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Insult and Charisma: Deployment of an Obsolete Law in Turkish Democratic Backsliding

In Turkey, insulting the president is a crime punishable by up to four years in prison. Between 2014 and 2016 as many as 1,845 such insult cases were opened against people including celebrities, journalists and even children. Compared to 20 cases opened in 2006 and 175 cases opened in 2011 during the terms of previous presidents, 1,845 cases opened in the first one and a half years of Erdoğan’s rule clearly stand out as a controversial break with the national past. This research asks why was this law revived following Erdoğan’s election as president? What role do insult proceedings play in politics, and what does this law’s revival tell us about state-society relations in Turkey? To respond, the research explores (i) the global context in which laws that ban insulting the head of the state become obsolete, get abolished or deployed, (ii) Turkish courts’ construction of the relationship between citizens and the president in filed cases, and (iii) public perception of insult cases in Turkey. In a world where coups lost their relevance as agents of democratic backsliding, this study is expected to show how obsolete laws acquire special importance as legal devices of democratic decay. 

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