Today’s Zaman – 06.04.2010
Levent Korkut: Strong civil society means strong democracy
“Civil society as the saving grace of democracy is improving in Turkey, but it is not yet strong enough to prevent interventions in democracy,” said Professor Levent Korkut, the chairman of the Civil Society Development Center (STGM).
Speaking to Today’s Zaman in an exclusive interview he added that civil society organizations in Turkey face many shortcomings, not only in finding financial sources and new members, but in the area of legal obstacles as well.
According to Korkut the polarization in politics is reflected in civil society organizations, and they have difficulty acting together on the basis of defending rights. He underlined that the state also tried to use civil society organizations against each other as a way of coping with them.
Korkut underlined that they established the STGM to help civil society organizations overcome these shortcomings with the slogan of “Strong civil society, strong democracy,” and they think that despite the shortcomings, Turkey’s experience in this field is an exemplary one for the region, especially in the Middle East. He added that the cooperation between Turkey’s civil society organizations and regional ones might affect the world in a positive way.
He said the experience of civil society in Turkey had progressed during the classical Ottoman era but that after the establishment of the republic this process ceased, and after the 1960 coup, the state on the one hand tried to put civil society under tutelage but at the same time it was afraid of civil society, and this mentality, despite improvements in society, is still valid. For him it is important that the public sector develop a civil society policy and should get used to listening to civil society.
Korkut recalled that they founded the STGM in 2005 with the aim of improving the abilities of civil society organizations.
“STGM is trying to support civil society organizations by strengthening their organizational structure, benefiting from opportunities abroad and their dialogue with the state. It is the first organization in Turkey to work for these associations; it does not have any branches, but it has offices in Eskişehir, Adana, Denizli, İstanbul and Diyarbakır,” he said.
‘The development of civil society ceased with modernization’
According to Korkut the modernization process that started during the Ottoman period stopped the process of development of civil society in Turkey.
“During the classical Ottoman era, we can say that civil society had its own institutions and structures, it was in progress; at least when you compare the situation of Ottoman civil society with other examples in the world at that time, their situation was better. But after the process of modernization, state bureaucracy started to dominate, which led to the emergence of the state elite. The first universities such as medical faculties and engineering departments were also established as military academies, so knowledge was available to the military. This is one of the reasons the military still has an important role in politics,” he underlined.
According to Korkut, another reason for the weak civil society in Turkey is World War I.
“It was an unfortunate event for civil society because it led to the total destruction of civilian structure; before that, the first women’s associations were established, there were many publications, the colorful ethnic structure was reflected and the discussions about it were far from what we are discussing now. The republic was founded as a nation state. Like all nation states it had a rigid side that could be considered normal since it was established after extreme turmoil. But the real problem of the republic was to ensure the continuation of the bureaucratic structure, which excluded civilians,” he said.
Korkut underlined the state mentality which does not let civilians form organizations by playing them against each other to ensure the interests of the state.
“In 2009 we had a survey, and we asked what the word ‘organization’ brought mind. Most of the people answered this question as terror. This is the result of the state mentality, especially the Sept. 12 coup.”
He said this is the state’s animosity towards civil society, but at the same time it is afraid of civil society.
“The multiparty era was another era in which civil society started to improve, but the 1960 coup brought with it the tutelage system, which aimed to prevent the public from being involved with politics, and when that was not possible, put this involvement under the control of the state. The same mentality is true for civil society. After the 1960 coup the state started to say that ‘if there is going to be a civil society, it should be under my control.’ For example, in the 1950s, workers’ unions were established but under the control of the state -- not total control, but to be sure that civil society was linked with the state somehow, they were allowed to be organized on this condition, a sort of corporatism.”
Korkut underlines that under these conditions, it is difficult to say that Turkey has a strong civil society structure.
“To some extent democracy is developing and civil society is improving, too, but it is too early to say that it is strong enough.”
He explained that there are 83,000 associations and almost 6,000 foundations in Turkey but that it is not possible to say their work is the actual equivalent of what 83,000 associations can do.
“Their ability to affect politics is very low; only 4,000 of them are able to produce outcomes for the interests of public. Most of the associations work locally and as charity groups or solidarity groups among citizenries who have immigrated to the big cities. Their existence is not a bad thing, but civil society has a meaning for democracy, it is the saving grace of democracy because democracy is valuable to the extent that it is pluralistic and participatory. This is why it needed intermediaries to ensure this; the importance of the civil society lies there,” he stressed.
Korkut underlines that civil society should work as a pressure group on both the government and the opposition. It should have the power to monitor bureaucrats and should affect the decision-making process.
“Democracy is not a perfect regime, and its shortcomings can only be answered by civil society,” he says.
If civil society is weak, fascism by democracy is possible
When asked about the recent discussions of whether the government is trying to establish a one-party regime and wants to concentrate all the power in its hands and that the only way to prevent that is to have a strong civil society, Korkut answers that it is not possible to say that civil society in Turkey has developed to that extent.
“If civil society is weak, fascism by democracy is possible. I don’t mean that such a situation exists in Turkey, but those who put forward this criticism should first open the way for civil society so it can be persuasive. If you make this criticism but at the same time you exclude women with headscarves, Kurds and Armenians, then you cannot be persuasive,” he says.
According to him, civil society in Turkey is in its infancy. It is improving, but it is not strong enough to prevent interventions in democracy.
“It is weak because its ability is still low, and it is not able to cooperate. The same polarization in politics is also reflected in civil society. For example, secular and non-secular civil society organizations. The communication between them is very low.”
He recalled that conservative people did not form incorporated bodies in the past but that they have started to establish associations and foundations.
“In the past they came together for charity, but now they are organizing for public interest. To be organized around the aim of helping the poor is, of course, important but not very instrumental in improving democracy. If you are addressing social and economic rights while helping the poor, then it works.”
‘International cooperation is weak’
“The weakest area of civil society is in international cooperation. The idea of ‘Let’s come together with the other civil society organizations in the region and do something’ is still weak,” Korkut said:
“The number of dictatorships in Islamic countries is too many. The oppression of the state is very strong, and civil society is very weak in those countries. Turkey is also important as a pioneering country for civil society. If there is Islamophobia, then it should be a subject for civil society from this region and not be left to Western civil society. How many Islamic countries have human rights organizations?”
“When civil society overcomes these shortcomings, the possibility of coups d’état, interventions in democracy, will became laughable.”
He underlined that to find resources, attract new members and activate them are the main difficulties with which civil society organizations are faced.
“It is very difficult to find resources. The big entrepreneurs either give money to charities or they establish their own foundations, although this has started to change. For example, the Sabancı Foundation has started to support other projects instead of only supporting its own projects,” he said.
Korkut added that another difficulty of for civil society is the barriers it faces in entering into dialogue with the public sector:
“Public administration could benefit from civil society consultancy services, for example. Municipalities should have to improve their relations with civil society; legislation should reflect civil society’s needs. Sometimes a public administrator is very keen to establish dialogue with civil society but his or her successor is totally closed to such dialogue. The main reason being that the public sector does not have a defined policy on civil society.”
According to Korkut there are legal obstacles before civil society, although the new association law that was legislated within the framework of the EU reform process in 2004 was helpful in solving many problems. It is not possible to collect donations prior to obtaining permission, and if you receive any foreign aid it must be recorded before it is spent. There is much red tape and many regulations and heavy fines if you don’t fulfill them.