Over the recent weeks, I have watched the present development in Turkey with a substantial element of sadness. Up and to a month or so ago, I would have argued that Mr Erdogan had succeeded in bringing financial stability to a country seething with potential, and I guess the majority of Turks would have agreed with me. Mr Erdogan is a democratically elected leader – on his third round – for a young vibrant nation – a nation that for years lived under a quasi democracy with the military hovering in the wings. Mr Erdogan represents a party many modern Turks view with some distrust – after almost a century as a secular state it is difficult to accept a party with strong religious roots. He is also the beneficiary of a splintered opposition, thereby allowing him – and his party – to rule as if they had far more than the approximately 50% of the votes they have.
The important thing about democracy is that having the majority does NOT mean smashing the minority. A true democratic leader attempts to include as large a share of the electorate as possible when drawing up strategies and plans – if nothing else to retain a general overall popularity. A true democratic leader encourages the media to criticise, a true democratic leader does not move to legislate against the social media (as Erdogan proposes to do). In fact, a true democratic leader LISTENS to public opinion and takes this into consideration – after all, who better than the people to decide how the people want to be governed? Okay, so very often one can argue that the people don’t know their own good – that’s what communist dictators do, that’s what right-wing dictators do, that’s what democratically elected leaders do (in private, preferably). Ultimately, democracy rests on the assumption that the people do, in fact, know what’s best for them – however imperfect the end result might be.
In Turkey, it seems as if Mr Erdogan has won the first round, this by brutal reprisals of young demonstrators. they’ve been tear gased, they’ve been water bombed, they’ve been arrested and thrown into jail and quite a few have disappeared. World media presents things as they are and Erdogan fumes that these foreigners don’t know what they’re talking about – to be expected from a man who attempted to put the lid on a recent bombing in southern Turkey. I hope that the second round will be far more devastating to Mr Erdogan – if nothing else to keep democracy alive in Turkey.
What the demonstrators in Istanbul and other Turkish cities are highlighting is the fact that democracy needs to be defended and sustained. A quibble over a few trees has blossomed into a loud protest at how their country is being run, and there is a passion to their voices, an anger in their movements that indicate that this fight is far from over. Good. Some things are worth defending, right? In this particular case, it is easy to see that it needs defending, but there is a far more insidious threat to democracies today, and that is that of indifference.
The Western world takes it for granted that we live in free countries. We’ve grown up hearing all that stuff about “all power from the people” and most of us take that as a truism. We also forget that democracy is a relatively new form of government – well, with the exception of Greece and its ancient traditions – and that democracy depends on its citizens caring enough to vote. It is the duty of every person living in a democracy to rise out of the sofa and make their way to the closest ballot come election day. But how many do? In the US, approximately 60% of all voters do their thing. That’s a lot of people remaining on the sofa, isn’t it? Less than 70% of UK voters exercise their right to vote, in France it’s below 60% and in Poland it’s under 50%. Even worse, very many people express that they don’t care one way or the other, so why bother making the effort to vote?
Unless we exercise our rights and nurture this rather tender reed that is democracy, it will wilt and die. Once we, the people, stop caring, why should anyone else care? If we, the people, have no opinions and prefer being led like blind sheep from one point to the other, so be it. But we’re not blind sheep, are we? No, we’re the people – and let us make sure we don’t forget that! In Turkey, Mr Erdogan has had his first confrontation with the people – his people. It behoves him – and all democratically elected leaders – to listen when the people roars. It behoves us, the people, to roar when needed.