Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Tyranny of The Majority: Will Turkey Defend Democratic Principles? - By Dr Aland Mizell

It is an undisputed fact that democratic principles are closely linked to the will of the people almost any place where even fledgling democracies exist. Turkish citizens are able to take an active role in deciding issues that face their country. Whether the public wants to maintain the status quo or whether they want change and whether the majority of the people want change through constitutional reform and vote “yes,” the question is, “Did the majority of the electorate know what they were voting for?” Or did they just not like the military, so people wanted change? In a similar way President Obama won the election in the USA; that is not because Obama was a genius and would solve America’s economical problems, but because people wanted change and did not like Bush or perhaps his policies. Obama won but the question is what did Obama do? Did he really solve the problems? We will see the people’s answer to that question in the next election. Will Erdogan keep his promise? People will decide in the next election. Democratically reached decisions reflect the will of people but not necessary a superior wisdom or power; sometimes democratic decisions can be wrong, not just and impartial, and at times they violate basic human rights. The legal framework should limit popular sovereignty. The power of popular opinion must not go beyond the principles of the human rights system. Avoiding the risk of tyranny by the majority or minority is a key constitutional issue. Tyranny appears to have been a desire of a large portion of society and was the pervasive norm in earlier times, not excluding the United States where slavery was not abolished until 1863, nor Turkey, because until recently Turkey denied Kurdish existence and called them “mountain Turks.” Increasingly, autocratic governments make sweeping arrests of democratically elected Kurdish politicians, attack the outspoken media, allow the AKP or Gulenists free reins on their ride to power, or sanction officials’ wiretapping—now the biggest concern about Turkey’s commitment to rule of law.

For example, the former Minister of Security, Hanefi Avci, is currently appearing on televisions shows to promote his book of memoirs. In the book he reveals that Gulen’s Islamic sect has coached the AKP party to threaten to tape Avci’s conversations if he speaks against them. But why is Hanefi Avci writing against them since he was once a chief supporter of Gulen’s movement, placing his children in their schools, and infiltrating the police academy with Gulen’s students? He argues that the reason he was with them and supported them in the past was because the military and the media, as arms of the secular government, targeted them. Today, the rules have changed, and they are the majority, but now they are applying the same pressure and injustice to others, so I stand against them.

In Plato’s Dialogues he has the wrongly imprisoned Socrates reasoning with his friend Crito, who is trying to convince him to escape. In a personification of the Law, Socrates argues, “Tell us what complaint you have to make against us which justifies you in attempting to destroy us and the State? In the first place did we not bring you into existence?” The Law continues, “Well, then, since you were brought into the world and nurtured and educated by us, can you deny in the first place that you are our child and slave, as your fathers were before you? And if this is true you are not on equal terms with us; nor can you think that you have a right to do to us what we are doing to you.” By virtue of having been nurtured by the State under its laws, the citizen is obligated to obey them. Instead of fleeing from their justice, the accused must stand trial under the Law. “You might, if you had liked, have fixed the penalty at banishment in the course of the trial--the State which refuses to let you go now would have let you go then.” Interestingly, when Gülen received the penalty of imprisonment under the Turkish law—he took his counselors’ advice and fled from the Law’s justice. Now he resides in the US but perpetrates injustice first by striking out against those who speak against him and then by instigating the change of the laws through this recently passed constitutional reform package. Socrates’ argument makes an interesting point now in light of Gulen’s reign of influence from his sanctuary in the US. “All patriotic citizens will cast an evil eye upon you as a subverter of the laws, and you will confirm in the minds of the judges the justice of their own condemnation of you. For he who is a corrupter of the laws is more than likely to be corrupter of the young and foolish portion of mankind. Will you then flee from well-ordered cities and virtuous men? And is existence worth having on these terms?” Is not the Law, if it is changed to violate the principles of eternal justice, to be condemned as those who speak out against the new reform condemn it?

Today, Avci criticizes the present Turkish government in it corruption and seizure of power. Avci is very vocal in his condemnation of Turkey in its climate of fear in which residents fear that they are being victimized by a governmental set-up. Even more worthy of investigation is Avci’s claim that the Gulenists and AKP are behind many scandals, such as the Erzincan one, and that they want to change the Constitution to decrease the military’s power to increase theirs.

In the late 1700s in America, The Federalist Papers, particularly James Madison’s Paper 51, elucidated this notion of the necessity of checks and balances to avoid the dangers of a tyranny of the majority. Alexis de Tocqueville toured the United States in the early 1830s and published a book Democracy in America. He noted the importance or impact of public opinion. ”That is a form of tyranny,” he wrote. “Congress merely represents the majority and obeys it blindly. They are free to put aside minority opinion, creating a threat.” In the mid 1800s, the British philosophy John Stuart Mill spoke against tyranny of the majority in his seminal work On Liberty, citing the injustice that this tyranny could administer. If de Tocqueville were to meet Gülen and Prime Minister Erdogan, what would he say to them in light of his concept of tyranny of the majority? Will he teach them what formal and informal mechanisms can prevent the tyranny of the majority in any democratic country? What would happen to the State’s power? Would it end up in the hands of a single authority as it has now? Is the role of government being shepherded? Who is the hidden servant of tyranny? Isn’t the absence of equality that holds Turkey leading to such tyranny? Do the tyranny of the majority and the tyranny of opinion grant less independence of mind and take away more true freedom of discussion? Would it be the most critical concern that the majority would trample the minority’s rights. I am firm believer in checks and balances because it is a bulwark against tyranny of the majority. I think government should have laws which limit the excesses of a ruler-- the exact issue of today’s discussion about illegal wiretapping of its citizens and replacing Gulenists in top positions in every government agency including the judiciary, military, and police. Because in a democratic country law corrects the aberrations of democracy, an independent judiciary is necessary. In Turkey in the past the judiciary has limited the AKP’s power, and now the AKP is eager to nominate justices with an expansive view of presidential power.

Unfortunately those who are most passionate about Turkish democracy pay little attention to the issues of tyranny. In any democratic country can an individual be wiretapped without a warrant and labeled as an enemy of the state? I am not defending the military or anyone involved in the dirty wars against the Kurdish people, who are also Turkish citizens. I am not defending those who oppressed the Kurds; the state security should bring to justice the perpetrators, but not administer selective justice. I do believe the current Turkish court and legal systems are outdated, partial, and corrupt. The Constitutional reform should increase the authority of the Minister of Justice to launch probes that have been blocked in many government bills in the past because they did not serve the AKP’s and Gulen’s interest. Now Constitutional measures from the ruling AKP were approved in a nationwide referendum Sunday; yet they raise more concern about that voting process.

Is it common in religious orders to disregard the highest Imam’s orders? Will the Judiciary be independent or partial? Will they appoint Gulen’s followers? If Gulen’s followers are appointed, could they disregard Gulen’s doctrine? It is highly unlikely. The military had a special book to persecute religious groups. The code name is called “red book.” Will Gülen have a red book for seculars who go against his ideas? Will the Prime Minister take new steps to show his sincerity in solving the Kurdish problems? What is the Prime Minister’s response to the PKK’s unilateral cease-fire? All the east and southeastern provinces voted “ yes “ in the referendum. Reflecting BDP ‘s call for a boycott of vote, the Kurds sent a signal to the BDP by this higher vote for “yes, “ ask the BDP to work harder on some of the Kurdish issues, and give the government another chance to see if it will keep its promise. This referendum has divided Turkey politically, religiously and ethnically in a similar manner. The Prime Minister promised the Kurds a new Constitution that will include broader rights. Is it simply nothing more than a clever fabrication? Will Erdogan keep his promise? However, true constitutional changes should conform to democratic norms; they should strengthen individual rights, privacy, equality for all, freedom of speech, and religion freedom, and they should bring the military under civilian rule.

Dr Aland Mizell is with the MCI. You may reach the author via email at:

de Tocqueville, Alexis. Democracy in America. 1835
Hamilton, James. The Federalist Papers. 1787.
Mill, John Stuart. On Liberty. 1869.
Plato. Crito.