The Rise and Fall of Tutelary Democracy in Turkey

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Gordon, Geoffrey, Foreign Affairs - Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, University of Virginia
Mershon, Carol, AS-Politics (POLI), University of Virginia

What do military actors hope to achieve when they take power, reorganize political institutions, and then return power to civilians? This dissertation provides a historical perspective to recent debates about the causes and effects of transitions to democracy following military coups and brief interregnums. As a country that has experienced a higher number of military coups than economic and social structural variables would suggest without a consolidated military dictatorship, Turkey provides a useful vantage point for developing a theory that links civil-military relations, endogenous institutions, and patterns of democratic breakdown.
I use the concept of tutelary democracy to describe the combination of competitive, multiparty politics and fair elections with efforts by military and other state elites to monopolize symbolic power. These state elites seek to establish the parameters of political debate by concentrating the authority to define the interests, identity, and boundaries of the political community. Concretely, this means propagating national myths that define the boundaries of the ‘the people’ that the state rules in the name of, establishing narratives that establish the people’s claim to control the state’s territory, and constructing the objectives or benchmarks that orient the state’s administrative, pedagogical, and coercive practices. Tutelary democracy arises when geopolitical and historical conditions make state sovereignty and security contingent on domestic institutions, policies, and cultural practices. Elites then use their control over institutional design and the state’s ideological and repressive apparatuses to defend the hegemony of their articulation of national identity, interests, and boundaries by policing the speech and conduct of parties, social movements, and other political actors.
I focus on two challenges of institutional design and enforcement that military and other state elites face as they try to establish the parameters of political debate while still allowing elected civilian politicians to govern on a day-to-day basis. First, in the choice of electoral rules, elite institutional engineers face a catch-22: repressive electoral rules tend to create majority parties that can use their legislative power to articulate a competing state project, but permissive electoral rules create fragmented coalition governments and legislative stalemate while providing small extremist parties with access to cabinet seats and state resources. I show how elites involved in processes of institutional design alternated back and forth between permissive and restrictive electoral rules in response to the most recent form of crisis, creating unintended consequences that undermined political stability.
The second challenge facing state elites in tutelary democracy concerns enforcement: in order for members of the judiciary, bureaucracy, and security state to police the boundaries of acceptable political discourse, they need to agree on how to distinguish between legitimate and subversive political practice. However, the divergent evolution of norms and internal competitions within these institutional fields resulted in classification struggles between judges, lawyers, military officers, and other state officials over which actions constituted threats to national security and what responses the state should take to these actions. Recurring classification struggles resulted in the gradual construction of a parallel state structure that concentrated the authority to define “what is what” in the hands of military elites by giving them influence of personnel decisions and regulatory choices across a wide range of state institutions. However, divergent perceptions of whether the AKP government led by Recep Tayyip Erdogan qualified as a security threat and what measures the state should take against it among military elites prevented them from taking action against a party that sought to fundamentally alter the nature and purposes of state power.
This project highlights the importance of elite projects – and the resistance that they provoke – for long-term trajectories of political development. Furthermore, it shows how norms that define the appropriate purposes of state power and rank countries according to perceptions of cultural and economic development can have unintended negative consequences for democratization even when powerful states promote free and fair elections. Finally, the project demonstrates how difficult it is for elites to “game democracy” using institutional design. Uncertainty and miscalculations repeatedly give rise to unintended consequences and unwanted conflicts.

PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
civil-military relations, democratization, Turkey, competitive authoritarianism
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