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Is there such a thing as democratic authoritarianism: Turkey under the leadership Recep Tayyip Erdogan?

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By Almami Fanding Taal

On July 9th, 2018, Recep Tayyip Erdogan was inaugurated as the first directly elected President of Turkey with enhanced executive powers following the victory of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) and its Coalition partner the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) at the snap election that was called and held on 24th June 2018.

That victory brought back to the driving seat the two allied parties that had achieved the most parliamentary seats, the AKP and MHP. Coalition Governments everywhere for the sake of stability and development are party led except in the Gambia, it is the case in Senegal, Germany, and Turkey. In the past eighteen months many things have happened in Turkey and around the world.

President Recep Tayyib Erdogan secured an emphatic win in the Presidential election which was never in doubt.  His latest victory gives him a wide mandate and keeps him in power till 2023. Erdogan’s victory implies that Turkey, a strategic leader of the Muslim World and a vital interlocutor between the West and non-westerners, will evolve from a UK Westminster-style parliamentary system to a more US-styled system with a powerful presidential structure, reinforcing the 2017 Constitutional referendum.

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With President Erdogan’s victory, voters now clearly support the institutionalisation of a new presidential system and remain hopeful that it will help resolve economic difficulties while advancing reforms. The AKP won because most people, who endured Turkey’s economic woes of the 1990s, conceded that the brittle coalitions of that era were to blame. Turkey’s electorate still indict coalitions with epic economic mismanagement. Those who remember the old, malfunctioning state with trepidation influenced this election outcome.

Under Erdogan, Turkey’s middle class grew strong as well as their standard of living. Demand for better health, education, and housing rose substantially. However, the spectre of long-term debt now haunts the well-being of this burgeoning middle-class consumer base. Nevertheless, there are strong reforms underway in the Turkish economy which could return Turkey to sustainable growth. Recently the world largest airport terminal was opened in Istanbul so was the world largest mosque inaugurated. 

These monumental infrastructure developments are delivered alongside a host of mega projects, bridges, and tunnels beneath the breath-taking Bosporus. No doubt the Turkish people will continue demand more institutionalisation and civic development that will strategically steer Turkey’s political milieu over the coming years.

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That economic prosperity and democratisation in Turkey have reached great heights positioning the country as a significant player in global affairs and undeniably makes the case that there are alternatives to the Washington Consensus and neo liberal agenda, however where the country will move on from here remains pivotal.

President Erdogan’s government’s urgent challenges and opportunities within the context of the Islamic Ummah remains to fully integrate millions of Syrian refugees, which has thus far been accomplished with textbook efficiency, ease tensions with the EU and North America and intensify Turkey’s promising geo-strategic consolidation towards the Islamic Ummah which currently comprises 57 Muslim countries that stretch across four continents and form an essential artery for international trade via meaningful land and maritime presence.

With the global population share of more than 22 per cent, Muslim countries have 70 per cent of world’s energy resources and 40 per cent of the global raw materials. Therefore, the idea of being one of the global leaders of the Ummah can be forged as an extremely useful tool to maximise the leverage on the numerous bargaining chips possessed by the Muslim states collectively.

In this context, at last UNGA in September 2019 President Erdogan of Turkey, PM Imran Khan of Pakistan and Malaysia have announced the establishment of joint venture for a Television Channel in English to combat Islamophobia around the world and particularly in the global West.

This is a step in the right direction, Qatar, France, Iran, and China have been broadcasting to world in English for a sometime now. It is certainly an effectively communication channel to tell the Islamic story and respond to several misconceptions about Muslims.

By any measure President Erdogan has demonstrated great statesmanship on the global stage over a series of geostrategic matters and has firmly established his leadership credentials of the Muslim Ummah over the years.  It is really gratifying to see Prime Minister Imran Khan fully supporting his leadership in a vastly polarised world and in some parts anti-Islamic. The Muslim narratives must be delivered by Muslim leaders like President Erdogan.

Considering the foregoing discussion and to answer the question above it is well to remember that Mahathir Muhammed during his long and eventful leadership of Malaysia was lambasted and called all kinds of names by the western media. Prime Minister Mahathir had recently made a comeback to active politics in Malaysia at the ripe age of 92 because of his venal, corrupt, and incompetent protégé and successor’s mismanagement of the economy.

Therefore, describing a non-western leader as autocratic or illiberal simply means that western commentators have not been engaged as consultants or advisers of these leaders. Beyond that characterising a non-western leader as authoritarian presupposes that there is a single formula for democracy: in the last US Presidential elections, Mrs. Clinton won the popular vote by more than 3 million votes, but Trump was elected President according to the American formula of democracy.  

Even in the face of the spectacular success of Singapore, first Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew was often described as an authoritarian democrat. In the past this vilification against leaders of non-western countries was largely ideological ranging from Marxist Leninist communism to all other progressive forms of organising society different from the Anglo-Saxon model of democracy.

This Eurocentric view of democracy has led some highly respected western scholars like the Japanese American Francis Fukuyama(whose ancestors were kept in internment camps during WWII) to announce the end of history and the last Man following the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. The main thesis of this influential article is that a remarkable consensus concerning the legitimacy of liberal democracy as a system of government had emerged throughout the world over the past few years, as it conquered rival ideologies like hereditary monarchy, fascism, and most recently communism.

More than that, however, he argued that liberal democracy may constitute the “end point of mankind’s ideological evolution” and the “final form of human government,” and as such constituted the “end of history”.

Fukuyama said that while earlier forms of government were characterized by grave defects and irrationalities that led to their eventual collapse, liberal democracy was arguably free from such fundamental internal contradictions. Fukuyama was not saying that today’s stable democracies, like the United States, France, or Switzerland, were not without injustice or serious social problems. Fukuyama argued that these problems were ones of incomplete implementation of the twin principles of liberty and equality on which modern democracy is founded, rather than of flaws in the principles themselves.

While some present-day countries might fail to achieve stable liberal democracy, and others might lapse back into other, more primitive forms of rule like theocracy or military dictatorship, the ideal of liberal democracy could not be improved on.

Beyond the nation state as the main organising unit for development and the principal actor in the world stage, Samuel P Huntington has similarly argued in his seminal essay ‘The Clash of Civilizations’ that the fundamental source of conflict in this new world will not be primarily ideological or primarily economic. The great divisions among humankind and the dominating source of conflict will be cultural. Nation states will remain the most powerful actors in world affairs, but the principal conflicts of global politics will occur between nations and groups of different civilizations.

Huntington posited that the clash of civilizations will dominate global politics, the fault lines between civilizations will be the battle lines of the future. Conflict between civilizations will be the latest phase in the evolution of conflict in the modern world. He observed that for a century and a half after the emergence of the modern international system with the Peace of Westphalia, the conflicts of the Western world were largely among princes, emperors, absolute monarchs, and constitutional monarchs attempting to expand their bureaucracies, their armies, their mercantilist economic strength and, most important, the territory they ruled.

 In the process they created nation states and beginning with the French Revolution the principal lines of conflict were between nations rather than princes. Huntington argued further that this nineteenth century pattern lasted until the end of World War I and the liquidation of the Ottoman Empire. Then, as a result of the Russian Revolution and the reaction against it, the conflict of nations yielded to the conflict of ideologies, first among communism, fascism-Nazism, and liberal democracy, and then between communism and liberal democracy.

Huntington argued that during the Cold War, this latter conflict became embodied in the struggle between the two superpowers, neither of which was a nation state in the classical European sense nor each of which defined its identity in terms of its ideology. These conflicts between princes, nation states and ideologies were primarily conflicts within Western civilization, “Western civil wars,” as William Lind has labelled them. This was as true of the Cold War as it was of the world wars and the earlier wars of the seventeenth, eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

Furthermore, Huntington with alacrity pointed out that with the end of the Cold War, international politics moves out of its Western phase, and its centre piece becomes the interaction between the West and non-Western civilizations and among non-Western civilizations. In the politics of civilizations, the peoples and governments of non-Western civilizations no longer remain the objects of history as targets of Western colonialism but join the West as movers and shakers of history.

In addition to a shared nationality these two distinguished American scholars are regarded as ideologically conservative. To them the cultures and civilisations of humankind are capable of being sliced and diced into several factions just so that absurd distinctions can be drawn to justify perpetual conflict and cold or hot wars between the peoples on planet earth. 

It is clear from the analyses of the two scholars that for one be an acceptable democrat one must be faithful to the dogmas of free market capitalism, free trade, accept the supremacy of the US Dollar and have liberalised attitudes towards homosexuality. Mrs. May the former British PM have apologised to the former British colonies for her ancestors’ follies in transplanting their anti sodomy laws across the British Empire and the arrogance of legislating for people with different and in some cases superior values.

The Peoples’ Republic of China has demonstrated within a generation how to develop a people based on their values and culture and significantly change the quality of life of the most populous nation on earth, in the process. The whole world looks to China for their consumer products and because of that President Trump has started a trade war with China to the detriment of the American economy and global economy which depend on China for almost everything.

To conclude this piece let’s look at the most successful post-colonial nation, the USA. Since his election in 2016 Donald Trump has revealed some extremely troubling facts about the USA:

1.         That money and celebrity are more important in choosing a president than knowledge competence integrity and experience.

2.         That a misogynist racist bigot can be elected president with the support of fundamentalist Christians and right-wing neo-Nazis.

3.         That a bully who likes dictators, hates intellectuals, does not read books, has a childlike temperament, holds grudges, and has a penchant for insulting his opponents and mocking people with disabilities can become president of the most powerful country on earth.

This may be a glib oversimplification of the reasons Trump was elected president by the Americans what is clear is that he was the first nominee of the Republican party to be totally unqualified for the US presidency and still managed to come out on top of the pile of very well-regarded republican leaders.

On the world stage President Trump has been an unmitigated disaster abusing and alienating everyone European allies, NATO partners and enemies alike [He was the laughingstock at 70th anniversary of NATO held in the UK in November 2019]. The question the whole world is asking how it come about that a nation that has successively been led by Generals and brilliant politicians come be led by an old white man with a florescent personality and serious personal insecurities. What does the election of Trump tell the world about the Americans who voted for him and continue to support his policies?

If  the above picture is painted on any canvass the instinctive reaction of most ordinary people would be that he is probably a ruler in one of the ‘banana republics’ of Africa, Latin America, or Asia not in a million years would anyone have thought he is the current president of the USA.

Why is such a narrative not possible in this age of instant communications? Because it is about America and America has controlled the global narratives since the end of world war II. This meta narrative has morphed into a kind cultural imperialism and the domination of the modernisation project, but this has not gone unchallenged China has done quietly or the Confucian way and Turkey has done so robustly the Ottoman way.

Some would say China and Turkey are not democratic and the leaders of these two great nations are autocrats. This is what the news media reports daily forgetting about the present occupant of the White House.

Although the impeachment process has reached an inflection point in the House of Representatives, everyone even the Democrats know that the Republicans will  be very tribal about the whole process in the Senate and will in all probability acquit Donald J. Trump the fourth President to be impeached by the House in US history. This is the American way, but it is not the only way to achieve development. 

‘Communist China’ has successfully turned the development paradigm on its head within forty years and is the second largest economy in the world. While countries like Greece, Portugal and Spain have become insignificant in global affairs and they are fringe nations today. While the American Congress is holding impeachment hearings to force President Trump out of office.

Spain and Portugal started the Europeanisation of the world on their ‘Voyages of Discovery’ less than five hundred years ago. Within that timeframe the European powers have enslaved Africans, stole untold riches and dispossessed other non-European peoples of their land from the Atlantic to the Pacific oceans.

The rise and fall of nations is a fact of history. Progress is not a law of nature, the ground gained by one generation can be lost by the next. This is what history has taught us. This week marks 101 Anniversary of the rise of the Nationalist Movement that made Turkey a modern Republic under the great leadership of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the first President of Turkey should give us pause before arrogantly defining the world in our own image.

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