Sercan Çelebi is a consultant and a co-founder of Oy Ve Ötesi (Vote and Beyond) Foundation, which has since 2014 trained more than 170.000 volunteers around Turkey to monitor elections. He is an alumni of Yale University.
SLD: What is the situation like in Turkey these days? Hundreds of thousands of participants marched in the “March of Justice” to protest Mr Erdogan’s regime. Did this change anything in the slightest?
Celebi: The March had a short-term impact by mobilizing a good number of people who were – and remain – in desperate need to see in flesh that there are people in the opposition who despite everything show up and stand their ground. I am skeptical about any longer term impact because the follow up was apparently not at all planned. The march was a unique action, well organized. Yet it should have been a first step towards forming a functioning and effective opposition, rather than a one-off act of opposition in itself.
SLD: In what state of mind are people in Turkey according to your opinion?
Celebi: The situation in Turkey is defined by alternate facts: I get the sense that all citizens – including myself – are biased in our own way when we look at our country’s next 5-10 years. Some dream of the glory days of the Ottoman Empire and are happier and wealthier than ever, while others have already set in motion plans for starting a new life abroad.
The march was a unique action, well organized. Yet it should have been a first step towards forming a functioning and effective opposition, rather than a one-off act of opposition in itself.
SLD: The days of a glorious past are invigorated not only in Turkey but in places from Russia, India, China, some countries in Europe and the United States as well. What is your take on why we see this resurgence of national narratives, mostly triggered with some element of religion? And is Turkey in some sense different from the rhetoric applied in other countries?
Celebi: The rise of populist authoritarianism has always been defined through some conception of remote glory days, which could be memories of the past or dreams of the future. In this case, the Ottoman Empire sounds appealing because wars and brute force have always attracted masses (The Ottoman Empire was an expansionary Empire), but also given the economic downturn and social unrest in Turkey, promises about the future would be a tougher sell.
Turkey is majorly different because we have the physical realities of the Syrian War at our border coupled with approximately 4 million refugees with no clear plan of integration. Further, the Turkish economy is a service based and highly leveraged economy (compare Russia, India and China) and stability is and will remain crucial to economic success.
SLD: The Turkish-Muslim synthesis has, however, been an integrational part when it came to fabricating a Turkish identity in the republic. A fact that the AKP party and Mr Erdogan seem to exploit now to the fullest: the rhetoric seems to highlight Islam even more to the extend of claiming you cannot be Turkish if you are not Sunni-Muslim.
Celebi: The opposition movement needs to urgently find a common denominator around which to organize. “Justice” has been a good attempt by CHP, the main opposition party, but lack of planning and target setting is taxing on its true potential. Further, grass roots mobilization around non-divisive issues is crucial to later succed in the political spectrum. In other words, what the opposition lacks now is not high level policy setting; rather it needs to mobilize and inspire its members & potential followers at the grassroots level.
SLD: Looking into the current development in the US, where you studied: what do you make out of the sitution in the country?
There are very strong parallels between what has been happening in Turkey over the last couple of decades and the US since Trump’s election.
Celebi: Populist leaders around the world are making use of the dissatisfaction of the people for whom the current system is not working. The lack of the prospect of a better future makes masses look for anti-establishment alternatives, and what better person to step in than Trump who is not only willing but committed to doing away with all the values the United States stands for. There are very strong parallels between what has been happening in Turkey over the last couple of decades and the US since Trump’s election; and I can only hope that the American institutions are more deeply rooted in democracy and rule of law than Turkish ones.
SLD: Do you see any need for innovating and modernizing the ideals and institutions of modern liberal democracy?
Celebi: Not the ideals, but certainly the institutions. We can clearly not expect the majority of the population to appreciate the necessity and vitality of the institutions of liberal democracy, not by default. The “marketing” is missing. People need to be reminded, in very professional and effective ways, why these institutions exist, how they ensure that the lives we take for granted are sustained. The current political establishment has outsourced this “marketing” job to pro-democracy political parties. However, almost entirely in the opposition today, these political parties have neither the vision and energy, not the resources to do this. Hence, the institutions themselves have to do this. In very concrete terms, I am talking about the constitutional court granting a long-term PR contract to a professional PR company and dedicating visible resources to let people know why the independence of the legal system is NOT something you can play with. The same is true for journalism associations, human rights organizations, all civil society movements and many more. The institutions are as strong in the fight against populist authoritarianism as the will of the people: if people don’t know what the institutions stand for and what their disappearance or weakening implies, how can we expect them to stand for them?