“Power corrupts and absolute power . . . “ runs the hoariest of clichés. And it’s true of course. But power also intoxicates, inflates the ego, and blinds.
The latest sufferer of this syndrome is Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan (pronounced “Erdowan”). His AK Party (“mildly Islamist” The Economist invariably calls it) has won three solid election victories, ending a period of political instability. For a long time I considered Erdogan one of the good guys. He’s done a lot right, most importantly confining the army to its barracks and quashing its political meddling; getting the economy on track; and starting to mend things with Turkey’s abused and stroppy Kurdish minority. All this positioned Turkey as the model for how Islam and democracy could be compatible.
Erdogan’s achievements made him Turkey’s most important figure since Ataturk, and had he stopped there, he could have gone off into the sunset venerated as a national benefactor.
But leaders don’t always stop there, do they? Often success goes to their heads, they come to consider themselves the darlings of the gods. And so Erdogan in recent years grew increasingly authoritarian and intolerant, ever more a “my way or the highway” kind of guy. And unfortunately, while Turkey has been pretty much a democracy for a length of time, it hasn’t yet graduated to becoming a mature democratic society. One indication is that Turkey jails more journalists than any other country. And while its judicial prosecution of legions of army coup plotters is good in concept, these proceedings show appalling disregard for norms of fairness and due process. So – even in “democratic” Turkey, there’s a lot of room for a leader’s authoritarian itches to be scratched. (And Erdogan was once quoted that democracy is like a train — you get off when you reach your destination.)
This all came to a head recently with protests over government plans for development in an Istanbul park. A trivial issue, perhaps, but the real grievance was Erdogan’s increasingly arrogant and bullying manner. Demonstrations spread across the country. And Erdogan responded by ramping up to the max his ugliest characteristics. He basically declared, “I was elected by half the voters. The rest can go to Hell.” Indeed, he virtually declared them public enemies. And then he unleashed really horrific police brutality against the protesters. Erdogan now seems bent on making Turkey a repressive police state.
But this is not just about Turkey. The point is that what we’re seeing there plays out over and over: the democratically elected leader for whom success goes to his head, turning him into a monster. We saw this too in Venezuela. Another textbook case is Sri Lanka’s Rajapaksa.
Why doesn’t it happen in countries like England, France, (postwar) Germany, or America? Note again my phrase “mature democratic society.” In such societies, the pluralistic, open, democratic ethos has gotten woven into their warp and woof. Having elections is not all there is to democracy. It’s not merely a system – it’s a way of life. And when a country reaches that stage, behavior like Erdogan’s is simply impossible, unthinkable.
Globally speaking, it still seems clear to this optimist that democracy is on the upswing; that the great historical tide begun in 1776 is still running, and will ultimately sweep away the world’s Erdogans and Rajapaksas, not to mention its Mugabes and Putins – for the reasons explained in Fukuyama’s The End of History. A liberal democratic society is where human beings can flourish best, and achieve their deepest wants; and in the long view, people will not settle for less.
But nothing in human affairs ever goes in a straight line, and on the road to that utopia, we will still, alas, meet our share of Chavezes and Rajapaksas and Erdogans.