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Post Erdogan Calls for Reinstating the Death Penalty
Created by John Eipper on 04/20/17 4:12 AM

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Erdogan Calls for Reinstating the Death Penalty (Pietro Lorenzini, USA, 04/20/17 4:12 am)

Capital punishment may be coming back to life. In recent proclamations Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is moving Turkey even further from mainstream European values by announcing that he will hold a referendum to reintroduce the death penalty. Central to Erdogan's victory in the recent referendum, which approved some 18 reform articles designed to create a powerful presidency with sweeping powers, was his promise to reinstate the death penalty.

The formal killing of convicted criminals by the Turkish state was abolished by parliament in 2004. Though never a friend to the reformist groups who had hailed the end of capital punishment in Turkey, ever since the failed coup of 2016, Erdogan has been particularly vocal in proclaiming a need to reinstate the death penalty. Erdogan's heated denouncements of his foes in the military, in journalism and in educational institutions were warmly embraced by Turkish nationalists and the conservative religious majority in Anatolia. With deft skill Erdogan also managed to stir up nationalist and religious resentment against the EU's political elite, who increasingly called on Turkey to adhere more closely to European ideals concerning democratic governance and human rights. While the EU Parliament president Antonio Tajani and EU Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker both indicated that reintroduction of capital punishment would be a "red line" which Turkey should not cross if it still wished for EU membership, Erdogan spoke of grandchildren of Nazism and then doubled down by announcing that he may support a referendum on Turkish membership in the EU.

Whether a state has the death penalty and whether it is enforced seems to be central to defining a core value of modern European society. This was evident in 2004 when Turkey sought to adjust its laws to be more in accord with European sentiments by abolishing the death penalty. After all, the Turks knew that abolition of the death penalty was a pre-condition for EU membership. In fact, the only European country to have recently put convicted criminals to death is Belarus. As an aside, I would like to note that Tuscany (where I was born) abolished the death penalty in the 18th century, and Italy abolished capital punishment in the late 19th century, only to reintroduce it in 1926, and then end it again in 1948. Meanwhile, in the United States, the death penalty is alive and well.  Thirty-one states and the federal government too still have that penalty on the books, though in my home state of Illinois capital punishment formerly ended in 2011.

When it comes to matters concerning European Union and Turkey, we seem to be in a surrealistic drama where the playwright centers each act around a perplexing paradox. For decades many EU leaders were tepidly in favor of Turkish membership if that nation would do the improbable, temper its conservative Islamic heartland with Western notions of a more secular, democratic state committed to defending fundamental rights. Seeing Turkey as a market for European goods and as a continued source of immigrant labor, others envisioned a "Greater Multi-cultural Europe" which would peacefully wed former millennial adversaries into a peaceful union of diverse people, now united to the promised wealth of an expanding marketplace. Others still, accepted that Turkey's EU membership needed to move forward if the EU expected Turkey to police its borders to slow down the migration of undocumented Muslim refugees into the EU.

Yet, the last act is still being written, and much editing is expected too. Now we have Erdogan, a king in all but name, whose ever-growing power is built on Turkish nationalist aspirations and a rekindled Islamic religiosity, both of which are alien to the spirit and aspirations of those who envision a secular, modern European Union where parliamentary rule and human rights are fundamental to the collective identity of twenty-first century Europeans.

The resurrection of the death penalty in Turkey would go far towards proving to many that, geography aside, the Turkey that Erdogan counts on is not part of Europe.

JE comments:  What a pleasant surprise to hear from our long-silent colleague in Chicago, Pietro Lorenzini.  Thanks largely to WAISer Yusuf Kanli in Ankara, we've been aware of Erdogan's constitutional referendum to massively increase his executive power.  Now, after his narrow (and contested) victory in this vote, Erdogan is moving ever closer to one-man rule.

A reinstatement of the death penalty could be described as a pre-emptive "Turxit," a final burning of the bridge to EU membership.  Has Erdogan chosen absolute rule in an insular and poorer Turkey over limited power in an integrated and "European" one?  And what is it about Strongmen/Tough Guys/caudillos and their obsession with capital punishment?  History shows this to be true.  Psychology might provide some answers as to why.

Keep the WAIS posts coming, Pietro!


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  • Plebiscites and Referendums: A Boon or Bane for Democracy? (José Ignacio Soler, Venezuela 04/22/17 7:39 AM)
    Last weekend Turkey held a referendum in which the voters decided to grant more power to President Erdogan. Pietro Lorenzini (April 20th) explained this in detail. I have been following this event, not only because it is important for Turkey itself, but also for Europe and even for democracy in general, as I will try to explain.

    If I understand correctly, the vote changes 18 Constitutional articles, transforming Turkey into a "presidential" authoritarian regime, similar to those of Russia, Venezuela, Cuba, and many other authoritarian systems. I wonder if the Turkish people really understood what they were being asked to decide.


    If my interpretation is correct, this event seems to confirm theories that the fundamental democratic principles of popular participation, plebiscites, referendums, or even direct presidential elections, can all be deceitful instruments. In fact, they are often used and abused by demagogues, populist politicians, and even dictators for legitimating their own egotistical purposes and consolidating their power.


    Democracy is manipulated, and for that reason we may have reached a moment of crisis. Referendums and plebiscites are very common in modern democracies when politicians are "sure" they are going to win. Recently we saw the Brexit referendum, where Cameron was confident of winning; Colombia's Peace Treaty, where Santos was equally confident; Scotland's vote on independence; Crimea's vote to legitimize the Russian invasion; Hungary's vote to support the government's plan on restricting immigration; as well as votes in Thailand, Turkey, and Bolivia to give unlimited powers to the government. Venezuela used the vote many times to increase Chávez's autocratic powers, and there are many other examples around the world. In fact, many direct presidential elections could also be called plebiscites in a strict sense, given that there are a limited number of options, sometimes only two. US elections are an example of this.


    But more often than not, such direct votes have many aspects in common: 1) There are losers and winners in a zero-sum outcome; 2) they are decided by a minimum margin; 3) they are declared fraudulent by the losing party and/or provoke widespread doubt about the legitimacy of the results; 4) they leave society divided and polarized; 5) the result might be unexpected and create additional problems.


    Referendums and plebiscites are political tools with advantages and disadvantages. The main advantage is the question of popular legitimacy. Referendums and plebiscites give the people an opportunity to decide directly on specific questions and issues, and that is perfectly coherent with the spirit of democracy. But I see problems with this particular democratic instrument.


    First, the overuse of referendums as tools for democratic decisions seems to wear down participation and erode the people's interest. As a consequence, many times important decisions might be made by a small percentage of the population. For instance, Switzerland and Italy are the countries in Europe where the most referendums take place, and the participation is around 50% or less.


    Second, representative democracies and parliamentary representations are also eroded as instruments for sound political or administrative decisions. The problem with referendums is that complex questions and issues are presented to often uninformed people, sometimes with manipulative intent, and decisions are made in an ineffective way. The Brexit referendum is a clear example, where neither the options nor their consequences were clearly understood by the British electorate.


    Politicians generally put the question of a referendum in a simplistic storytelling way. As a consequence, the options are trivialized and turn into a contest between two rival parties to decide who wins or loses. In the end, decisions are made based on emotional motivations more than rational or objective reasoning.


    Referendums and plebiscites are often used by politicians to legitimize what they have already decided to do, to gain more power or to remain in government, or to decide on administrative issues regardless of institutional competence. The real purpose might not be to empower people but to gain political advantage, to divide the opposition, or to sow turmoil and confrontation in society.


    Another disadvantage is the risk of the potential exclusion of minorities. Since they are a zero-sum process and frequently won by a very close margin, the rights of the losers might be unduly trampled on. A "referendum democracy" could be compared to a soccer game, where the loser is often subjected to humiliation.


    The outcome of referendums is sometimes very unexpected and volatile, subjected to emotional responses. Unexpected and random events might turn into unsatisfactory and volatile results, leaving people and politicians with more resentment and unfulfilled expectations.


    The questions then remain: Are referendums being abused by modern democracies? Are referendums or plebiscites useful democratic instruments?


    To both questions, I would answer yes. I believe they should be better standardized to be really useful, with regulatory norms and well controlled, yet they should not be abused on transcendental or complex questions and issues.


    For instance, the subject should be limited to important questions of national and general interest, not narrowly political matters. They should be free of rhetoric and demagogical interest. They should involve clear information about the options and their consequences, together with a sensible minimum level of participation required to make the outcome valid. It goes without saying that there should be a legitimate and credible electoral system in place.


    Finally, and more importantly, if the question is extremely complex it would be better to use some other democratic mechanism, such as the traditional parliamentary representation system, or perhaps using a system in which a representative of sorted and well-informed citizens is assigned the job.


    Please forgive me for this long treatise, but I consider the subject of great importance. Venezuela over the last 17 years has held many of these referendums and plebiscites, all of which resulted in the strengthening of the regime. I am therefore very critical of them.


    JE comments: José Ignacio Soler invites a general discussion on the use, abuse, and fairness of plebiscites. On the surface, this type of vote is the purest form of democracy, and when the result is "good," plebiscites are hailed as a triumph of the people. Chile's 1988 vote to oust Pinochet comes to mind. But what about paradoxes, such as Turkey's recent "democratic" vote to curtail democracy?


    When a plebiscite goes the wrong way, should we follow Bertolt Brecht's advice to "dissolve the people and elect another"? (Euroskeptic Nigel Jones cited this example in response to critics of the Brexit vote.)


    Remember the term "ochlocracy"? I believe Nacho Soler is forcing us to draw a line between popular will and mob rule.  This is one of the central problems of democracy itself.

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    • Education and the Well-Informed Citizen (Henry Levin, USA 04/22/17 2:19 PM)

      In response to José Ignacio Soler (22 April), one of the reasons that education is largely a government function and supported by taxpayers is because a nation needs a unified system of preparation for its young to understand and participate in civic roles in which they are able to process and understand their political, social, and economic institutions and obligations and participate actively and knowledgeably in them.


      But this creates a difficult challenge, because those who control the aforementioned institutions also control and influence the educational system. In Latin America this is evidenced by relatively poor-quality public education for the poor and a much better endowed private system serving the middle and upper classes. In the US there is a similar pattern because funding and support of public education is derived from a tax base of highly unequal state and local wealth and associated residential location. And, an analysis of the political content of what is taught and the roles of different strata of the population reflects these differences.



      Without a civic education that embraces the entire population, it is impossible to achieve a democracy that works on behalf of the whole, and hegemony in one direction or the other is a constant underlying struggle. For the poor, education emphasizes dependency and political miracles. For the more advantaged, education reflects a justification for why they are better off and largely in control of the state and their own interests. In many countries including the US, we have the paradox of large numbers voting against their own objective interests, largely because of an inability to understand and penetrate the language of the political order. This often has strong religious determinants, as in Turkey and the US.


      J. S. Mill and John Dewey wrote that basically democracy cannot work well in the absence of an educated populace with shared understanding and values. Even Milton Friedman argued that democracy cannot work without a common knowledge base and values embraced by the population as a whole. He goes against most Libertarians by using this argument to argue for government funding for education. Without an effective system of preparation of the young for democracy, the challenges of totalitarianism and populist authoritarianism will be continuing features of the political landscape.


      JE comments:  "An inability to understand and penetrate the language of the political order."  Freire argued that the first imperative of teaching the oppressed is to teach them that they are oppressed.  This poses a risk of course for those in power--the same ones who ultimately control education policy. 


      Doesn't the modern state too often want to turn its citizens into hard-working technocrats, but not critical thinkers?

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