Watching Turkey's election

I’ve been paying attention to the runoff election in Turkey. It now appears that voters in the strategically important NATO country have opted for a seasoned autocrat over an untested democrat in a hotly contested election. After failing to gain the majority vote in the initial election, Recep Tayyip Erdogan pulled out a four percent win over Kemal Kilicdaroglu to be elected for five more years as president of the country. Pollsters and analysts, along with members of the opposition party and some outside observers such as myself had believed that an upset might be possible. This year it was not to be and Erdogan is set to continue to lead the country for five more years. The strongman is newly emboldened, the opposition is badly bruised, and the Kremlin is celebrating. This is the outcome that President Vladimir Putin of Russia wanted.

In his victory speech, Erdogan was quick to attack the opposition and the LGBTQ community. Both will be targeted even more in the months to come and free speech and human rights are likely to be further eroded in the years to come. Turkey’s system has few checks and balances and its longest-serving leader in modern times is not known for restraint.

It demonstrates the simple fact that autocratic leaders are as difficult to displace in the 21st century as they were in the 20th. Erdogan controls 90% of the media in Turkey, which makes it nearly impossible for an opposition leader to be elected. Almost 48% of voters spoke up for change, but 48% was not quite enough. And those voters have reason to be not only disappointed, but also fearful. There will be more religion and less freedom in public life. The divided nation has a failed economy and Erdogan has no solution for either. He is likely to make brash international deals, including concessions to Russia, in order to shore up his power, crush the opposition, and distract voters from rampant and unchecked inflation.

Democracy is relatively new to Turkey. The country will mark the 100th anniversary of the modern secular state in October. Many observers inside and outside of the country predict that the concept of secular rule, pioneered in Turkey by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, who served as Speaker of the House, elected in 1920 and 1923. On October 29, 1923 Republic was declared and Atatürk elected the first President, ending an especially rocky time with a variety of coups and military leaders following the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in 1908 in the midst of World War I. That powerful empire had held power since 1290.

Autocratic leadership becomes entrenched and very difficult to displace.

Turkey’s experience should provide a cautionary tale for American democracy. We elected an autocratic president in 2016 and nearly lost our democracy in a failed attempt to overturn the results of the 2020 election. With the Supreme Court given over to partisan leadership and unable to enforce simple ethics among its members, including public acceptance of bribes by at least one member, and a legislature that is unable to enact basic controls, including establishing a budget, our democracy remains on the edge of chaos. There are more than a few citizens of our country who would opt for an openly corrupt leader who never won the popular vote and who displays a similar strongman approach to that of other world autocrats such as Putin, Erdogan, and Kim Jong Un. That same strongman continues to be the front runner in one party’s primary contest to determine who will run for president in 2024. Were he to gain the nomination and secure the majority of votes in the electoral college, an antiquated quirk of our democracy that allows candidates who do not win the majority of the popular vote to be elected, one of his first acts when inaugurated most certainly would be to pardon himself of federal crimes for which he is currently under investigation. He has also pledged to pardon those already convicted of seditious conspiracy to overthrow the legitimately elected leadership of our government.

A major difference between our country and Turkey is that the strongman seeking leadership in our country is older and likely would be unable to remain in office for 20 years regardless of tactics employed to gain the position. Both of our parties have opted for leaders in both the Senate and administration who are considerably older than normal retirement age.

I don’t want to imply that our country will follow in the footsteps of Turkey, but I do think that we might learn from observing what has happened in that country and its slide away from protecting religious freedom and the rights of its citizens. Democracy is an inherently fragile form of government and it requires leaders in every generation who are able to defend its principles and hold to its ideals. That kind of leadership has difficulty emerging in our current mode of distrust of institutions and uncontrolled partisan media. A quest for short term power often displaces principles while behind the scenes money is allowed to run unchecked to manipulate elected leaders. Shouting and theatrics displaces reasoned arguments in political debate.

Our democracy is a bit older than Turkey’s, but it has faced many threats during its relatively short run. When secessionists gained control of most slaveholding states in 1861, our country was nearly toppled by a bloody and deeply divisive civil war. The after effects of that war continue to play a role in the political divisions of our time. We continue to face very real attempts to destroy our constitutional democracy, overturn fair elections, and the seizing of power by corrupt officials. As was the case in the 20th century in Europe and other parts of the world, autocracy has its appeal to those seeking calm and order. People can be induced to vote against their own best interests as has been demonstrated over and over again in elections around the globe.

Along with our friends in Turkey, I will continue to watch with a bit of fear and trepidation as political processes play out. Each generation in every nation needs those who are willing to speak out for the downtrodden and dispossessed. As was true of previous generations, the times in which we live are momentous. Democracy continues to need its defenders.

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