May 8, 2023

The 1970s through ’90s saw a great democratic floodtide. Since greatly receded. Many wonder whether its authoritarian antithesis is really the wave of the future.

I’ve written about the power imbalance between good and evil, and that’s a big part of the story. Moral scruples restrain good people; bad ones are unrestrained. In practice this means democratic-minded forces have to win every election, but authoritarians often need only win once. Because gaining power, they can then act ruthlessly to keep it.

America had a close call in 2021.

A key factor was our two party system, with Democrats, albeit narrowly, controlling Congress. Authoritarians can be empowered despite only minority support if opposition is divided among multiple parties. Take India, where Prime Minister Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party has racked up crushing electoral victories; almost overlooked is that the BJP actually has only around 37% voter support. Yet a fragmented opposition allows Modi to run roughshod over it.

He’s on the cover of the authoritarian playbook, outwardly maintaining democracy while giving it the death of a thousand cuts, gaining control of the press and other media to silence criticism and opposition, and of the courts to persecute dissenters. The head of India’s leading opposition party has recently been sentenced to prison, and barred from politics, for “insulting” the prime minister — an all too typical authoritarian abuse of power.

It also helps if you’ve got guns. National armies, in the modern age, are mostly anachronisms, serving no legitimate public purpose, while in fact being a curse. Often they’re dressed up criminal mafias, ruling countries like Al Capone’s gang ruled Chicago. Look at Sudan, with rival armies battling. Egypt too is a classic example, the army having spread its tentacles to squeeze ever more of the economy for its own enrichment and aggrandizement. Myanmar’s army is now literally at war with the entire civil society.

Thailand embodies several of these syndromes. A populist political force created by Thaksin Shinawatra has won every election starting in 2001. But Thailand is a (notionally constitutional) monarchy, with a lèse-majesté law against disparaging the king, which military regimes have enforced ruthlessly against any whisper of dissension. The previous king was genuinely loved, worshipped really (on dubious grounds), but his successor is a stinking piece of shit. (Publishing those words means I can’t now visit Thailand. Seriously.)

The country has been wracked by periodic violent conflict and protests between democracy supporters and royalists. In a 2006 coup, the army ousted Shinawatra and banished him. Then his sister won an election in 2011; a 2014 coup ousted her too. Thailand has since been run by a General, Prayuth Chan-ocha, another real asshole. Finally forced to hold an election, on May 14 — which Paetongtarn Shinawatra (Thaksin’s daughter) looks poised to win. Whether, and for how long, the army will actually allow her to govern, is an open question. (There are rumors of a deal.)

But the spotlight is on Turkey, with parliamentary and presidential elections also on May 14. (The presidency may go to a later runoff.)

Backstory: Modern Turkey’s 1923 founder, Kemal Ataturk, established a secular democracy, with separation of mosque and state, enforced by the army. Challenged by Muslim chauvinists; one of whom, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, gained power by election in 2003. Yet he was initially a good guy, doing a lot right, with sensible economic policies. His foreign affairs mantra was “zero problems with neighbors.” He tried to pacify endemic conflict with Turkey’s Kurdish minority.

Then growing power in his hands, The Economist has said, “clouded his judgment and his moral sense, as it tends to.”

A 2016 coup attempt empowered him even more; the next year he put across a constitutional referendum neutering much of Turkey’s checks-and-balances. Erdogan went on a rampage against perceived enemies, exploiting a captive judiciary, with many thousands purged from jobs or jailed, including 200,000 charged with the crime of “insulting the president;” legions of others with “terrorism.”

The media has been brought to heel. “Zero problems” is a bygone, as Erdogan pursues ill-advised foreign meddling, and has made Turkey, a NATO member, the alliance’s problem child. He plays footsie with Putin and has poisoned relations with Europe. Mirroring Modi’s insane demonization of India’s huge Muslim minority, Erdogan now exacerbates conflict with Turkey’s Kurds. Numerous elected mayors in Kurdish regions have been barred from office. Crack-brained economic mismanagement has proven devastating for average Turks. The government’s recent earthquake response was widely criticized. The list goes on.

Happily, regime opponents have uncharacteristically managed to unite behind a presidential candidate, Kemal Kilicdaroglu. No firecracker but he seems a very good man who promises to undo a lot of the Erdogan regime’s awfulness.

Given all this, you might think few Turks would be nuts enough to vote for Erdogan. But of course that’s not how the world works. Like all strongmen, one thing he is good at is manipulating support. Look how many Americans still back Trump.

Polls do show Erdogan trailing. But would he accept defeat? Trump again providing a cautionary tale. America’s institutions did prove strong enough to thwart him — but only barely. Are Turkey’s — already so ravaged by Erdogan — strong enough?

This is a seminal test of democracy versus authoritarianism. Erdogan is another poster boy for the latter, pulling every possible trick to neuter democratic accountability. Yet he’s also done everything possible to provoke votes against him. If, after all that, Turkey cannot free itself of Erdogan, what hope is there anywhere?

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