2016 Virtual Edition: Elif Babül

Postscript to Training Bureaucrats, Practicing for Europe: Negotiating Bureaucratic Authority and Governmental Legitimacy in Turkey

These are difficult times for Turkey. These are also difficult times for the academics who work on Turkey, particularly with a focus on human rights, the state, and Turkey’s accession to the European Union (EU). Since the summer of 2013, when the Gezi Park protests broke out and gained international attention, I have been grappling with difficult questions as to how my research sits with the rising authoritarianism in Turkey. How do increasing restrictions on the freedom of thought, freedom of speech, and the right to protest reconcile with the transformation of the state into a field of service provision through bureaucratic reform? How does the overwhelming use of armed securitization policies at the expense of civilian populations in the Kurdish regions coexist with the inculcation of human rights sensibility in government workers via training programs? How does the ongoing standoff between Turkey and the EU coincide with a period of intense project making that has been fueled by the EU accession process?

These questions became even more urgent since July 15 of this year, when a coup d’état to oust the AKP government was repelled by popular forces that were called into the streets by President Erdoğan. In the aftermath of the failed coup, the government declared a three-month nation-wide state of emergency that is renewable upon request. Deployed with the ostensible purpose of rooting out the civilian and military cadres responsible for the coup, the state of emergency allows the government to bypass the usual legislative process while ruling the country. The decrees issued by the government during this period cannot be examined or repealed by the Constitutional Court. Since the declaration of the state of emergency there have been sweeping reorganizations in the military. Several universities, schools, and newspapers were shut down. More than 100,000 government workers have been dismissed and over 30,000 people have been detained. The period in which a person can be lawfully detained without formal charges was increased to 30 days. Security personnel have been authorized to conduct searches without court order and prosecutors have been allowed to limit or even ban attorney-client meetings for those under arrest. Government representatives announced that during the state of emergency, the European Convention on Human Rights would be put on hold. Most notably, President Erdoğan declared that he would reinstate the death penalty for the coup plotters if the parliament agreed upon it.

These developments have further strained Turkey-EU relations, which were already deteriorating. EU spokespeople criticized the post-coup state of emergency arrangements as a further step towards increasing Erdoğan’s executive powers.  Many critics inside and outside Turkey also raised concerns that the president was using the situation to silence all forms of opposition and dissentThe EU’s reaction has been particularly strong on the issue of reinstating the death penalty, threatening that accession negotiations would be ceased if Turkey reneges on this essential element of the Union acquis.

Where things currently stand, the period during which I conducted my research—when the field was saturated with EU- funded capacity building projects for establishing good governance in Turkey—seems like the distant past. Yet, as my analysis of both intended and unintended consequences of these projects shows, the emergence of a more repressive governmental domain is not necessarily incompatible with bureaucratic reform initiatives.

The promises and perils of bureaucratic reform projects such as the human rights training programs I examined in my Political and Legal Anthropology Review article are at the center of my forthcoming book. The starting point for the book is that any universalizing concept such as human rights, good governance, or development has to go through a series of translations in order to become relevant to the local-national context into which it is transplanted. Anthropologists working on local configurations of various universals have adopted this analytic to inquire into the workings of several standardization, regulation, and assessment processes. Some of the classics that come to mind are by Anna Tsing (1997), Don Brenneis (2004), Sally Engle Merry (2006), and Harri Englund (2006). The more recent additions to this list include the works by Julia Hornberger (2011), Andrea Ballestero (2014), Kregg Hetherington (2014), and Galit Sarfaty (2012). What becomes clear in all of these studies is that instead of producing equivalent values through commensuration, translation processes often generate multiplicity by exposing the inconsistencies that lie at the heart of seemingly consolidated universals. In a similar vein, translation of human rights into a tool of good governance in Turkey leads to the surfacing of competing understandings of what human rights (should) do, which does not always lead to liberal, transparent, and accountable governmental practices. Although this translation renders human rights relevant for the everyday practices of government workers, this rendering comes at a cost.

In my article for Political and Legal Anthropology Review, I detailed one of those moments of translation, where the terms of establishing bureaucratic authority and governmental legitimacy shift from claiming to be above the society to claiming to be of the people. Encountering human rights experts who assert their distinction through educational credentials and global connectedness, the judges and prosecutors who attend human rights trainings recalibrate the basis of their distinction. As opposed to their traditional isolation from the common people, they emphasize being embedded locally. They claim to have the right to govern not because of their exclusive knowledge of transnational standards, but because of their deep understanding of national realities.

This analysis provides two important insights for understanding the current developments in Turkey. First of all, the recalibration of the terms of distinction by the trainees in human rights training programs shows that bureaucratic authority does not disappear as a result of bureaucratic reform. The terms of “authorization to subject others to authority,” as Thomas Osborne (1994) puts it, only change form. One can argue that this is in fact compatible with the general intent of all capacity building projects, which aim to improve, not regress, governmental competence. By acquiring a new form and integrating new processes, it is envisioned that government interventions will become more successful and legitimate.

The second point that derives from my analysis pertains to the particular way this legitimacy is translated by judges and prosecutors in human rights training programs, which provides clues as to how the current political terrain in Turkey takes shape. The way this elite cadre of government workers resort to their provincial, underprivileged backgrounds to assert their right to govern bears strong similarities to the way current AKP government and President Erdoğan uphold their governmental legitimacy. Both the government and the president continuously avow that they channel the power of the people/the nation (millet) in their governmental practices both during normal times and during the state of emergency.

In my larger work, I show that this populist legitimacy converges with the promotion and adoption of professional expertise in the public sector, which denotes another moment of translation. The strategic selective employment of distinction and commonality by government workers finds its reflection in how the elected governors justify their oppressive authoritarian practices, all the while praising democracy. This is particularly traceable in many speeches of president Erdoğan, where he claims extensive authority as the “head of the people” (cumhurun başı), to dismiss constitutional order and assert the establishment of a “de-facto presidential system” (fiili başkanlık) in Turkey.  Erdoğan’s claim to legitimacy as the first popularly elected president of the country became further accentuated after July 15, where the defeat of the coup was hailed with slogans such as “people’s sovereignty” (hakimiyet milletindir) and “the victory of people’s will” (milli iradenin zaferi) (see, for instance the cover of Skylife, the official magazine of the state owned Turkish Airlines, and the billboard that was installed by the Istanbul municipality to commemorate those who lost their lives during the coup).  Asserting himself as the immediate embodiment of that popular will, Erdoğan became even more aggressive in his stance against certain sectors of the population, which he labeled as vile and immoral traitors and terrorists (see, for instance, president Erdoğan’s closing remarks at the last “democracy watch” in front of the presidential palace in Ankara).

Seen from this perspective, it becomes clear that capacity building and bureaucratic reform projects do not necessarily counteract authoritarian governmental practices. On the contrary, these projects may somehow provide the basis for such practices to gain credence and legitimacy. Regardless of whether Turkey-EU relations improve or whether Turkey attains EU membership in the end, the translations that are put into motion by the accession process are here to stay (see Silverstein (2015) for a similar analysis of the irreversibility of the effects of the EU reforms pertaining to the field of statistics in Turkey).  Going forward, the particular effects of those translations should incentivize the researchers to look more closely into the unprecedented connections between liberal political projects and rising populist authorities in Turkey and elsewhere (see Tambar (2009) on secular populism in Turkey, and Comaroff (2011) and Samet (2013) for examples of anthropological investigations of populism in other places).


Ballestero, A. 2014. “What is in a Percentage? Calculation as the Poetic Translation of Human Rights.” Indiana Journal of Global Legal Studies 21(1): 27-53.

Brenneis, D. 2004. “A Partial View of Contemporary Anthropology.” American Anthropologist 106(3): 580-588.

Comaroff, J. 2011. “Populism and Late Liberalism: A Special Affinity?” The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 637: 99-111.

Englund, H. 2006. Prisoners of Freedom: Human Rights and the African Poor. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Hetherington, K. 2014. “Regular Soybeans: Translation and Framing in the Ontological Politics of a Coup.” Indiana Journal of Global Legal Studies 21(1): 55-78.

Hornberger, J. 2011. Policing and Human Rights: The Meaning of Violence and Justice in the Everyday Policing of Johannesburg. Routledge.

Merry, S. E. 2006. Human Rights and Gender Violence: Translating International Law into Local Justice. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Osborne, T. 1994. “Bureaucracy as a Vocation: Governmentality and Administration in Nineteenth-Century Britain.” Journal of Historical Sociology 7(3): 289-313.

Samet, R. 2013. “The Photographer’s Body: Populism, Polarization, and the Uses of Victimhood in Venezuela.” American Ethnologist 40(3): 525-539.

Sarfaty, G. 2012. Values in Translation: Human Rights and the Culture of the World Bank. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Silverstein, B. 2015. “Statistics, Reform, and Regimes of Expertise in Turkey.” Turkish Studies 15(4): 638-654.

Tambar, K. 2009. “Secular Populism and the Semiotics of the Crowd in Turkey.” Public Culture 21(3): 517-537.