Chaotic scenes in Turkey show a melee of citizens, police and the military, some trying to restore order and others to perpetrate an attempted coup.
Broadcast in real time via mobile phone, like every latest earth-shattering crisis or terrorist attack, this time it’s coup de tat as captured by shaky-cam reality tv. But like a lot of reality TV, the emerging situation is confused. Army tanks are in the streets overrun by the public waving Turkish national flags. There are reports that the coup has failed while others say the would-be military usurpers retain some ground.
President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan returned from his holiday on the Mediterranean coast and also via cell-phone, called ‘his Turkish people’ to defend the state. Crowds of public responded and took to the streets despite the fact he’s an unpopular and increasingly authoritarian ruler. Even marginalised groups in Turkey are defending the government, and at least 47 civilians are dead in the process. But in taking to the streets, the public, are more defending the principle of democratic rule, than the (currently marginal) incumbent.
Indeed, one could be forgiven for imagining public, as well as military support for a change of President. Erdoğan has overseen a crack-down on human rights and the media. He faces increasing disenchantment from the public, though received 52% popular support at the (second, run-off) election last November. He is seen by some, (including within the military) to have betrayed important principles of state secularism, enshrined since the founding of the modern Turkish state. Allegiances with the US, Kurdish resistance, and involvement in, tensions within and spill over from neighbouring Syria have helped create domestic insecurity. Recent car and suicide bomb attacks show that terrorism targeting innocents, to paraphrase Clausewitz, is like politics; modern war fought by other means. As victims of such consequences of bad policy, the public can eventually vote governments out, but the military can stage a coup.
Erdoğan blames the exiled cleric Fethullah Gülen and his supporters ‘of betraying the nation and orchestrating the coup’. But like other opponents of Erdoğan, from members of the public, to opposition parties and socialist groups, the reported view of the cleric himself, is that the current, rotten democracy, is better than no democracy at all.
Gülen apparently condemns the attempted coup. He says “Government should be won through a process of free and fair elections, not force” and that’s a view shared by protestors in the street atop the army tanks and carrying out ‘citizen arrests’ of military coup-makers. They say they don’t support the government, “but they do support democratically elected government itself”.
Turkey has applied a curfew and martial law to try and install calm and order. Democratic rights are curtailed to try to save democracy. But even at the best of times democracy can create perverse results. Despotic leaders are elected. Governments voted in by the people, for the people, unwind and redefine the social contract, leaving citizens exposed, unprotected, sometimes victimised by unjust rule. Some of our oldest and most mature democracies are the most militarised, the most unequal; They wage war upon their own people as well as the people in former colonies and far flung states for oil or power. For many of those ‘leading’ democracies, democracy itself in other countries is less of a sovereign value and less important than geopolitical support and access to military bases. In fact paradoxically, successful coup-makers in Turkey could well attract American support, as they did in Egypt, because strategic geopolitical alliances on the red-hot borders of the Middle East, are more important than internal peace and democratic representation.
Democracy continues to contain its own contradictions around the world. In spite of the ‘Democratic Peace Theory’, it’s questionable whether democracies fight less with each other, or others generally, or whether they just export their conflicts more elsewhere.
Democratic rights, like economic and social rights, are distributed unfairly and unevenly. Violent dissent, terrorism, marginalised populations, injustice, inequality of representation and of outcomes show democracy still has a long way to go in serving all and mediating securely for peace. Democracy is used to legitimise and justify policies that don’t have public support.
But democracy still has recognised value among the range of instruments for mediating diverse public expression and for achieving a modicum of common good. It’s clearly a work in progress and must be accompanied by other active and passive instruments like a range of freedoms, protections and the rule of law. It’s by no means perfect in its implementation as the election of oppressors, war mongers and right wing reformers reveal. As Winston Churchill said, ‘Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others’.
This week someone told me I should avoid protesting the injustices and wrongs I see perpetrated by the National Government because they’re legitimately elected to govern, whether I like it or not, by means of representational democracy. I replied that I’ll hold onto my right to protest against government failings – partly because they’re failings and wrongs, and partly because in a democracy I have a recognised right to do so. I’ll hold on to the fight to change that government too, through unequal, but principled means. So despite its failings, until there’s something better, long live democracy, here in New Zealand, in Turkey, and around the world.