The post World War 2 era led to the birth of a lot of new democracies as the colonial era started to wind down in earnest. European countries couldn’t rebuild and fund empires. One of the most fascinating things to me about the current state of things in the world is that many places where democracy seemed well-rooted are plotting a path to return of autocratic forms of government. It hasn’t been that long since the USSR and its satellites broke up into many little experiments in democracy either. What makes some countries shrug their collective shoulders and go back to strong men?
At some point, you have to question which institutions have failed a country’s people but it’s undoubtedly an interplay of many. Turkey’s decline has many lessons for us. The similarities between Kremlin Caligula and Erdogan are eerie. That’s why I decided to write about it today.
Modern day religious extremism ventures into politics disguised as upholding traditional culture and values. Patriotism and nationalism appeal to many. The next thing you know is there is no culture but state-approved culture. Turkey has realigned itself. It looked to the West for most of the 20th Century. It now looks backward in time. Many of the same warning signals are present within the US so a good look at Turkey is necessary. Foreign Policy argues that “Recep Tayyip Erdogan didn’t just win his constitutional referendum — he permanently closed a chapter of his country’s modern history.”
Why are the world’s democracies facing such threat to modernity? Why place so much power in an executive branch?
Whether they understood it or not, when Turks voted “Yes”, they were registering their opposition to the Teşkilât-ı Esasîye Kanunu and the version of modernity that Ataturk imagined and represented. Though the opposition is still disputing the final vote tallies, the Turkish public seems to have given Erdogan and the AKP license to reorganize the Turkish state and in the process raze the values on which it was built. Even if they are demoralized in their defeat, Erdogan’s project will arouse significant resistance among the various “No” camps. The predictable result will be the continuation of the purge that has been going on since even before last July’s failed coup including more arrests and the additional delegitimization of Erdogan’s parliamentary opposition. All of this will further destabilize Turkish politics.
Turkey’s Islamists have long venerated the Ottoman period. In doing so, they implicitly expressed thinly veiled contempt for the Turkish Republic. For Necmettin Erbakan, who led the movement from the late 1960s to the emergence of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) in August 2001, the republic represented cultural abnegation and repressive secularism in service of what he believed was Ataturk’s misbegotten ideas that the country could be made Western and the West would accept it. Rather, he saw Turkey’s natural place not at NATO’s headquarters in Brussels but as a leader of the Muslim world, whose partners should be Pakistan, Malaysia, Egypt, Iran, and Indonesia.
When Erbakan’s protégés — among them Erdogan and former President Abdullah Gul — broke with him and created the AKP, they jettisoned the anti-Western rhetoric of the old guard, committed themselves to advancing Turkey’s European Union candidacy, and consciously crafted an image of themselves as the Muslim analogues to Europe’s Christian Democrats. Even so, they retained traditional Islamist ideas about the role of Turkey in the Middle East and the wider Muslim world.
Thinkers within the AKP — notably former Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu — harbored reservations about the compatibility of Western political and social institutions with their predominantly Muslim society. But the AKP leadership never acted upon this idea, choosing instead to undermine aspects of Ataturk’s legacy within the framework of the republic. That is no longer the case.
The AKP and supporters of the “yes” vote argue that the criticism of the constitutional amendments was unfair. They point out that the changes do not undermine a popularly elected parliament and president as well as an independent (at least formally) judiciary. This is all true, but it is also an exceedingly narrow description of the political system that Erdogan envisions. Rather, the powers that would be afforded to the executive presidency are vast, including the ability to appoint judges without input from parliament, issue decrees with the force of law, and dissolve parliament. The president would also have the sole prerogative over all senior appointments in the bureaucracy and exercise exclusive control of the armed forces. The amendments obviate the need for the post of prime minister, which would be abolished. The Grand National Assembly does retain some oversight and legislative powers, but if the president and the majority are from the same political party, the power of the presidency will be unconstrained. With massive imbalances and virtually no checks on the head of state, who will now also be the head of government, the constitutional amendments render the Law on Fundamental Organization and all subsequent efforts to emulate the organizational principles of a modern state moot.
There is an uptick in groups of voters drawn to authoritarianism. This is not what I expected when I watched the “Arab Spring” unfold on Twitter. Donald Trump is not what I expected after Barrack Obama. There appears to be a group of people that just love themselves better in the comfort of old school religion and backwoods bullies. Each follower of the world’s largest religions needs to discern a difference between being a person of faith and blindly following your religion over a precipice and into slavery. It always begins with a purge of intellectuals, scientists, and scholars.
It has been painful for me to witness the immense disappointment of Turkish intellectuals, resilient by tradition, and mainly left-leaning. All I could hear by phone or on social media was tormented despair – a crushing sense of defeat. What united all those in academia and the media or in NGOs, regardless of their political stripes, was that they had hoped for democratic change under the AKP.
Many of them had given credit to the party, and its early pledges and steps towards an order where the sharing of power would break the vicious circle of the republic. They wanted to believe in human rights, freedom and an end to the decades-long Kurdish conflict. But the deliberate reversal of democratisation left all of them feeling they had been duped.
This conclusion became undeniable when last summer’s attempted coup – the details of which are still unclear – led to an immense purge. Given this mood of despair and the sense of defeat, we should expect another exodus of fine human resources in the coming months and years.
Journalists – such as me, abroad, or at home – will find themselves challenged even more after the referendum. Coverage of corruption will be a daredevil act, severe measures against critical journalism will continue and the remaining resistance of media proprietors will vanish.
The Turkish media will begin to resemble those of the Central Asian republics, where only mouthpieces for those in power are allowed to exist. Inevitably, these conditions will shift the epicentre of independent journalism to outside the borders of Turkey. My colleagues have already realised that their dreams of a dignified fourth estate were nothing but an illusion.
“At the end of the day, Erdoğan is simply replacing one form of authoritarianism with another,” wrote Cook.
“The Turkish republic has always been flawed, but it always contained the aspiration that – against the backdrop of the principles to which successive constitutions claimed fidelity – it could become a democracy. Erdoğan’s new Turkey closes off that prospect.”
Just as in this country’s election in 2016, Erdoğan won a slim victory. That’s not stopping him from sweeping reforms that are way out of line with progress and modernity.
An emboldened Recep Tayyip Erdogan followed his win in a referendum that ratified the supremacy of his rule by taking aim at political opponents at home and abroad.
At his victory speech late on Sunday, supporters chanted that he should bring back the death penalty — a move that would finish off Turkey’s bid to join the European Union — and Erdogan warned opponents not to bother challenging the legitimacy of his win. He told them to prepare for the biggest overhaul of Turkey’s system of governance ever, one that will result in him having even fewer checks on his already considerable power.
“Today, Turkey has made a historic decision,” he said. “We will change gears and continue along our course more quickly.” The lira surged as much as 2.5 percent against the dollar in early trading on Monday in Istanbul before gains moderated.
The success of a package of 18 changes to the constitution was narrow, with about 51.4 percent of Turks approving it. It came at the end of a divisive two-month campaign during which Erdogan accused opponents of the vote of supporting “terrorists” and denounced as Nazi-like the decision of some EU countries to bar his ministers from lobbying the diaspora.
“The referendum campaign was dominated by strongly anti-Western rhetoric and repeated promises to bring back the death penalty,” said Inan Demir, an economist at Nomura Holdings Inc. in London. “One hopes that this rhetoric will be tempered now that the vote is over,” but recent steps by the Turkish government do“not bode well for the hoped-for moderation in international relations.”
I’m not the only one curious about this trend toward dilution of democracy in Western nations. There’s actually quite a bit discussion on the topic out there today.
Now that two obese men with bad hair and nuclear weapons didn’t end the world over the weekend, let’s talk about Turkey. Maybe keeping up with the former focal point of the Ottoman empire hasn’t been on the top of your to-do list. All well and good. But you may want to know they voted to weaken or even obliterate—depending on who you ask—their democracy over the weekend.
So what does this referendum of theirs mean? Only give the Turkish president hitherto unprecedented control over the executive, legislative and judicial branches. Now that the Turks have voted “Yes” to these constitutional reforms, they’re signing up for a form of government in which parliament’s monitoring of the executive branch is removed from the constitution and the judiciary is even weaker and less independent than it already was beforehand.
It’s a complex case though. Turkey’s government is different than America’s and, in some ways, they’re actually embracing a system more similar to the one US citizens are used to. The main transition is one from a parliamentary democracy to a presidential one, albeit a strongly authoritative one. Traditionally, the Turkish president is more figurehead than enforcer. They’re intended to be more Queen Elizabeth than Vladimir Putin or even Donald Trump.
As head of state, they act as the public face of the country, acting in times of emergency but largely delegating the business of lawmaking and government-running to their appointed prime minister. Until April 16, 2017, the president was mandated to cut ties from his party and maintain a largely neutral and apolitical stance, regardless of personal attachments or viewpoints. Now the office of prime minister is kaput and the president will have way more control over all branches of government. Parliament will still make laws and the judiciary will still try cases. But they’ll do little else and even those duties are capable of being bypassed by the president pretty easily.
The changes don’t go into effect until 2019 but when they do, the Turkish president can pass decrees as effective and codified as any parliamentary law, dissolve parliament, call for new elections, set the budget, declare a state of emergency, make unilateral national security decisions, appoint and remove all VPs and ministry heads at their own discretion and more. Don’t worry! If the president does something illegal, they can still be investigated if there’s a simple majority in parliament and a 60% vote to be tried then convicted by presidentially appointed judges.
And it’s so completely unconcerning the person who’ll most likely have all this unchecked executive power in 2019 is current president Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Just think of his inspirational and relatable backstory—he sold lemonade as a teenager in a rough part of town, played soccer for a while and wrote, and directed and starred in a play called Maskomya about how Freemasonry, Communism and Judaism are evil forces hellbent on destroying the world. Presidents: they’re just like us!
Yes, well much of this sounds eerily familiar doesn’t it? Liz Cookman has argued that Turkey could be our future under Kremlin Caligula assuming the FBI and Eric Schneiderman don’t catch up with so many of his thugs that Congress has to act. There are some frightening similarities.
Trump has voiced his support for the use of torture. And his similarities with the Turkish leader do not end there. Both use a rhetoric of patriotism to the point of nationalism, are vocal against abortion and are infamous for their tendency to objectify women and misunderstand feminism. They have both granted their sons-in-law important positions and both have a particularly thin skin when it comes to criticism, especially when it comes from comedians and journalists.
Erdoğan and Trump have publicly supported each other’s stance on the media in the past. Anyone who has spent time in Turkey will recognise Trump’s denouncement of negative coverage in outlets such as the New York Times as “fake news”. They will be familiar with headlines such as the one that appeared in far-right outlet Brietbart (whose founding member Steve Bannon is Trump’s chief strategist), used in relation to the protests in the US on Saturday – “Terror-tied group Cair causes chaos, promoting protests and lawsuits as Trump protects nation”. This is pure Erdoğan territory – denouncing opposition by associating it with terror while glorifying the strong leader. Turkey is the home of “alternative facts”.
A country that makes the media the enemy is a country where people are too easily manipulated by those in power. Journalists in Turkey, unless they work for organisations that toe the official government line on events, constantly wobble on a tightrope between reporting what’s going on and not reporting enough to get arrested. Even foreign journalists self-censor, double-check for unintended “insults” that could land them in trouble. They flinch when the doorbell rings unexpectedly, and wonder every time they go abroad whether they will be allowed back in the country.
We need to stand up against the vilification of the free press in the US now before it goes too far. Erdoğan is no longer good for Turkey, just like Trump is no good for America. They are changing the identities of their countries.
The similarities between Erdogan and Trump are greater than they might seem, despite the very different political traditions in the US and Turkey.
The parallel lies primarily in the methods by which both men have gained power and seek to enhance it. They are populists and nationalists who demonise their enemies and see themselves as surrounded by conspiracies. Success does not sate their pursuit of more authority.
Hopes in the US that, after Trump’s election in November, he would shift from aggressive campaign mode to a more conciliatory approach have dissipated over the last two months. Towards the media his open hostility has escalated, as was shown by his abuse of reporters at his press conference this week.
Manic sensitivity to criticism is a hallmark of both men. In Trump’s case this is exemplified by his tweeted denunciation of critics such as Meryl Streep, while in Turkey 2,000 people have been charged with insulting the president. One man was tried for posting on Facebook three pictures of Gollum, the character in The Lord of the Rings, with similar facial features to pictures of Erdogan posted alongside. Of the 259 journalists in jail around the world, no less than 81 are in Turkey. American reporters may not yet face similar penalties, but they can expect intense pressure on the institutions for which they work to mute their criticisms.
Turkey and the US may have very different political landscapes, but there is a surprising degree of uniformity in the behaviour of Trump and Erdogan. The same is true of populist, nationalist, authoritarian leaders who are taking power in many different parts of the world from Hungary and Poland to the Philippines. Commentators have struggled for a phrase to describe this phenomenon, such as “the age of demagoguery”, but this refers only to one method – and that not the least important – by which such leaders gain power.
So, I’m sure this isn’t what you expected to read today. But, it appears that my interest and concerns aren’t just wild hairs.
What’s on your reading and blogging list today?