Turkey’s rule by fait accompli
“It's easier to ask forgiveness than it is to get permission,” American computer pioneer and Navy Admiral Grace Hopper famously quipped in 1986. Indifference to objection must have been invaluable for a woman who excelled in two male-dominated fields, but it is a lot less charming when it is the vehicle for societal transformation.
Turkey’s hybrid regime – democratic on paper, authoritarian in practice – cares deeply about appearances. The immediate survival of the regime sometimes necessitates more traditional authoritarian measures: calling two repeat elections in four years, replacing elected opposition politicians, or stripping opposition-held cities of their mayors.
But hybrid regimes base their legitimacy on lip service to democratic principles, and desperate, hasty authoritarianism does not look good. What looks much better are indirect impositions gradually transforming the institutions of state and society. It is the difference between forcing a frog into boiling water and putting one in cool water and gradually turning up the heat.
And so, Turkey has over the years developed a system of rule by fait accompli. Essentially the government sets up a de facto situation, particularly concerning a highly controversial issue, then once this new reality is accepted by enough people, the laws are changed accordingly.
Last week, pro-government media cheered a precedent-setting court ruling opening the door for Istanbul’s historic Chora Museum to be reconverted to a mosque. A 4th century Byzantine church that became an Ottoman mosque in 1511 and a Turkish museum in 1945, it is one of many landmarks whose role has changed alongside the changing identity of Asia Minor – Christian to Muslim to secular.
Chora’s fate is not yet certain. The court ruling leaves the decision in the hands of a presidency famous for its disdain for anything un-Islamic. But Chora does not really occupy the same gravity in the popular consciousness of its much more distinguished younger sister Hagia Sophia.
Built in the 6th century, it had the biggest dome of any building for nearly a millennium, until it became one of the Islamic world’s most impressive mosques after the Ottoman conquest of Istanbul in 1453. Its conversion to a museum in 1935 – in line with the secular values of the young republic – has been a point of deep consternation for Turkey’s religious conservatives. Its reconversion to a mosque has been an Islamist rallying cry for decades, a call reiterated by President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan as recently as March.
But worshipers have already become more and more prominent over the years. Its first imam in 81 years was appointed in 2016, and last year Erdoğan himself led a prayer service there. A couple of months later, around 2,500 worshippers showed up on one day to pray. By the time Hagia Sophia is finally reconverted, it will be functionally indistinguishable from a mosque anyway.
But this rule by fait accompli is not limited to just symbolic grandstanding between competing ideologies. It has had major concrete outcomes too, most notably a complete overhaul of the system of government.
A constitutional referendum on April 2017 ended a near-century of parliamentary administration and established an executive presidential system in its stead. The president was granted direct or indirect control over almost every aspect of the state, including most checks and balances.
But by the time this was codified by way of the referendum, Turkey had already been living under that very system for years. Then-Prime Minister Binali Yildirim even said so months before such a vote was declared, noting that the presidential system was already the “de facto situation” and it was time to change the constitution accordingly.
Upon narrowly winning the referendum, conducted under a state of emergency which severely restricted the opposition campaign, Erdoğan dismissed criticism of the result with an old proverb: “He who has grabbed his horse has already passed [the Istanbul district of] Üsküdar.” A phrase that amounts to “what is done is done” – fait accompli.
From unbridled urban sprawl to radical alterations of the school curriculum and an overhaul of schooling itself, Turks increasingly find themselves having to accept that which is done is done.
In 2014, Erdoğan built an extravagant presidential palace – 58 times the size of the White House – on protected land in Ankara. Court rulings ordered that the illegal construction be halted, to which Erdoğan responded: “Let them tear it down if they can. They ordered its suspension, yet they can’t stop this building. I’ll be opening it; I’ll be moving in and using it.” Five years later, it is now the seat of government.
The thing about the truly shameless is that not only do they never get permission, but they cannot even be bothered to ask for forgiveness.
© Ahval English
The views expressed in this column are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.