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The end of the rule of law in Turkey… and the perils of political labels

After reading an unrelentingly grim article by Suzy Hansen, describing the collapse of the rule of law in Turkey in the aftermath of the failed coup in July 2016, I noticed one problem with what had been written.

I recalled a dinner in Istanbul with a couple bon vivant UN diplomats, less than a week before the abortive uprising. During our congenial discussions, fuelled by some excellent Turkish craft beer, the three of us realised that we were using terms like ‘right’, ‘left’, ‘nationalist’ and ‘conservative’ to mean rather different things as we were British, Turkish and Czech respectively. By Turkish definitions, as I was neither religious nor nationalist, I was automatically on the left, regardless of the fact I am a laissez faire free trader. The Turkish chap ‘assigned’ me to the centre-left, to differentiate me from socialists or communists… it seemed vastly amusing at the time (of course that might have been the beer laughing).

Although Suzy Hansen’s linked article in the New York Times is not without merit, this made me realise how unwise she was to bandy about terms like ‘left’ and ‘right’ when describing Turkey to an American readership: the bad guys of the article are on the right, so perhaps some US readers might conclude Erdogan’s AKP are something like the Republicans? Er, not really. In fact not in the slightest. Given the radically different cultural, political and historical frames of reference between the USA and Turkey, there are simply no meaningful analogies to be made other than at the far fringes.

It is rather hazy what ‘left’ and ‘right’ mean in Britain or America these days, let alone what they mean elsewhere. Comparing political labels in different countries is always fraught with risk and more likely to confuse than enlighten. Michael Jennings of this parish often becomes exasperated when folk in London try to compare UK and Australian political parties, as the attempt usually falls at the second fence… and this is between two countries with vastly more shared history.

33 comments to The end of the rule of law in Turkey… and the perils of political labels

  • PapayaSF

    In the mainstream American media, “right” or “conservative” often means “the bad guys.” The hardline Communists who attempted the 1991 coup against Yeltsin were regularly described as “conservatives.”

  • Fred Z

    The real error is expecting knowledge or honesty from a New York Times writer.

    As the Instapundit says, they are all Democrat operatives with by-lines.

  • rxc

    Better to use the term “totalitarian” compared to “free”. Totalitarianism can come from old-style religions or new-style scientific religions – it is all about putting the “people who know better that you do” in charge. Compared to “free” which I would say is that you get to do anything you want, as long as it does not directly impact others. A variation on the golden rule, so to speak. In fact, you could say tha the two sides are both variations on the golden rule – “Do unto others as you would have them do to you” (i.e., take care of everyone you think needs it when they are in danger or in need or you decides that they are too stupid to figure out the right thing to do/not do) – or “Do not do unto others what you would not have them do unto you” (i.e., don’t impose your beliefs/desires/thinking/values on others).

  • bob

    The “Stolen Concept” of Ayn Rand.

    In this case, obfuscation, backed by strenuous propaganda worldwide, to conflate those who espouse dictatorship (Erdogan) with those who oppose dicatatorship (laissez faire minarchists and others).

    Similarly, if one supports equal rights for women, one must surely support abortion to and shortly beyond delivery.

    Similarly, if one wants to fight Diabetes (Type I), one must be just as concerned with fighting Diabetes (Type II) and “Pre-diabetes syndrome”.

  • Rgc,
    or you decides that they are too stupid to figure out the right thing to do/not do
    Isn’t this what the (what we would call in England) left do all the time?

  • Apologies for typo rxc, only just spotted it.

  • Runcie Balspune

    Why do people refer to the religious as “right”, or rather they take the “conservative” aspect of religion to tar with the same brush? In reality, with their consistent nanny-knows-best ideology that continually bothers about what everyone else is doing and thinking, the religious “right” have way more connection to the far left than anything else. In the UK, most of the mainstream religious leadership are firmly in the socialist camp, attempting to take the moral high ground (and let someone else pay for it all).

  • The mainstream religious leadership in the UK have been as riddled with the March Through The Institutions as any other institutions.
    More broadly I suppose it depends on the religion and or sect. Some do indeed stress hard work, the family and God-helps-those-who-help-themselves. The modern C-of-E is not one of those sects. On the rare occasions I attend services I find myself biting my tongue quite a bit.

  • AKM

    There isn’t a lot of debate about what ‘left’ means in the UK and USA these days; it’s still the communists as it has been for the last ~150 years.

    The term ‘right’ is the one that is uncertain, mainly because the ‘centre-ground’ has been nudged to far to the left by the establishment media that every ideology other than socialists and communists now find themselves being described as extreme right wingers.

  • Paul Marks

    In economic terms the Turkish government is Social Democratic – it has increased government spending (on “infrastructure” and government education) and increased labour market regulation.

    But then, in many ways, so was the Bush family in the United States.

    But yes what defines the Turkish government is Islam – and the people have (by a narrow margin – the vote was much closer than I thought it would be) have endorsed Islamic dictatorship. The President will stay in power for many years (unless he is overthrown) and now has vast powers.

    The failure to support a military coup many years ago (before the regime got its supporters in key positions in the military) has borne bitter fruit.

    By the way the Shia in Turkey are interesting – they mix Shia doctrine with Sufi mysticism and tolerance (they even allow women and men to pray together and do not insist that women cover their hair).

    Flint hearted Westerners (people like me) treat Islam as a series of ideas and actions pushed by Muhammed – but there is also poetic and mystical way of understanding Islam. Which can lead to tolerance and kindness.

    But that takes a kindly heart – and my heart is about as kindly (in my own way)as that that of the Sultan of Turkey – Sultan by popular referendum.

    I am afraid I see Islam as he does – we are just on opposite sides.

  • bobby b

    “It is rather hazy what ‘left’ and ‘right’ mean in Britain or America these days . . . “

    Our current President is a life-long left-liberal Democrat who is considered to be an outrageously conservative extreme-right Republican by our personal-freedom-hating elitist and moneyed left-wing liberal Democrats.

    He won office by beating a far-left liberal who is clearly to the right of him on many issues.

    Our leftists support a religion of men that kills gays and women when they’re done raping them. Our rightists support government confiscation of private property without due process.

    Our leftists support the notion of undemocratic governmental rule by an unelected judiciary. Our rightists disagree strongly, unless they get to appoint the unelected judiciary.

    What’s hazy about this?

  • JB

    Bobby b’s comment wins the internets ❗

  • Shlomo Maistre

    Rule of law… it exists until those who rule decide it doesn’t.

  • Richard Thomas

    Ultimately, the problem with the terms “left” and “right” are that they are not descriptive, having evolved only from the seating arrangements of a bunch of politicians. Thus, meaning can be bent to pretty much whatever the speaker wishes. Is there any chance we can deprecate this less-than-useful convention?

  • Rob

    The “right” are them, the “left” is us. This handy shorthand helps the NY Times or Guardian reader quickly understand which side he should be supporting.

  • Rob Fisher

    I wrote an article about semantics and just saying what you mean, once. Left and Right are probably not useful at all. They confuse people in debates and they probably restrict thinking, too.

    Btw,looks like Erdogan can win referenda and do whatever he wants : http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-39617700

  • Alisa

    Like Rob (IIUC) I don’t like to use ideological labels. But if I am forced to use them, I don’t have much of a problem with ‘left’ and ‘right’ – as long as I have the opportunity to explain that, what is commonly referred to as ‘right-wing’ these days, rarely fits that label. IOW, what Bobby said.

  • Alisa

    In economic terms the Turkish government is Social Democratic

    It is just as socialist – but it is much less democratic, and even less so after the last referendum.

  • NickM

    Excellent post by Perry. Top comment by Paul (as usual). I holidayed in Turkey a few years back and Istanbul is/was really cool. I mean seriously cool. And now they are fucking it up epically. Magic. Though it was there, lurking, the threat of manic Islam. It was somewhat clandestine getting to see a proper Dervish dance. And that is Sufi. But perhaps this is a legacy of Ataturk. His image was all over Turkey and he was the “strong man” the Turks seem to crave. Of course a retreat into Islamism is the thought of thing to raise Mustafa Kemal from the grave but still it’s the strong man thing.

  • Snorri Godhi

    By Turkish definitions, as I was neither religious nor nationalist, I was automatically on the left, regardless of the fact I am a laissez faire free trader. The Turkish chap ‘assigned’ me to the centre-left, to differentiate me from socialists or communists… it seemed vastly amusing at the time (of course that might have been the beer laughing).

    Perry could have had the same sort of amusement in Italy; at least, up to the collapse of the Soviet Union.

    In as far as i understand Cold War Italian politics (which ain’t easy), the Right was either religious (Christian Democrats, center-right), nationalist (the crypto-fascist MSI), or monarchist (until the monarchist party merged into the MSI): the parties of the Ancien Régime. (Remember that at the time of the Frernch Revolution, the Right was the party of the monarchy, the aristocracy, and the Church.)

    The center-left included the (very moderately libertarian) Republicans and Liberals, the Social Democrats, and the Socialists. The full-blown Left were the (self-defined) Communists, and then there was a far-left fringe which, i believe, never got into Parliament.
    In practice, center-right and center-left were tightly bound together by opposition to the Communists.

    I note that, after the end of the Cold War to now, it has been the “left” that has been pushing, occasionally, for free-market reforms in Italy; just as it did in Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, at some points within living memory.

    Brexit and Trump seem to be leading to realignments. It might not make sense now (see Bobby above) but in a few years it will.

  • Alisa

    Brexit and Trump seem to be leading to realignments. It might not make sense now (see Bobby above) but in a few years it will.

    You are on to something there.

  • You are on to something there

    Yes I suspect he is.

  • staghounds

    the bad guys of every article are labelled as the right, so that US readers will identify all bad men, including Erdogan’s AKP as being Republicans.

  • I’m beginning to think that we no longer live in anything like a Left/Right world.

    On the one hand we have celebrities and those who care what celebs have to say.

    On the other hand we have everybody else.

    Trump is a traitor to his class – celebs.

  • James Waterton

    I find it astonishing that such sweeping constitutional change can be brought about through simple majority support (ie. 50% of votes cast plus one). That it can in Turkey suggests the writing was on the wall some time ago, when the system that allows a tiny majority to inflict a tyranny on an enormous minority was put in place.

  • bobby b

    “Brexit and Trump seem to be leading to realignments.”

    I wonder if it’s not more that Brexit and Trump occurred because of realignments.

    Here in the USA, the left has been the party of Special Interests. Special Interests, by their nature, are always competing – for attention, sympathy, money, and power.

    The ranking of exactly how Special each Interest really is to the left is driving some long-standing left-supporting groups to realize that they’re no longer being well-served by the left. Trump won, in part, because some traditionally left-supporting groups were insufficiently inspired to get out and vote for Hilary.

    In four more years, I expect that the right will be the new home to blacks, gays, non-governmental union workers, and established (versus recently-immigrated) Hispanics – all groups that have traditionally sided with the left. But these are all realignments whose beginnings preceded Trump’s election.

  • Snorri Godhi

    Well, if Alisa and Perry agree that i am on to something, then i must be…

    Just wanted to add a thought about what seems an important difference between the UK and the US. In both countries, the terms “left” and “right” were adopted only after ww2, i believe; although a similar dichotomy existed in Britain long before then.

    The difference is that, in the UK, the “right” (Conservative Party) remained the natural party of government, and it still is. (Although the “left” has come to control the media and educational system.) The same is/was true of much of continental Western Europe: the Christian Democrats ruled Italy, Germany, and the Netherlands; the Gaullists ruled France; and Franco and Salazar ruled Spain and Portugal. (The Nordic countries were a notable exception, no longer so today.)

    By contrast, in the US, the “left” has dominated Congress from before ww2 to 1994, and controlled the White House almost as often as “the right”. In addition, the “left” has taken over the media, academia, and even Hollywood, Wall Street, and Silicon Valley.
    And yet, American “leftists” have been duped into thinking that they are the party of the common man, as opposed to the ruling class. In fact, many “conservatives” themselves seem think that they are the party of the ruling class!

    It took an Italian (by birth), Angelo Codevilla, to point the finger at the true American ruling class.

  • Laird

    Actually, James, it could work that way in the US, too. Amending our Constitution requires ratification by 3/4ths of the states (38, at present). That certainly sounds like a “supermajority”, but within each state such ratification is by the legislatures or by a state convention (which likely would be controlled by those same legislators). So within each state, if we’re lucky the amendment would have the approval of a majority of the voters. But even granting that, if 12 states disapproved of the amendment and they included some of the more populous states, the reality could be that a majority of the national populace disapproved of the amendment but it was ratified anyway. It’s not difficult to construct such a scenario. Nothing is simple, is it?

  • James Waterton

    Laird, yes, it could work like that. It’s not totally dissimilar in Australia – to amend our constitution, a referendum must be held and for it to succeed, a ‘double majority’ must vote in favour of it, ie. a majority of the overall population plus popular majorities in four out of our six states. Lots of referenda have failed because only three out of the six states voted in favour of the proposed change, even though an overall majority supported it. I suppose it would be possible for a referendum to pass if large majorities in the four least populous states voted in favour of the proposal, whilst large majorities in the two most populous states voted against it, with a national majority just attained. That is theoretically possible. It’s never happened, however – changing the constitution was made difficult for a reason. In our case, it generally requires supermajority support. Whilst this may not always be so when amending the US constitution, doing so is also difficult by design. That’s the yardstick that should be applied when amending superior law. It should be much harder to change a constitution than to change a head of government, for instance. Far harder than the single national vote requiring only a simple majority to succeed, despite this vote having enormous ramifications for the nature of government in Turkey, given that it proposed to sweep away any potential checks on Erdogan’s power. The country can’t even claim to possess the vestiges of a republic now.

  • Rich Rostrom

    James Waterton @ April 17, 2017 at 7:00 pm:

    …the system that allows a tiny majority to inflict a tyranny on an enormous minority was put in place.

    The majority rules. If the majority doesn’t rule, then a minority rules. Procedures to limit the discretion of the current majority are a good idea – but they work only as long as they are respected by a majority (not necessarily the same majority).

    There is no principle that can avoid this problem.

  • James Waterton

    The rights of the individual ought to rule, Rich, and these need to be protected from the whims and vagaries of majority rule. That’s why we need strong constitutions that can’t be easily amended.

  • lucklucky

    “… this made me realise how unwise she was to bandy about terms like ‘left’ and ‘right’ when describing Turkey to an American readership…”

    Unwise, no. Purposeful. One thing that a journalist always choose careful is their adjectives. The choice she made has a propose, being journalist obviously a political propose, because no person goes to journalism to just give the news.

  • Nicholas (Unlicenced Joker) Gray

    James, the Roman Republic allowed for a limited-term dictatorship, and they still called their system ‘Republican’. The term is flexible. The Vatican, and the Roman Catholic Church, is run by a non-hereditary monarch, so it is open to any Catholic Male who has the talents to rise within the bureaucracy. Monarch or Republic?