Erdogan, Turkey and the nature of democracy

by George Hatjoullis

Recep Tayyip Erdogan seems genuinely puzzled at the riots in Turkey. He insists that the protestors are in the minority and that he has the majority of people behind him because he was democratically elected. His democratic election is not in question. His concept of democracy is very much in question. It sounds remarkably like the dictatorship of the majority.

Taksim Square

Taksim Square (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The response to the demonstrations has been brutal. Erdogan seems to think that because he is prime minister, and democratically elected, that he can crush all public protest at will and that he can use whatever means he deems necessary to restore his version of order. There is more to democracy than just getting the majority of people to elect you into power. Once elected leaders remain subject to the will of the people and responsible for the welfare of all the people.

The elected government in a democracy has limits on its power. It cannot, once in power,  simply eliminate all opposition using the apparatus of state. It cannot suppress all public protest and expressions of dissent. In short, there are limits on the power of the elected government in a democracy. It is not an elected dictatorship.

In order to illustrate the point let me take everyone back to the UK on March 31, 1990 and the poll tax riots. Margaret Thatcher was the democratically elected prime minister and architect of the poll tax (or community charge to be precise). The tax was unpopular but Margaret Thatcher was insistent. Some 200,000 people gathered in Kennington park at around lunch time on Saturday, March 31 1990, in order to demonstrate against the tax. Eventually the demonstration moved towards Trafalgar Square. Chaos and violence ensued with injured and arrests. The country was shocked and appalled.

This riot contributed to the downfall of Margaret Thatcher. Pressure from within the Conservative Party forced Thatcher to resign in November of the same year only to be replaced by John Major. The Conservative Party continued in power but the poll tax  was replaced by the Council Tax. John Major called an election on April 9, 1992 and was returned to power. He won in excess of 14 million votes which was at the time the highest number achieved by any British political party in a general election.

The moral of the story, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, is that in a true democracy, the elected government is always subject to the will of the people and not just at election time. Leaders that ignore this can lose power even if the party they represent continues in power. The occasion of the Taksim Square demonstration, like that of  Trafalgar Square , has unleashed repressed anger and frustration. Brutal suppression will not resolve the issues causing this anger. Democratic leaders implicitly agree to represent all of their people once in power and not just those that elected them.