Adnan Khan is a writer and photographer who lives in Istanbul and Islamabad.
A new form of democracy is on the rise in the 21st-century world. Its features are disturbing: elections are held every five years or so; a winner is announced who then goes on to consolidate his power at the expense of national institutions. Media freedoms are curtailed, judicial independence undermined, security apparatuses corralled to serve the governing clique, and civil society incapacitated. Those who protest are crushed, arrested, and jailed, undermining open debate, the keystone for any democratic system. And then, the time comes for another round of elections where the cycle begins again.
There is now even a euphemism emerging for this kind of neo-authoritarian tendency: managed democracy. We’ve seen it flourish in Russia, where Vladimir Putin has all but reduced the democratic process to a personal exercise in legitimizing his grip on power. We’ve seen it in Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, and Ukraine, in Egypt and in Uzbekistan. It’s a popular ruse in an era where “spreading democracy around the world” has become a catchphrase.
Not to be outdone, Turkey’s Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, on Sunday joined the growing club of would-be dictators cloaked in democratic garb. It was supposed to be a historic moment in Turkish politics: for the first time in their republican history, Turks would themselves decide who would be their president, a largely symbolic role but an important one nonetheless, occupied by a figure who is supposed to stand above party politics and represent the Turkish people as a unified whole. Instead, what the Turks now have is one of the most divisive figures in Turkey’s recent history.
Mr. Erdogan, who would have reached the three-term limit in office as prime minister set by his own party’s internal rules in 2015, made it clear months ago that he would be in the running for the presidency. But not only did he want to be president, he told his supporters; he wanted to be a president with teeth. Under his stewardship, the office of the presidency would be given more powers, effectively changing Turkey’s parliamentary system into a presidential one.
Mr. Erdogan has kept the first part of his promise: Sunday’s unofficial results gave him 52 per cent of the vote, eking out the simple majority he needed to win outright, without recourse to a run-off.
It was expected of course. Like his counterpart in Russia, Mr. Erdogan has spent the past decade entrenching himself in Turkish politics, eliminating dissent with often ruthless tactics. Turkey’s mainstream media has bowed under his iron fist (Turkey maintains the ignominious distinction of being the world’s top jailer of journalists), the judiciary has been purged of any last vestiges of neutrality along with the police services, and mass protests against Mr. Erdogan’s increasingly authoritarian rule have been so thoroughly decimated that the protest movement finds itself floating aimlessly in a daze.
Now the next stage of Turkey’s transformative project begins, with Mr. Erdogan himself firmly seated in the driver’s seat.
The parallels with Mr. Putin’s rise to near absolute power are disconcerting, to say the least. Since 1999, Russians have witnessed a surreal political dance in which Mr. Putin has alternatively taken on the role of prime minister and president, steadily tightening his grip on powers from both positions.
It seems Mr. Erdogan was taking notes. In an almost identical timeframe, he has established the dominant Justice and Development Party (AKP) and guided it to successive electoral victories, in the process accumulating the levers of power for himself. The presidency is the next logical step in his strategy.
There is, however, one key difference. Unlike Russia, where Mr. Putin has managed to remain popular among a large cross-section of Russian society, Mr. Erdogan’s numbers reflect the deep divisions in Turkey’s demographic landscape that could undermine his future legitimacy.
A recent Gallup poll suggests his core support remains concentrated among the poor and uneducated in Turkey’s rural heartland, dipping significantly among university graduates and the wealthy who live mostly in cities along the Aegean and Mediterranean coasts.
But the savvy politician has recognized this weakness: “I will not be the president of only those who voted for me,” Mr. Erdogan said in a speech following Sunday’s election. “I will be the president of 77 million. I will be the president who embraces all with affection.”
Those are democratic words indeed. How much they will reflect reality, however, remains to be seen. Mr. Erdogan has managed Turkish democracy expertly, covering over his authoritarianism with a thin democratic veil. As president, he is not likely to change.