Does a comparison of different domestic conflict situations, which either present a challenge to the legitimacy of the state or are perceived to do so, reveal a pattern of consistent state response to such challenges? Are any emergent patterns useful in identifying the effectiveness of these strategies, as measured by the dissenting target audience’s willingness to accept their message of legitimacy? What do these patterns show about how a government views its own power and its accountability to those who put it in office in the first place?
In Turkey, this is an opportune time to pose these questions. The conflict between state and citizen which arose from the plans to redevelop Gezi Park, and the reaction from the government – slightly panicked, fairly autocratic, with a hefty sprinkling of hyperbole – represent a unique moment in the country’s history where thinly-veiled authoritarianism, erstwhile apolitical actors, and social media collide on the political stage. By comparing the present situation with a past conflict, it may be possible to show that a common modus operandi exists in state dealings with dissent. This paper compares the current protests with the enforced disappearances undertaken by the Gendarmerie Intelligence and Counterterrorism Unit (“JİTEM”) against suspected Kurdish militia during the 1990s, another example of state-citizen conflict, to investigate whether that is the case.
A brief acknowledgement of certain assumptions is in order before the discussion proceeds. First, this paper uses the following definition of legitimacy: “The power of a state, contemporaneously authorized pursuant to accepted terms of assent, to undertake a given act.” The usefulness of this definition, despite its omissions and assumptions, will be developed later on, and it is important to note that what the implications of this definition would be for any government other than a constitutional democracy such as Turkey is beyond the scope of this paper. The same is true of an analysis of the initial legitimacy of the prime minister and Freedom and Justice Party (“AKP”) government – while this may be open to debate, the paper assumes that they were voted into office in accordance with proper Turkish electoral procedure. Finally, the paper uses the words “discourse” and “communication” freely, and extends them to cover any means by which a message is conveyed – by acts, symbols, tone, etc., and does not limit their meaning only to actual words.
After describing its methodology, this paper first establishes a background in the academic literature for the questions presented, and offers a theoretical justification for the definition of “legitimacy” it assumes. It then lays out the data sets considered for this study and considers that information in light of the theories. The paper finally concludes that the Turkish government has a poor track record of normative justification for its claims to power, and that its efforts to shift from a superficial to more deeply-rooted legitimacy are unlikely to be successful.