Bilge Yabanci: “democratic backsliding” in Turkey and around the world

What is the so-called 'democratic backsliding' found in political regimes in which democracy is limited and authoritarian tendencies are strong? Researcher Bilge Yabanci is focusing precisely on democratic backsliding in Turkey. Yabanci is the winner of a "Marie Skłodowska-Curie" Global Fellowship that will enable her to carry out her research at Northwestern University in Chicago, following her MSCA Europe at Ca’ Foscari. The next call for Marie Skłodowska-Curie Postdoctoral Fellowships will be published on 18 May. Ca’ Foscari has obtained fantastic results, coming in first in Italy and fourth in Europe thanks to 30 fellowships and confirming its attractiveness for high-level researchers who focus on interdisciplinary topics. 

Dr Yabanci is conducting her research at the Department of Philosophy and Cultural Heritage under the supervision of Professor Matteo Legrenzi. In a conversation with her, we spoke about democratic backsliding, intersectionality, and the increasing need for interdisciplinary research projects such as the ones hosted by Ca’ Foscari’s Institute for Global Challenges

The CRAFT (To Craft an Authoritarian Regime: Politicization of Civil Society and the Judiciary in Turkey) project focuses on hybrid political systems that are characterised by democratic backsliding and authoritarian tendencies. Ursula Von Der Leyen’s “sofagate” case has spotlighted this topic even for the general public, and particularly in Turkey. Can you tell us about the objectives of your study and elaborate on your methodology? What does “democratic backsliding” mean? 

First of all, thank you very much for this interview. My project specifically focuses on how democratic backsliding affects and transforms civil society and the judiciary. By democratic backsliding, I mean a gradual but steady decline in the quality of institutions or practices associated with democracy such as free and fair elections, institutionalised representation through autonomous civil society, multi-party legislation, and checks and balances on the government such as independent courts and media.

Turkey is my case study. It is not only because I am from Turkey. As you mentioned, Turkey’s autocratic turn is one of the most striking cases of democratic backsliding and even widely acknowledged by the general public abroad. This backsliding has led to the emergence of what political scientists call a “hybrid regime” with characteristics of both democratic and autocratic governance.

Hybrid regimes have been extensively studied over the last two decades. However, these studies mostly have an institutional perspective. In other words, scholars have extensively focused on how elected rulers aggrandised their powers and used legal loopholes to undermine democratic norms and to monopolize democratic institutions. The societal dimensions of democratic backsliding remain relatively understudied. My research addresses the more subtle, informal and societal trajectories that allow hybrid regimes to emerge and maintain support, and how these regimes reconstruct state-society relations. Civil society and the judiciary were the two most obvious ‘sites’ to look into to uncover these dynamics. 

Civil society and the judiciary are quite complex terrains and for this reason, I use a mixed methodology approach in my research, combining qualitative and quantitative research. For the qualitative part, I have carried out fieldwork in Turkey and in Europe where there is a significant presence of the Turkish diaspora, such as Germany, Sweden and Austria. 

The fieldwork involved conducting interviews with civil society organizations and activists as well as participant observation. I have also conducted interviews in Brussels and with the EU Delegation in Ankara to understand how the EU has changed its approach to supporting democracy and civil society in Turkey. Unfortunately, because of the COVID-19 pandemic, carrying out fieldwork is not possible at this moment. I am currently working on creating a new dataset of higher court rulings in Turkey which will eventually allow me to address the question of the politicisation of courts within the framework of democratic backsliding. 

How does the opposition tend to behave when facing that process? What has happened, for example, in Turkey?

As I have mentioned, democratic backsliding does not happen overnight. It is a long process whereby elected governments undermine previously existing democratic norms and practices. The result is a hybrid regime and these regimes are not necessarily fully autocratic regimes in the making. They have their unique characteristics. One of these unique aspects is the opposition. Both civic and political oppositions are alive and active in Turkey. It is mostly because as hybrid regimes like Turkey used to meet at least the minimal requirements of democratic systems, the opposition has historically a strong institutional and social anchoring. Despite the current erosion of democratic rule, the opposition has not disappeared.  

Although each country has some unique contextual factors, the opposition faces some common challenges of transformation and renewal to remain relevant under the new repressive political climate in hybrid regimes. One of the most obvious challenges is to overcome deep social polarisations. Hybrid regimes are built on deep partisan polarisation and the criminalisation of dissent. Under polarisation, people make partisan choices. This means the opposition is often stuck with a traditional support base and incapable of bridging social and political cleavages and reaching out to the electorate of the undemocratic government or the wider society. It takes a lot of trial and failure for the opposition to change the way it communicates with society, frames policies and constructs a unifying message beyond partisan lines to convince groups beyond its habitual supporters. Another challenge for the opposition is to overcome intra-oppositional divisions and unite against democratic backsliding. Although it seems obvious, often it takes a long time for the political opposition to find a common voice. Most of the time, ideological and historical differences create intra-oppositional disputes and disunity. Undemocratic rulers in hybrid regimes benefit from a divided opposition.  

However, we also witness a great degree of resilience and revival of the opposition. Perhaps because political representation is widely monopolised and because electoral competition is not fair and the media is controlled, the oppositional groups turn to the civic space to create grassroots resistance and push back from there. Young, globally connected citizens find ways to express dissent, demand rights and create participatory platforms through democratic innovations. This is also a unique aspect of hybrid regimes where civil society and protest culture are much more vivid than democratic or fully autocratic countries. In Turkey and several other similar countries, the civic and political oppositions engage in a constant and daily struggle at multiple levels, both nationally and locally.

I must add that this point does not receive due attention. For example, about Turkey, when President Erdogan says or does something provocative, this increases a short-lived interest in the socio-political developments in Turkey here in Italy or, in general, in the EU. After a short while, this interest dissipates quickly. The latest episode was the so-called “sofagate” scandal. On the other hand, since January 2021, the academic staff and students at Bogazici University (one of Turkey’s most prestigious universities) have been protesting literally everyday against the top-down appointment of a rector by President Erdogan. Another example is women who carried out several demonstrations to protest against Turkey’s unlawful withdrawal from the Istanbul Convention (Council of Europe Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence) by a presidential decree. Unfortunately, such mobilizations by democratic grassroots opposition are not sufficiently known in the EU. In the end, Turkey receives attention only through Erdogan or the government. What happened with Von der Leyen is worthy of attention to draw attention to sexism, but I also think when brave women or academics organise mass protests to defend their rights despite political repression and police violence, this should be at least equally worthy of attention in the European public sphere. We should make it clear that hybrid regimes like in Turkey host a great deal of everyday grassroots struggle for restoring democracy and the undemocratic rulers do not represent the entire country. 

What other countries can we think of around the world where democratic backsliding is happening?

Turkey is not alone, of course. Scholars working on this issue agree that democratic backsliding has become a global concern. The Varieties of Democracy (V-Dem) Project at the University of Gothenburg systematically monitors democracy in the world. According to their latest reports, 2.6 billion people (35% of the world’s population) live in countries that are currently losing democratic credentials. In 2019, they declared that for the first time since 2001, democratic countries are no longer the majority in the world. Among the top ten countries that are losing democratic credentials fastest across the globe, there are EU member states or candidate countries such as Hungary, Turkey, Poland, and Serbia, as well as some of the largest democracies, such as Brazil and India. 

This is quite worrying because backsliding is not only about semi-democratic countries becoming less democratic – several countries considered to be established democracies are also becoming less tolerant of democratic rights and freedoms. In Europe, Hungary and Poland are often mentioned, but I personally am very worried about what is happening in France in terms of academic and civic freedom. Macron’s targeting of academics as ‘Islamo-leftists’ does not only aim to marginalise and undermine freedom of thought, but also shows how the far-right ideology is being mainstreamed in democratic countries. Another example is that teaching of critical race theory on campuses is under attack in the UK, USA and France in recent years. These are subtler but very worrying signs of democratic backsliding in established democracies. 
 

Your academic path has been exceptional and is connected with Ca’ Foscari. You have won a Marie Curie European Fellowship, a Marie Curie Global Fellowship, and you have participated in a series of projects of a markedly comparative and interdisciplinary nature. How has your research evolved?

Indeed, it is very difficult for me to identify with only one discipline. I think this is very much reflected in the way I try to look at my research. I rely on insights from political science and sub-areas of sociology, such as cultural sociology and social movements. And with my new Marie Curie Global project, I will extend into cognitive psychology and performative aspects of political mobilisation. I did not include these insights from one day to another. When I started researching democratic backsliding, I realised some aspects of it cannot be addressed by relying “only” on political science. As one comes across new research puzzles while conducting research and digging deeper, paths to interdisciplinarity open up almost naturally, if you want to push the boundaries of existing scholarship. I believe the same approach is also needed in our methodology, which is how we collect and approach our data at the analysis stage. I think interdisciplinarity is the future of original research, which we need in order to address awaiting social and political challenges. I would like to continue to work across disciplinary boundaries and learn new skills and approaches. 
 

Processes of democratic backsliding around the world fall within the realm that Ca’ Foscari is set to examine through its Institute for Global Challenges. How do your comparative studies fit into this context?

Horizon Europe has made it very clear by emphasizing the need for further interdisciplinarity and by encouraging an integration between science, societal challenges and market innovation. Traditional academic disciplines in social sciences are not going to fade away, but maybe the strict boundaries and canonical approaches – such as the Eurocentric theories that dominate political science and sociology or strict adherence to one type of data – will be less and less relevant. 

We are already witnessing this change with the rise of syncretic approaches, such as collaborations between social sciences and climate science or political science and cognitive psychology. Critical theories – such as post-colonial race theory, intersectionality, feminist and queer theories – have also helped to bridge disciplinary divides;  more importantly, they have helped us researchers reflect on the colonial, gendered and Eurocentric bias that might be hidden in our thinking. In this sense, the Institute for Global Challenges encourages collaboration for previously untested approaches and novel ideas. The programme Global@Venice is currently open for post-doc fellowship applications and it offers a great opportunity for innovative young researchers. 

I hope Ca’ Foscari will encourage more interdisciplinarity and open science practices and continue to support young researchers in establishing sustainable career paths in academia and becoming a leading example in Italy.

Federica Ferrarin