

    You know, I think the Turks got the better deal.

    The Turkish Army occasionally steps in. The US Supreme Court meddles on a regular basis.

    The Turkish Army is bound by principles.

    The US Supreme Court is bound only by what the members think they can get away with.

    For example, I don’t think you’d ever see the Turkish Military striking down Term Limits on politicians.

  5. Dale says:

    “Neither are actually trained as philosopher kings, although arguably law provides better training for high-politics than does, say, the study of logistics.”

    I think you aren’t giving military education and training its proper due. While all military under training in their specialty, a large percentage of military training focuses on leadership and what it takes to lead his/her troops in whatever endeavor they are undertaking. One could argue that this leadership training (and practice in times of war or peace) equips one to perform the “philosopher king” role at least as well as someone who has spent their time academically studying constitutional law.