In the past month we have witnessed two illiberal regimes tested by vigorous domestic oppositions. Malaysia’s competitive authoritarian regime survived a stiff electoral test. Turkey’s electoral democratic regime is facing down protestors in Taksim Square. These events were closely followed by observers from around the world, due primarily to the availability of real-time, unfiltered, sympathetic internet coverage.
I want to propose that the internet distorts our understanding of politics in illiberal regimes. Not for country specialists—careful analysts of Malaysia and Turkey know that there’s a lot more to understanding these regimes than events in either Taksim or Merdeka Square can capture. But for causal observers, and superficial scholars, and also potentially for those in the position to make important decisions about policy, internet goggles obscure just as much as they reveal.
Reducing these regimes to their anti-opposition tactics is problematic in at least two ways. First, it ignores the historical context of current politics, and thereby obscures the conditions through which regimes come to power. In both the Turkish and Malaysian cases, these conditions are rooted in specific understandings of religion and the state, between the party and the market, between popular voice and political order, and between material prosperity and social concerns. (There are some parallels between the specifics in Malaysia and Turkey, but just as many differences.)
Second, highlighting anti-opposition tactics discounts the popular support that each regime does have, and the non-electoral mechanisms through which the regime stays in power. The problem lies in the fact that the relationship between the incumbent regime and much of the population is not spectacular—which I mean in literal terms, as in “not a spectacle.” The everyday politics of regime maintenance is relatively boring. Yet without understanding why Istanbul votes for the AKP, or why Johor goes for the BN, the meaning or significance of anti-regime protest and the regime’s response is hardly possible. It is hard, reading accounts such as this or this, to understand why anyone would support the AKP or the BN.
The consequence is not just that the media coverage isn’t comprehensive, but that the analysis based on that coverage is misleading because it misses the “real action” of regime maintenance. A quote from Clive Kessler‘s review of GE13 in Malaysia makes the point well.
For many of those intelligent, persuasive and globally-networked young Kuala Lumpur cosmopolitans, the Malay heartlands and those who live there are just as foreign and remote a world as they certainly were to the visiting journalists. The young sophisticates with their congenial “discourse” and “narratives” were nice people, but a very poor guide to what the election was really about —— how it was being conducted where it really mattered.
But, to those who were running the “real” campaign that inattention was no problem. On the contrary. Let the foreign press write the stories that might please them, that seemed to centre upon the overseas journalists’ own effete concerns, not those of the rural Malay voters. Let them chase after stories that led them away from the real story, the main action.à
So let me stipulate that the AKP’s actions reveal it to be both brutal and indifferent to the Occupy Gezi protestors, and by extension the Turkish opposition—secular, cosmopolitan, leftist, or otherwise—in general. That observation, which all the world can now see plainly, means something different for a regime which can turn out 50% of the country’s voters at election time than it would in a regime that has to rig or otherwise throw elections. The harsh crackdown in Taksim Square would also be a different story altogether if it were taking place in Merdeka Square in Kuala Lumpur.
As we watch the unfolding situation in Turkey through the goggles of Twitter and Tumblr and the Times, then, take care in drawing strong conclusions about Turkish politics from what we can perceive about the events on the ground. Just like the planned Black 505 rally in Malaysia, the current protests in Turkey cannot do justice to the forces that put AKP in power, or the mechanisms through which it stays in power. For that, less spectacular but no less troubling issues such as the Sledgehammer affair are the place to start.