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.
Moreover, it is a country that has moved away from its pro-Western stance in favor of a form of neo-Ottoman empire building. It is helping despotic Azerbaijan fight democratic Armenia. It is occupying northern Syria directly and through proxies. It is harrumphing, in a non-aligned way, by flirting with Russia in the context of the Ukraine war, and displaying contrarian independence by attempting to block the expansion of NATO—i.e. Sweden’s entry.
Erdogan has also attempted to introduce Islamic tenets into the economy in ways that have proven disastrous for the currency and are utterly at odds with the legacy of Mustafa Kemal (known as Ataturk), the iconic leader who about a century ago largely succeeded in turning post-Ottoman Turkey into a secular state.
I visited Ataturk’s mausoleum in Ankara about 15 years ago. At this massive museum. I was struck by the authenticity of the reverence to the great man—who, as a symbol of Westernization, replaced the Arabic script once used by Turks with Latin letters. Many a visitor, I believe, has shed real tears.
At the same time, Erdogan’s rolling back of this legacy has won over much of the conservative rural heartland. Ironically, though Erdogan was once the mayor of the major global metropolis of Istanbul, it is mainly in the country’s cities that he is most despised.
This town-and-country divide is very familiar in Israel, France, the United States, and many other democracies. Such internal schisms can be more heartbreaking than a conflict with outside enemies; they turn neighbor against neighbor and transform society into a cauldron of bitterness and loathing.
The reality Erdogan has created means that Turkey is (at best) a very flawed democracy—but it is not quite yet a non-democracy. It is on the brink, with an election on May 14 that may decide its fate.
If Erdogan defeats his more moderate (and now somewhat unified) rivals from the Republican People’s Party, and if the election is widely seen as fair, it will be a major signal about where humanity is headed—for now, if not forever.
It will mean that a NATO ally, with a large population, a proud history, and a major military, has seen fake democracy and voted to keep it.
Elections are so close around the world these days—it seems as if populations are split almost down the middle by divine fiat—that even a slight karmic push in the direction of illiberalism can have ripple effects far away.
It’s not crazy to expect that an Erdogan victory on May 14 would be welcomed by former President Donald Trump, who may well be the Republican nominee for president once more in 2024. The man who tried to overturn the 2020 US election needs fake democracy to appear on the march around the globe—in Turkey no less than Hungary, Poland, and Israel.
Dan Perry is managing partner of the New York-based communications firm Thunder11. He is the former Cairo-based Middle East editor and London-based Europe/Africa editor of the Associated Press. Follow him at danperry.substack.com.
The views expressed in this article are the writer’s own.
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