Erdoğan's referendum victory unsurprising in a 'strongman' world

Simon Tisdall
‘Strongmen leaders typically augment their electoral confidence tricks by suppressing credible opposition parties, controlling the media, and conjuring up imaginary external threats. Photograph: Lefteris Pitarakis/AP

The Turkish vote to give Recep Tayyip Erdoğan virtually dictatorial powers seems hard to understand for Europeans accustomed to traditional forms of postwar democratic pluralism. Far from being an aberration, however, Turkey is following an growing trend for autocratic “strongman” leaders that has echoes around the world.

Developed countries often mocked and stigmatised the tinpot dictatorships that disfigured Latin America during the 1970s and 80s, typified by Jorge Videla in Argentina, Augusto Pinochet in Chile and Anastasio Somoza in Nicaragua. Africa’s post-colonial “big men”, such as Zaire’s Mobutu Sese Seko and Ethiopia’s Mengistu Haile Mariam, were similarly reviled. Josef Stalin, an ally turned foe, came to be viewed in the west as the worst sort of totalitarian despot.

The end of the cold war and the Soviet collapse appeared to usher in a global era of open, inclusive parliamentary governance. As US president in the 1990s, Bill Clinton often hailed what he believed was democracy’s irreversible onward march.

That assessment now looks optimistic, and one obvious reason is the rise of Donald Trump. Rightly or wrongly, his ascendancy is being taken as a signal by would-be autocrats everywhere that “strongman” leadership is back in vogue – and that the US, hitherto the most influential guardian of the international order, will no longer prioritise democratic standards, human rights and free speech.

Leaders such as Erdoğan look at the manner of Trump’s victory, especially the covert foreign assistance he allegedly received and the fact he won 2.8 million fewer votes than his opponent, and conclude democracy can be made to be what you want it to be. Monday’s allegations of ballot fraud in Turkey are as unsurprising as they will be impossible to prove.

Vladimir Putin’s system of so-called “managed democracy” has a lot to answer for. This approach has kept Putin in power in Russia, either as prime minister or president, since 2000. The way it works is you hold an election with an apparent choice so there is an illusion of democratic process, but the result is decided in advance.

Strongmen leaders in Angola, Uganda, Zimbabwe, Malaysia, Thailand, Burma, Belarus and Azerbaijan, and in central Asia and China, have all profited from “managed democracy”. Like Putin, they typically augment their electoral confidence tricks by suppressing credible opposition parties, controlling the media and conjuring up imaginary external threats.

Some parts of the world never got to first base, democratically speaking. This is largely true of the Middle East, notably Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states. Where genuine democracy did break out, as in Egypt in 2011, it was swiftly eviscerated. It is no coincidence that Egypt’s leader, Abdel Fatah al-Sisi, sees Trump as a buddy and role model.

Strongman leaders are sometimes not what they seem. North Korea’s dictator, Kim Jong-un, is not so much a modern-day Mao as a cross between Oliver Hardy and Mussolini. In the Philippines last year, voters thought they were electing a no-nonsense president. In Rodrigo Duterte, they got Johnny Rotten with a gun.

As international hardmen go, Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad, is a sad case. Assad likes to think himself as a player. In reality, he is the sort of skinny nerd who got bullied at school. This Chaplin-esque Great Dictator - he even has the little moustache - owes his survival to puppet-masters in Moscow and Tehran.

Europe is not immune to the strongman tendency. Viktor Orbán in Hungary plays the Little Napoleon role to perfection. In France, voters are flirting with a variation on the theme – a strongwoman leader in the form of the Front National’s Marine Le Pen.

All sorts of factors can be adduced to explain this general regression into authoritarianism: economic fears, globalisation, insecurity caused by terrorism, perceived loss of national identity and the numerous, only too evident failings of multi-party systems. In Turkey, as in many other countries, democracy is a relatively recent phenomenon. It is not strongly embedded. Now Erdoğan, who rose to power on the back of his country’s democratic opening, has cynically uprooted it.

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