Ulrike Flader

Soft Authoritarianism and States of Apathy. An Ethnography of Silence in the Context of Increasing Authoritarianism in Turkey

We are living in times, in which democracies are increasingly being undermined from within. We are observing a rise of authoritarian tendencies within democratic states and authoritarian regimes maintaining quasi-democratic structures. It is this coevalness, these increasing fuzzy boundaries between democratic and non-democratic forms of government, which the Excellence Chair-Research Group “Soft Authoritarianisms” at the University of Bremen led by Prof. Shalini Randeria aims to investigate on the basis of case studies of Turkey, Poland or Hungary, and France. The project understands authoritarianism not to be a homogeneous, complete regime, but rather as a network of various contextually different and entangled local and transnational practices which involve different actors. Hence, our case studies particularly aim at examining the concrete legal, political, social and discursive practices that constitute soft authoritarianism as we are experiencing it today.

Within the scope of this project, my research aims at understanding authoritarian state practices through exploring the different ways in which opposition is made impossible. Opposition and the possibility to take turns in power is thereby seen, as John Borneman (2016) clearly depicts, as one of the key characteristics of democracy, which is strategically dismantled by the shift towards authoritarianism. According to Juan Linz (2000), however, this dismantling of the opposition in authoritarian regimes works through producing “tolerated pluralistic components” of a pseudo-opposition and a state of apathy among the population. States of apathy can be, but are not necessarily, produced through overt violence and repression. More importantly, these states of apathy enable a consolidation of authoritarian power within formal democratic structures of the state. Hence, the ways in which these states of apathy are produced represent “soft” modes of governing the population, however with harsh authoritarian outcomes. Analysing these states of apathy and how they are produced will therefore serve as a tool to detect the technologies of government that have enabled the shift from democracy to authoritarianism in the Turkish context.

Turkey is unfortunately one of those countries, which has recently been going through a severe transformation from democratic rule (even if imperfect) to authoritarianism, and can therefore enable us to closely document and analyse the processes and various practices which characterize this transformation and its coevalness. Over the past three years, we have not only witnessed how formal democratic principles, such as fair and free elections, the independence of parliament, judiciary and media have been undermined, but also the effects of the rising and seemingly arbitrary repression on people’s everyday and the ways in which they are able to act as political subjects. Public spaces are increasingly curtailed and subjected to heightened control. The biopolitical control over the lives of individuals has continuously increased, while the strategic pacification of a functioning opposition and civil society have led to the apathy just described, which has had drastic effects on everyday life and political subjectivity and action. However, it is impossible to grasp this transformation without acknowledging the key role which the ongoing Kurdish Question has played in this period.

The refusal of dialogue and return to military means in the Kurdish conflict is central to the recent development towards authoritarianism in Turkey. Nationalist discourses of the single, indivisible nation of Turks have severely intensified over the past few years as part of its authoritarian politics of the current regime and thereby superseded to a great extent the rhetoric on Islamic brotherhood between Turks and Kurds previously advanced by the governing AKP. The current authoritarian shift has gone hand in hand with new spatio-political practices, which are biopolitically motivated at their core. Lurking forms of racism and political exclusion have been re-enforced and consolidate strong rule, while demographics and the spatial distribution of the population according to ethnicity have become increasingly dominant in political and military strategies and practices. Demographics have been used in the redefinition of electoral regulations, just as in governmentally-led building sector, although language-use and ethnicity officially remain indicators which are not registered in state statistics. We can therefore argue that with this shift to authoritarianism the biopolitical question of who counts or is counted and who not has re-emerged in new terms.

Looking back at Turkey’s history, the nation-building project with its attempt to establish a homogeneous nation was – like in most nation-states – always tied to biopolitical questions of demography, which were used as the cause for most of the violent, repressive and authoritarian practices, be it early massacres, population exchange, or the decades of albeit failed attempts to Turkify the Kurdish area by various policies of resettling Turks there whether through mandatory service of police officers, teachers, military personnel or resettlement programmes. These biopolitics played a critical role in redefining the political question of democratically sharing power into one in terms of a maladjusted population. In this sense, politics of demography, or even geo-demography, lie at the heart of authoritarian techniques that have traced the democratic state and do so once again, today. It will be part of the study to grasp in which specific ways questions of demography have re-emerged and how they in fact serve to impede opposition or in other words de-democratize politics.