by Ambassador (ret.) Robert Pearson
The Character of Democracy
“Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” This famous opening line from Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina is important also for democracies. While Turkey and Venezuela are each unhappy in their own way, they also may share some common elements in their struggles for democracy that provide lessons.
Once we thought all democracies could be happy and alike. The American vision of democracy in the 19th century, culminating in Woodrow Wilson’s vision of democracy as enshrined in the Versailles Treaty ending WWI conceived of democracy as a sort of Robert’s Rules of Order for societies, a manual to be followed to ensure good government and the rule of law. All a country had to do was to follow the manual. Now we see that democracy takes considerably more care—if the environmental conditions are not favorable, democracy will weaken and can even die.
Democracy in Turkey
Freedom House, the independent watchdog organization for freedom and democracy, states that 2016 marked the 11th consecutive year of decline in global freedom. Turkey is ranked “partially free”. Freedom House names Turkey first—meaning the worst—in the world for the greatest one-year decline in democracy from 2016 to 2017. Among the “partially free” countries, Turkey again ranked number one in the greatest decline over 10 years.
The July 15, 2016, failed coup attempt highlighted the country’s profound political division. The government has purged thousands of civil servants, academics, police and military personnel with mass firings and criminal prosecutions. One partially free newspaper remains; all others are under government control. President Erdogan has jailed many of his political opponents and media critics on charges of treason. In his public remarks, he often refers to his perceived enemies as terrorists or accuses them of supporting terrorists. Turkey’s education minister will now require the teaching of “jihad” in Turkish schools. Mr. Erdogan is finalizing an emergency decree to assume for himself two years in advance all the powers of constitutional change that were due to take place in 2019. He is now head of his party, head of state and head of government and rules without any legal or constitutional restraint.
Democracy is not entirely dead in Turkey yet, however. Mr. Erdogan barely won a referendum held in April 2017 (51.4%), which was marred by election distortions. He should have won by 60%—based on results for his party (Justice & Development Party) and his allied party (Nationalist Movement Party) in the last elections. The result revealed weaknesses in his own party’s ranks, deep dissatisfaction within an allied party, and strong opposition in the country’s urban centers. This raised the possibility that an effective opposition coalition could emerge.
In June, the country’s principal opposition party, the Republican People’s Party, tried to encourage just that, with a massive march from Ankara to Istanbul (300 miles) demanding a return to the rule of law. That march attracted a broad but loose coalition of hundreds of thousands. Whether the party can consolidate that coalition for the next presidential election due in 2019 is a major question.
The nationalist party allied with Mr. Erdogan on the April referendum vote, also split, producing a breakaway opposition movement headed by a charismatic woman, Meral Aksener. If the nationalist breakaway group and the established opposition party could prevent Mr. Erdogan from getting more than a 50% vote in the first runoff round in 2019, this would force a two-person runoff that would be in reality another referendum on Mr. Erdogan’s rule.
These two ideas—coalition and defeating Mr. Erdogan in the first round of the runoff are a low percentage play but it’s a long way to 2019.
Mr. Erdogan’s theory of democracy is based on the theology of the Muslim Brotherhood, fitted to his view of Turkish culture and history. He considers that guided by Islam, a Muslim democracy should obey the will of the majority—the umma, if you will. Since Mr. Erdogan has been successful in a series of popular elections in Turkey since 2002, he considers that he himself represents the will of the majority and the “people’s” choices. No institution, such as the judiciary, or any ministry, or constitution should limit his actions.
Separation of powers, according to President Erdogan, is a Western invention not suitable for a Muslim democracy like Turkey. No individual right against the State has priority over the rule of the majority. His view is that attempts in earlier decades to create a Western style democracy in Turkey led only to political chaos, military coups and economic ruin. His democracy, he says, will bring order, security and economic prosperity. He uses nationalist symbols, events recalling Turkish triumphs over the West in centuries past, attacks on the U.S. and Europe (many vitriolic), and a relentless search for internal enemies to keep his supporters on board.
Globally, there is not much new about this theory, of course, but by wrapping it in Islamic tradition and faith plus Ottoman history, he sanctifies it for Turkey and for his supporters.
Lessons for us about democracy
What are the observations or lessons we can draw from Turkey’s experience? First, democracy takes a long time. It must have a cultural base that is largely shared by nearly the whole society across political and economic lines. That does not mean agreement; it means that there is a perceived shared stake for all—a common theme. European democrats struggled for a century after the 1848 revolutions before they were successful. Italy, France, Germany and Japan all took many decades to shake off the legacy of rule by those with titles. The same could be said of many Latin American countries.
Turkey’s early experiments with parliamentary government began with Turkish reformers in 1876—141 years ago—under the Ottoman Empire. Turkey’s Founder, Kemal Ataturk, in 1924 a year after Turkey won its war for independence took the first steps for a Turkish democracy. It was another 22 years—1946— before contested multi-party national elections would take place. Turkey’s failure to bring wealth to all the country and the powerful role of its military shackled its democracy, ultimately aiding the collapse of the traditional secular party system in 2002 with the election victory of the present Turkish government.
Second, democracy and wealth are related but not co-dependent. We now know that wealth does not lead automatically to democracy, though this has been a popular theory. China is the best contemporary example of wealth without democracy. Democracies also can exist without widely shared wealth—India perhaps is the best example today. Turkey flipped the popular formula on its head—it gained wealth rapidly as authoritarian rule tightened. Now the Turkish government future is heavily dependent on its maintaining that economic growth, and the economy is shakier than it looks.
We do know that economic failure creates social and political turmoil. In any system, democratic or authoritarian, economic turmoil puts strain on the government and encourages alternatives, as happened in the interwar period in Europe and today is happening in Venezuela. Turkey’s economy is being stressed: foreign direct investment stagnation, current account deficits, wavering national currency, a domestic credit splurge bound to interest rates control, high youth unemployment and questionable manipulation of economic reporting are signs of danger.
Third, we know that institutions and an active civil society help buttress democracy. We know this because authoritarians—Turkey, Venezuela and elsewhere—make these a first target. Media, the courts, constitutional restraints, human rights and economic independence in many cases become the first obstacles to be destroyed in a general attack on the rule of law. With Turkey’s weak democratic framework, partly the result of four coups in 1960, 1971, 1981, and 1997, the current Turkish government had an easier task than might have been expected when it swiftly moved to a victory in 2002.
Fourth, in Turkey’s case and to some extent throughout Latin America’s history, the concept of the strong leader—the Big Man—has affected democracy’s progress. In Turkey, it goes back to the exalted image of the Gazi, the heroic warrior who pushes outward the frontier of the Islamic faith and the Turkish people. Three individuals have defined most of Turkey’s history as a republic: Kemal Ataturk, Turgut Ozal, and Tayyip Erdogan. Such a reality weakens the role of political parties, reducing them often to political clans scrambling for the hoped-for electoral victory and its spoils. The outcome is that no party is more powerful than its leader and is not able to command a majority large enough or stay in power long enough to produce sustainable long term growth or broad based political consensus.
Finally, in Turkey’s case, two other factors are present. One is the decades long struggle—and failure thus far—to bring the Kurdish people into the Turkish polity while recognizing their ethnic identity and culture. The second is the Islamic faith. The strict secular state founded by Ataturk to escape the suffocating past of the Ottomans left millions of religious Turks alienated within their own society. Gradually, those feelings found their way back into the political process and finally to victory in 2002 with the current government.
I will add that the transformation of the global order is putting a strain on democracies. Within the emergence of a multipolar world after the end of the Cold War, each state became freer to pursue its own national ambitions as a priority over global goals like peace or freedom or prosperity for all. As the U.S. has failed to win three wars in the Middle East over the last 15 years, and as its economic model collapsed in the Great Recession of 2008-9, the world has lost confidence in American leadership—and therefore in the benefits of democracy. When we add the threat and destruction that terrorism has injected into the international scene since 9/11, it is not surprising that many are uncertain about the future of democracy and rational order around the globe.
Summary of lessons
To summarize, democracy takes time, wealth & democracy are related but not co-dependent, rule of law and separation of powers are usually the first victims of authoritarianism, and for Turkey three additional things—the Big Man theory, failure to embrace Kurdish people, and role of Islam— have affected democratic progress.
U.S. and Turkey
If we were to put Turkey and Venezuela side by side, Turkey is still riding on its past economic success. Many voters who benefited from Turkey’s tripling of its GNP in the years after 2002 remain broadly supportive. Venezuela, however, is reaping the abject failure of its own economic model. Turkey is not experiencing the kind of economic and political chaos we see in Venezuela. The Turkish economy, as I have noted however, is fragile. Ankara has not yet undertaken serious structural reforms but has taken a number of measures that are risky for the country’s financial future. If the Turkish economy were to collapse, the current government in Ankara would be in deep crisis.
The next great difference is the importance the U.S. attaches to each state. Turkey is a NATO member and ally, a keystone to long term progress in the Middle East, and a critical actor in Syria. The U.S. hopes that Turkey’s future will bring a democracy protected by the guarantees that allow an open society to flourish.
Thus, the U.S. works hard to stay in close dialogue with the Turks, whatever the differences and whatever the irritants. High level Americans are constant visitors to Ankara. In recent months, Vice President Pence, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Dunford, Secretary Mattis, Secretary Tillerson, and CIA Director Pompeo have all called in Turkey’s capital, some more than once. President Trump congratulated Mr. Erdogan on the referendum win in April and met with him shortly afterwards in Washington. These meetings and the U.S. commitment to fruitful dialogue with Turkey will continue. In its dealings with Turkey, the U.S. is in this relationship for the long haul, and this effort will require close and continuing attention.