Turkey’s case for fake-democracy primacy

An Erdogan victory in Turkey on May 14 would help illiberalism everywhere.

It’s human to see things through a binary prism: left versus right, drama versus comedy, democracy versus autocracy. But we can oversimplify. The great challenge to freedom comes not only from cartoon villains like Russian President Vladimir Putin but from the perhaps less evil but strangely more vexing in-betweeners.

These are rulers like Turkey’s Recep Teyyep Erdogan, who faces reelection next month after two decades at the helm that have left him feeling essential to his nation—a very common self-delusion. There are quite a few of these in-betweeners on the world stage these days, and they tend to share some primary qualities.

They exploit the weaknesses of democracy—chiefly its tolerance of lies and outrageous machinations—to rule as autocrats. They vex rivals with a gift for whipping up resentments that make them the champions of the losers of globalization. Not clearly evil, but posing a menace to liberal democracy, they take on a confounding and oddly popular shade of gray.

Among their number stands Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. His stooges tried to pass „reforms” that would have defanged the legal system and made the government almost omnipotent precisely at a time when Netanyahu finds himself on trial.

That could have been devastating to Israel’s status as a tech superpower and made this crypto-nuclear power quite dangerous. But Israel’s healthy civil society appears to have stalled the plan, and Netanyahu is wavering.

These skullduggeries in Israel have been widely compared to the sad recent history of Poland and Hungary. Both are former communist dictatorships in which high hopes were invested after the Soviet collapse of three decades ago. But in recent years they have fallen prey to illiberal plots to install autocratic rule under the cover of mostly free elections.

Hungary’s Victor Orban has been especially successful in gaming the system to keep himself in power while ratcheting up oppression at home. He has successfully installed the kind of regime that can brook such little opposition that it even forced the Central European University to relocate. Such regimes rarely outlast the original fake democrat, but authoritarian-minded U.S. Republicans like Steve Bannon are arriving to pay homage nonetheless.

I say they should make pilgrimages to Istanbul as well. Erdogan has earned our attention no less than Orban and perhaps even more.

He came to power on the Ides of March in 2003 as prime minister on behalf of the Islamist-leaning AK Party, which had just won its first election. At the time, Turkey, despite a history of military coups, was seen as something of a democracy. There was some trepidation due to the well-established conviction in certain quarters that religion and politics made for an especially nasty brew.

But Erdogan established an early reputation as a reasonable figure, a modernist committed to the kind of transparency and reform that might compel the European Union to allow Turkey into its ranks.

My assessment is that something in him broke when it became clear that Europe was demurring, and the process would be long and even humiliating. It doesn’t require a cynic to suspect that anti-Muslim bigotry was involved: Many Europeans were not enamored of the idea that 85 million Turks could simply export themselves to Paris—as indeed would be possible under the EU‘s principles of the free movement of goods, capital, and people.

Since then, Erdogan has dragged the country many more steps toward fake democracy than Netanyahu could have hoped for or even Orban has achieved.

The decisive move to illiberalism came after a failed military coup in 2016, two years after he engineered for himself an all-powerful presidency (via a constitutional reform confirmed in a referendum). It is fair to say Erdogan prevailed not only against the plotters but also the wishes of many around the world who normally consider themselves democrats. He used the aftermath of the coup to toss tens of thousands of opponents in jail and purge the civil service.

Turkey today is a country where judges, military figures, and officials deemed unfriendly to the ruling AK party (or friendly to the ambitions of the restive Kurdish minority) languish in jail, where the media is either owned by the government or its cronies or otherwise cowed, and where the constitution is amended to suit the authoritarian leader. It is a country where the „courts” have issued a jail sentence (pending appeal) to opposition figure and Istanbul Mayor Ekrem İmamoğlu for calling election officials „fools.” It is a country in which there are truly guaranteed freedoms and protections.

As a result, it ranks 101st out of 180 countries on Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index


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