Commentary on Political Economy

Friday 19 May 2023


Freed Zakharia makes some valuable points below. But the harsh reality of global Realpolitik eludes him altogether. True, autocrats have lots of coercive tools and levers to ply. But the central problem remains that the vast majority of people in the Third World steadfastly and disgustedly reject the woke aspects of Western degeneracy (it is not "culture"!). As one with put it, "the Chinese build us a bridge and an airport; you Westerners give us lectures!"



Turkey points to a global trend: Free and unfair elections

Ayse Kekec, an earthquake survivor, stands in front of her tent that features a large poster of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on it, in Kahramanmaras, Turkey, on May 11. (Issam Abdallah/Reuters)
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Many of us had high hopes for Turkey’s recent general election, believing that a flat-out victory for the opposition could mark a break with the worldwide trend toward illiberal democracy. But perhaps we were all misguided, seduced by the lure of free elections and trusting ultimately in the will of the people. In fact, what happened in Turkey this past weekend highlights the latest and most disturbing trend in the rise of illiberal democracy.

While incumbent President Recep Tayyip Erdogan did not win outright reelection, the results were sort of a victory for him all the same. He did better than polls predicted and came out well ahead of his main opponent, leaving him highly likely to win a runoff scheduled for May 28. This is stunning, given that Turkey is a country in economic catastrophe, with sky-high inflation. The vote also took place just months after an earthquake, in which the government performed miserably.

Consider, though, the backdrop to these elections. Erdogan was up against Kemal Kilicdaroglu, the opposition candidate, a colorless bureaucrat without much charisma or eloquence. But the opposition had little alternative. The president had already eliminated from the field perhaps his most powerful potential rival, Ekrem Imamoglu, a charismatic politician from the same party as Kilicdaroglu, who was on a winning streak. In 2019, Imamoglu handily won the election for Istanbul mayor, a pivotal position that was Erdogan’s own path to power.

But on the flimsiest grounds, Erdogan’s party claimed fraud, and the electoral council ordered a fresh round of voting. Imamoglu won the second election by a larger margin. So Imamoglu was then charged with insulting public officials over the incident and was tried by a judiciary which has been widely described as packed with ruling party loyalists. Sure enough, last December, a court barred Imamoglu from politics and sentenced him to prison for almost three years. The decision is under appeal. In the meantime, though, Imamoglu has been prevented from running for the presidency.

Turkey’s political playing field is massively tilted in favor of Erdogan. The state lavishes funds on his supporters, and the country’s media is slavishly pro-governmentMost of Turkey’s major media properties have been bought by business executives who are supporters of Erdogan. (The largest business group that maintained its distance from the president found itself mysteriously facing massive charges of tax fraud and ultimately sold its media holdings to a more compliant owner.)

State television, the country’s main source of broadcast news, relentlessly extols the virtues of Erdogan and his party and trumpets the achievements of the government. In April, state TV spent 32 hours on coverage of Erdogan versus 32 minutes for his opponent. Of all democracies, Turkey imprisons the most journalists. The Turkish government initiated more than 30,000 cases for the offense of “insulting the president” — in just one year (2020).

Erdogan’s government has systematically taken over ostensibly independent institutions, including courts and the body that controls elections. (If the May 28 runoff election turns out to be close and the opposition candidate comes out ahead, you can be sure that Erdogan will appeal — and that the election authorities will rule for him, just as they did in the case of the Istanbul mayoral vote.) Nongovernmental organizations face severe government investigation and scrutiny, limiting their ability to operate. The government has passed laws giving it tight control over social media and, over the election weekend, asked Twitter to block the accounts of about a dozen opposition figures. After February’s earthquake, when the government confronted intense criticism on social media for its mishandling of the disaster, it simply blocked Twitter for a while.

This is the next innovation in illiberal democracy. Elected presidents and prime ministers use their majorities to pass laws that give them sustained structural advantages over their opponents. They use government funds to shower their supporters with benefits. They file tax and regulatory cases against independent media groups, investigate journalists and NGOs, and reshape independent agencies and courts into compliant arms of the ruling party. They then hold “free” elections.

Erdogan’s tactics will seem depressingly familiar to citizens in many democracies around the world. Look at India, once home to fiercely independent media. Today, it has fallen to No. 161 in a world press freedom index issued by Reporters Without Borders. Look at Hungary, where the government and pro-government businesses control almost all the country’s media, and the body overseeing the judiciary effectively became an arm of the ruling party, drawing the ire of the European Union. (The office’s first head was a godparent to Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s oldest child.) Look at Mexico, where the president has tried to gut that country’s proudly independent election authority.

When elections are held in these circumstances, and international observers duly note that the ballots were properly cast and counted and then certify such elections to be genuinely competition, they are doing the world a disservice. We need a new vocabulary to describe this phenomenon. Are such elections free? Technically, yes — but they are also profoundly unfair.

Opinion by 
Fareed Zakaria writes a foreign affairs column for The Post. He is also the host of CNN’s Fareed Zakaria GPS. Twitter

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