Turkeys Iran Paradox

With the talks between the P5+1 and Iran finally coming to an conclusion, a decades old mechanism to change the Middle Eastern balance of power in disadvantage of Iran is nearing its end. The losers in this bargain from a regional point of view are all powers that benefited from the United States containment policy during the last 35 years, thus practically all major Sunni actors in the region, most notably the Gulf States and Turkey. And no, Israel is not one of the losers, despite the fact that some policy makers want to sell it like that. Turkey’s relationship with Iran goes way back and is minted by a centuries old struggle for influence in the region, a similarly old struggle between the two denominations of Islam and as a result of these two a development of two completely different independent cultures. Yet, they have a lot in common as well: both have about the same population, both have a vast Islamic majority with many different manifestations, both struggle politically with their large respective Kurdish minorities, both share a history of huge empires which collapsed and saw the emergence of a secular political elitist system in a similar timeframe. But the countries took decisively different steps after the end of the “old order” after the First World War. While Turkey gradually shifted towards more popular political participation, Iran underwent an authoritarian shift, which finally resulted in a popular uprising forming the current state of affairs.

From a classical realist understanding all of this wouldn’t matter much as both states simply compete in the balance of power system, in this case of the Middle East. Both are mid-powers with similar military capabilities, although arguably Turkey would have the edge for the reason of clear economic superiority. And it is true: both actors balance each other, at times on a frightening level, like during for both countries struggling times from 1979 to 1983, in which both states saw a regime change – in complete opposite directions though. Neither state was able to clearly dominate bilateral relations – arguably for the past few hundred years. But there was no major war between the two political entities since the treaty of Erzurum in 1823 despite all the turmoil the region went through during that time. Again: from a realist perspective that has to be correlated to the functioning balance of power system as no actor was able to clearly dominate the other or there was a hegemon – like Britain and France – that kept up the balance. Adding to this understanding the two neoclassical realist variables “domestic constraints” and “elite perceptions”, one could argue in both ways: due to the strong cultural linkage of the two countries resulting from the fact that they emerged from the Turkic Seljuk Empire and it was Persians that let the Turks to adopt Islam. On the other side there is the sectarian rift and the centuries old struggle for power between Turks and Persians, yet again expressed in the current state of affairs in which Turkey is a key supporter of Sunni Islam in the region, and Iran the key supporter for Shia interests. Thus elite perceptions and domestic constrains in both countries can be interpreted in two ways, favouring peaceful relations or not. Given the rather recent developments the latter seems more likely though.

Another realist perspective on the issue is the one of threat perception. Both countries share a 500 km long border, as stated already similar aggregative powers, similar offensive capabilities and arguably similar offensive (or precisely not) intentions. Thus it is clear that both observe each other with suspicion, which best is displayed in parts of Turkey’s elites (mainly secular hardliners) perception of Iran as an adversary. But then again: relations have been more or less peaceful during the last 192 years. The answer why relations are nonetheless peaceful as complex as the prior description would suggest. Overall, Iran has never been perceived as the major threat for Turkey ever since Russia held that position starting in the mid-18th century, the situation in Iran being similar. Domestic developments combined with British and French foreign policies – particularly the strong British influence in Persia up until the 1950s kept relations at a low, but stable level. The Kemalist foreign policy from the early 1920s on pursued an isolation towards the Middle East and a timid approximation towards the west while emphasising Turkey’s independence. Iran during that time underwent a comparable “westernization” with much less independence though, as Russia and Britain kept a key edge in the country’s affairs. During that time no situation emerged in which Iran and Turkey would have to balance massively against each other, nor did have either of the states have the intentions, let alone resources to do so. On the contrary, Tehran under the respective Shah’s had relatively good relations with Ankara, as Atatürk’s state served as some kind of role model.

After 1945 both states (gradually) became close allies of the United States, keeping relations between Turkey and Iran at a low, but timid level once again. It was not until 1979 when Iran experienced a popular regime change and Turkey some month later exactly the opposite: a military coup that brought into power a not only secular, but anti-religious military caretaker government that stood strongly opposed to the new Iranian regime. Ironically just a few years after these events Turkey started to undergo an unprecedented opening towards its Middle Eastern neighbourhood under the stewardship of Turgut Özal, which was further empowered by the end of the Cold War. With a short timeout in between, this opening was further continued by the respective governments, most notably though by the AKP since 2002. Despite the harsh international sanctions regime, trade between Turkey and Iran increased manifold and stands at a respectable 13,7 billion dollars in 2014, a number that is likely to multiply in the coming years, as the sanctions are being lifted. Iran with its vast natural resources is a key actor in Ahmet Davutoğlu’s “zero problems with our neighbours” policy, shifting the elite perceptions clearly towards low-tension relations with Iran. Combined with the de-facto – and increasingly de-jure – removal of the military as a political force, Erdoğan removed the biggest remaining domestic constrain hindering good relations with Tehran.

The current state of affairs is dire in the Middle East, which experiences its so far strongest manifestation of what the great Fred Halliday once called the greater west-Asian crisis, since starting in 1991. The second U.S. led invasion of Iraq in 2003 triggered a series of events that ultimately led to the current sectarian rift in the Middle East in which every states tries to influence the fragile balance of power. In order to understand the relations between Iran and Turkey one must look beyond that sectarian dichotomy though. The struggle for power always happens between states or coalitions of states, never between ideological viewpoints. Currently Turkey is actively – way too actively for many – balancing with the other comparable powers in the region: Iran, Saudi Arabia and increasingly again Egypt. But Turkey also recognises that it cannot engage in military actions (at least directly) to improve its power positioning in the region as there are way too many constrains, starting from the U.S. interests to the adversary it would reap in the Middle East and beyond. The same is true for Iran, which has much more room for manoeuvre though and arguably is much more engaged in direct military confrontation in the current conflict as well. The current Iran deal will empower Iran and its allies in the region, including Bashir al-Assad, much to the discomfort of Ankara, making it a geopolitical loser of the deal. Nonetheless, Turkey has much to gain from the deal. Increasing trade with Iran can give the Turkish economy the boost it so desperately needs, also leading to further improvement of ties that suffered due to balancing activities, like with the central government in Baghdad. By de facto starting to make a new ally, the U.S. raised the bar for Turkey, but also other allies in the region, which could lead to either better relations or further alienation – the letter seeming rather unlikely in the case of Turkey.

The Right not to Vote – Why Compulsory Voting cannot save Democracy

In recent years broad debates about the state of representative democracy have reemerged. In stark contrast to the euphoric period after the end of the Cold War, the triumph of democracy in Eastern Europe and Latin America and the postulated End of History (Fukuyama, 1992), the political science community is now debating if representative democracy is again in a state of crisis. The decline in turnout experienced in most democracies around the world is probably the most cited evidence in favour of this argument. In a similar fashion the argument was made that compulsory voting is an adequate instrument to solve not only the problem of declining turnout but also to improve the quality of democracy.

It has been argued that compulsory voting can not only raise turnout, but can also improve social inclusion and increase the quality of democracy. The proponents also argue that compulsory voting is a reasonable instrument since its effects are direct and it is easily realizable. Challenging this argument, some political scientists maintain that compulsory voting not only has no effect on the quality of democracy and inclusiveness, but that compulsory voting threatens the „right not to vote“ (Lever, 2009) and therefore a central freedom granted by democracy.

The rule of the organised minority over the unorganised majority

One argument the proponents of compulsory voting often cite, is that lower turnout leads to the rule of the organised minority over the unorganised majority. Mount (2006) for example points out that „when little more than 20% of the electorate has voted for the winning party, as in the United Kingdom general election of May 2005, legitimacy begins to drain away“. Already in 1986 Dieter Nohlen argued that „if less than 40% of voters (29% of the population eligible to vote) can win out over the remaining 60%, then this is not only problematic for representation but is also questioning central civil liberties“ (Nohlen, 1986, p.134). Another argument made in the same respect is that not only the legitimacy is in danger, but that the bureaucracy somehow assumes a separate existence and will challenge the democratic order. Ultimately, this could lead to an undermining of democracy termed „executive democracy“ or „elective dictatorship“ (Mount, 2006). While the argument that, if turnout is low, a relatively small minority can rule over a majority truly can be problematic for the legitimacy, there are three points I would identify.

First, both Nohlen and Mount only take the British electoral system into account, which differs significantly from other systems in continental Europe.

Second, to reduce the legitimacy and quality solely on high turnout fails to recognize the highly complex process of democratic decision-making. A good example is the Austrian legislative process, where a large number of bills are supported not only by the government, but also by the opposition (Austrian Parliament, 2015). Therefore a large part of decisions by the government is backed by the opposition, ultimately representing a majority of the eligible population.

Third, not every abstention is an expression of mistrust over the prevailing order. According to rationalistic approaches, citizens may also abstain, depending on how high they believe their chances are to influence the election outcomes in their own interest (Cabarello, 2014). Thus citizens may abstain either if they believe that their preferred choice has no chance or conversely if they believe that their preferred choice will ultimately win even without themselves going to the polls. Hence, it is questionable to reduce the democratic legitimacy only on turnout rates. Additionally, voters do not always vote in their rational self-interest (Lever, 2009). This is particularly important since „it is age and education, rather than race, income and wealth“ which determine if someone attends the polls (Lever, 2009, p.60). Therefore, the causal relation between higher turnout and better representation may not be as clear as Nohlen and Mount argue.

Low turnout is unequal turnout

Another argument made in favour of compulsory voting is that lower turnout is reinforcing unequal turnout. Lijphart (1997, p.2), one of the first to discuss the problem of unequal participation, mentions in his article Unequal Participation: Democracy’s Unresolved Dilemma that „low turnout is unequal and socioeconomically biased turnout“. It is unequal since the abstention rate is not distributed evenly, the difference in turnout is particularly big when age and education is considered. Birch (2009) reports that in the 2005 General Election in Great Britain, the turnout in the 18 to 25 age group was just 37%, while the turnout for voters over 65 years old was 75%. Additionally, the gap in turnout rates between age groups is widening. The same pattern, even though to a lesser degree, also applies to the level of education. Keaney and Rogers (2006) find that the gap in turnout rates between people without a formal degree and people with high-level degrees is increasing. To conclude, if some groups tend to abstain from voting more often than other groups, lower turnout rates will produce even stronger biased participation rates. Thereof the problem arises that some groups are not included in the political process. This political exclusion reproduces and also reinforces the social inequality. Accordingly, authors like Lijphart (1997), Birch (2009) and Hill (2011) argue that if the socially disadvantaged tend to abstain more often then they will not be able to influence decision-making in their favour. This can leave the most marginalised even more deprived and further alienated and dissociated from the political order. This is where compulsory voting would take effect, at least according to Lijphart, Birch and Hill.

While the relation between low turnout and unequal turnout is not contested, some central aspects of the argument depicted above are challenged by authors like Lever (2009), Singh (2011) and Panagopoulos (2008). Lower turnout is associated with more unequal turnout, the evidence presented above viably supports this statement. However, to argue that increasing turnout would lead to more political inclusion and a better representation for the marginalised is more uncertain.

Lever (2009) for example argues that the „paradigmatic instances of social democracy – Sweden, Norway (…) and Finland – do not have ompulsory voting and, indeed, appear to suffer from the same worries about declining voter turnout and indifference to the major political parties which trouble countries with more free-market economies“(p.63).

This argument is supported by the findings of Pettersen and Rose (2007). They report that higher turnout would only have a marginal effect on electoral outcomes and „neither large parties, smaller parties or parties on the left and right wings of the political spectrum would have benefited markedly had there been a higher level of turnout“(p.585). Following the logic applied by Lijphart, Birch and Hill, one would expect gains for social democratic parties, however, as Pettersen and Rose (2007) and a study by Selb and Lachat (2007) display, higher turnout has no evident effect on electoral outcomes. This is probably due to the fact that as already noted „voters do not always vote on their self-interest“ (Lever, 2009). Additionally, even if voting is compulsory, there is no noticeable effect on political knowledge or interest (Lever, 2009; Loewen et al., 2008). Therefore, arguing that higher turnout through compulsion will help achieve greater political and social inclusion does not seem to be a viable strategy. On the contrary, odds are that being forced to attend the polls will make people feel even more alienated by the political order and making voting compulsory „would certainly remove the very indicator which has helped kick-start the current debate about political engagement“ (Ballinger, 2006, p.22). Compulsory voting is problematic in another respect, contrary to the argument that through compulsion more deprived people would vote and therefore political parties would need to address the interests of this group more thoroughly, Lever (2009) and Ballinger (2006) argue that compulsion would make it easier for parties „to target swing seats or constituencies“. Hence, compulsory voting would have the contrary effect and would leave the socially disadvantaged even more disengaged with the political process.

Furthermore, if compulsory voting only is effective if „both penalties and the likelihood of enforcement are high“ (Panagopoulos, 2008) then this would affect the disadvantaged disproportionately.

The pros and cons of compulsory voting are still vividly discussed in the political science community as this article has shown. Even though the proponents of compulsory voting are adamantly arguing that compulsory voting is the best cure for the negative effects of lower turnout on democracy, I cannot find any positive effects on democracy apart from higher turnout rates. While the positive effect of compulsion on turnout rates can be regarded as scientifically proven, it cannot cure the causes of declining turnout. There is no effect on social or political inclusion, it does not heighten peoples’ political interest or knowledge and it may even reinforce feelings of alienation and disintegration. Therefore, alternative measures like lowering voting-barriers, holding elections on weekends or intensifying and broadening political education may prove more efficient than compulsory voting.

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