The Countermajoritarian Difficulty, Turkish Style

Turkish politics are interesting. One of the largest Islamic countries on earth, it is — by Middle Eastern standards — an extremely stable and even moderately liberal regime. You wouldn”t want to get too gushy about Turkey. They do all sorts of nasty things from time to time in the Kurdish regions of the country, for example. Still, they have regular and more or less contested elections and moderately smooth transfers of power from one party to another, not something that you can say about too many countries in their neighborhood. Things, however, are a bit more complicated than this. The recent election of Abdullah Gul to the presidency illustrates why. Gul is the standard bearer for the Justice and Development Party, a moderate Islamicist group. Back in the day, he was the foreign minister of an earlier Islamicst government that was deposed by a military coup. The question is whether the Turkish Army will now oust him from power.


The Turkish military does this from time to time. They see their role — when not suppressing the Kurdish minority — as safe-guarding the secular constitution set up by Kamal Ataturk after the fall of the Sultanate at the end of World War I. Accordingly, they feel fully justified from time to time in deposing duly elected governments that get too enthusiastic about political Islam. It is easy, of course, for Americans to get sanctimonious about such things. For all of the anxiety that some feel about the military-industrial complex, the American military does a pretty good job at maintaining political neutrality and subservience to civilian leadership. No one but conspiracy-theory wingnuts expects the Pentagon to mount a coup if they are unhappy with election results. How horrible, we say, that the Turkish military feels justified in thwarting the will of the people.

Except, of course, that we have our own undemocratic institution that can overturn the results of elections. Indeed, the Supreme Court has even been known to announce (admittedly not with great frequency of late) that its role is to insure that the American government doesn”t get too religious. I wouldn”t want to push the analogy too far; even the worst of Supreme Court decisions is not a coup, and losing litigants are seldom driven into exile abroad. Still, there is a very real sense in which our particular version of democracy rests on a powerful, countermajoritarian institution that we expect to place basic constitutional concerns above the will of people as expressed in elections. The Turkish Army, it seems to me, performs a very similar role in the Turkish polity, providing a technocratic elite supposedly committed to the maintenance of the political order.

The interesting question, of course, is to ask why we might prefer a technocratic elite of lawyers rather than soldiers to perform this task. Neither are actually trained as philosopher kings, although arguably law provides better training for high-politics than does, say, the study of logistics. On the other hand, courts tend to be rather neutered institutions, as is illustrated by our own history. One suspects, for example, that back in the day, the Cherokees might have preferred to have the U.S. Army on their side rather than the Marshall Court. The problem is even deeper today, where constitutional courts in much of the developing world are pretty impotent creatures. Does anyone think that Mubarak in Egypt, for example, would step aside if the Egyptian Supreme Court were to declare his opponent in the last show election the lawful winner? Still, I can”t help but thinking that the expectation of military coups breeds bad political habits, whatever its constitutional virtues might be. It is worth noting, however, that it is trying to fufill a certain constiutional role that Americans tend to assume lies at the heart of liberal democracy: constraining democratic majorities with constitutional norms.