Recep Tayyip Erdogan is destroying democracy from within – and he is not the only one

In Ankara, Washington and London, politicians are attacking judges and the media and sowing division in order to win elections. Turkey's president is only the latest to do so, writes Faisal Al Yafai

People celebrating the ‘Evet’ (Yes) vote result outside the governing AK Party headquarters in Ankara. (Photo: Chris McGrath / Getty Images)
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For a man who had just cemented his reputation as modern Turkey’s most influential leader since Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s victory speech on Sunday night was surprisingly subdued.

Contrast that with the defiant tone struck after last summer’s coup attempt, when thousands went into the streets to defend Turkey’s government – and, in a very real sense, to defend Mr Erdogan himself – during the victory rallies subsequently held in his honour.

Perhaps Mr Erdogan sensed that the country, briefly so united after the coup attempt that even the political opposition turned out for his rallies, is now divided again. His margin of victory was narrow, barely enough to scrape through the most sweeping changes to the Turkish state since its founding after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire.

Still, a victory – as the winners of Britain’s narrow Brexit referendum and the loser of the US popular vote who occupies the White House will tell you – is still a victory. And Mr Erdogan will use this referendum to change how Turkey’s democracy functions – even as he undermined democracy itself in order to win it.

The slipstream of history drags many events in its wake. And while Turkey’s particular circumstances may be unique, this referendum is one more democratic exercise in which the victorious side actively undermined democracy to triumph.

It is also one more example of democracies facing significant challenges and losing faith in the power of alliances to solve them. In Turkey, Mr Erdogan wants his country to go it alone rather than go together with Europe. Britain and the United States have leaders who tell their people the exact same thing.

An unusual historical moment is playing out across democracies. Similar divisions within them are being exploited in the same way to win elections. In votes in Ankara, as in Washington, London and Paris, common threads can be detected – with common threats to democracy.

The divisions that exist in Turkish society mirror those in American society. There is the same split between rural conservatives and urban liberals. Conservatives, who support Mr Erdogan as they supported Mr Trump, share the feeling of being unmoored from their values by the modern world; from Islam in Turkey, from Christianity in the United States.

These conservatives share the same unreflective patriotism, the same belief that they were forgotten by previous governments and disdained for their rural attitudes by liberal elites. In both cases they see in Mr Erdogan and Mr Trump as an embodiment of their values and a champion for their lives.

On the other side of the divide, among those who oppose Mr Trump and Mr Erdogan, there is also much that unites them. These liberals, again based in the major cities, fear the president intends to promote the values of his base against their own interests. In Istanbul and Ankara, artists, writers and academics worry about creeping conservatism, which is entering their liberal, secular enclaves.

Those fears are not shared in the urban centres of Britain or France. Yet there are parallels there too. The insurgent political groups in these countries – UKIP in the UK, the Front National – blame European elites for their woes, as does Mr Erdogan. They frame themselves as plain-speaking, as does Turkey’s president. They tell the people that, once their countries are able to set their own courses, removed from the strictures of the past (the EU or, in Mr Erdogan’s telling, a sclerotic, military-drafted constitution), they will be free.

These parallels are not coincidental. Democracies do not exist in a vacuum; the challenges they face are often similar. But the response of leaders such as Mr Trump and Mr Erdogan have actively undermined the democratic institutions of the country. Both believe they can harness the power of the people to bypass the usual checks and balances – the media and the judiciary – and that the usual way of conducting politics does not apply to them.

This is especially concerning because Turkey’s democracy is one of the ways that the pressures that afflict the country can be eased. If Mr Erdogan thinks that centralising power in his hands will make it easier to defuse tensions as distinct as the Syrian civil war and Kurdish separatism, he is wrong. Genuine democracy actually offers him political tools, rather than limiting his options.

Democratic politicians are unseating democracy. Mr Erdogan is merely the latest. By attacking judges and the media, by framing alliances as limiting, and by appealing to the crowds rather than working with elected representatives, politicians in many countries are undermining the very things they ought to be protecting.

On Twitter: @FaisalAlYafai