The Importance of The Effort to Eject Erdoğan Goes Far Beyond Turkey

Tomorrow’s Turkish election carries regional and even global ramifications

By Brian E. Frydenborg (Twitter @bfry1981LinkedInFacebook) May 13, 2023; see directly related May 10 article by Brian graciously published by The UnPopulist: Turkey’s Best Shot for Defeating its Illiberal President Is This Sunday (and feel free to hit that heart like button there!); because of YOU, Real Context News surpassed one million content views on January 1, 2023but I still need your help, please keep sharing my work and consider also donating! Real Context News produces commissioned content for clients upon request at its discretion.

Kilicdaroglu rally
Kemal Kilicdaroglu, presidential candidate of Turkey’s main opposition alliance, addresses his supporters during a rally ahead of the May 14 presidential and parliamentary elections, in Izmir, Turkey April 30, 2023. (Reuters/ALP EREN KAYA/CHP)

SILVER SPRING—With a crucial and dramatic if murky election tomorrow in NATO-member Turkey, there is a rare chance for genuine, possibly lasting change in a democracy in the Middle East for the better with the prospect of the ouster of Turkey’s controversial President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, in power since 2003.

Troubling Erdoğan’s Troubling Türkiye in a Troubling Region

In a recent guest article for The UnPopulist I highly recommend you read to get a grasp on the current Turkish election, I explored the domestic situation inside Turkey and prospects for Turkey’s opposition—led by Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu of the Republican People’s Party (CHP) at the head of a coalition of opposition parties known as the Nation Alliance—to finally topple Erdoğan.  But it is also important to note that this election will have serious ramifications not just for the region, but also the world.  Türkiye—renamed officially from Turkey by Erdoğan late in 2021—is far from the most oppressive country in the Middle East/North Africa region and Erdoğan is far from the worst or most oppressive leader.  His misrule is not as horrific as the ayatollahs of Iran, as oppressive as that of the Saudi Royal family or a number of other dictators in the region, or as corrupt and dysfunctional as Lebanon’s paralyzed democracy.  But in part of the world that already has too many right-wing, misogynistic, homophobic, “traditional Muslim values”-focused leaders and governments, the fact that Erdoğan embodies these flaws and has already brought down what has long been the healthiest Muslim-majority democracy in the region into borderline non-democratic territory is especially concerning.  Should he be awarded another five-year term, he will be in a unique position to deal democracy, freedom, and human rights major blows.  For this and other reasons, he is hardly the man to lead Türkiye further into the twenty-first century as it lumbers through multiple crises.

I noted that Türkiye’s democracy has for some time been the healthiest for a Muslim-majority country in the region, but that is not to say that Turkish democracy has been particularly healthy: it has not, as there have been numerous coups and weaknesses before our current era, to be sure.  A whole series of questions are posed by Erdoğan’s governance with troubling implications, not least of which is political Islam (or any political movement rooted in religious conservatism) in any form compatible with democracy in practice, not just theory, as other forms have thus far failed, perhaps most notably Hamas in Gaza and the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, but such are questions for another time.  The point here is that, for all its flaws, Türkiye has over time been the sole Muslim-majority country in the region that can be said to have had anything like democracy prior to the Arab Spring or the overthrow of Saddam Hussein’s Stalinist Iraqi regime, the sole exception being Lebanon, and while Tunisia post-Arab Spring gave some hope for a while, that hope, too, has faded; Iraq, though slowly improving, is also hardly a poster-child of success for democracy at the moment.

What is import to note is that democracy in the region hangs by a thread (and, yes, I say that as someone more aware than most of Trump’s fascist danger here in the U.S.).  Even Israel—which domestically is still a credible, often robust democracy within its internationally recognized borders, though hardly in its de facto apartheid system it has imposed for decades on Palestinians in territory outside Israel’s internationally recognized borders—is convulsing under the illiberal threat of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his extremist allies, with “Bibi,” as Netanyahu is often called, taking pages from both Trump and Erdogan in veering Israel into dangerously undemocratic territory.  As one of the only democracies in the region and with no country nearby able to seriously or credibly exert moral pressure on Israel as far as human rights and with its own left in shambles for some two decades, Israel drifting into right-wing ethnonationalist illiberalism makes more sense when viewed through a broader regional lens.  Yes, Israel is different from other countries for some striking reasons—some good, some bad—but perhaps it is time to view it more as part of the region than as a singularity or apart from it.

Because of the lack of democracy in the region, Erdoğan’s steady regression on human rights coupled with increasing illiberal oppression pose particularly serious and increasing problems to a Middle East in which a Türkiye committed to and improving its record on democracy and human rights could actually exert some moral pressure throughout the region, buttressing the region’s beleaguered democracy advocates.  Arabs in particular are wary of the West, and give the West’s blunders in the region over many decades and even centuries, this is understandable.  That is not to imply that Türkiye does not have its own history of imperialist crimes, it certainly does.  But as a Muslim and non-Western country, a Türkiye committed to promoting democracy, human rights, and civil society in the region could find resonance and trust in ways the West has not.  And a Turkey not persistently busy oppressing its Kurdish ethnic minority as well as, more recently, Kurds in northern Syria (thanks, Trump!) might be taken more seriously when it points a finger at Israel for oppression of Palestinians.

A Defining Moment Democracy

If Erdoğan—so eager to undo Turkish founding father Atatürk’s secular, relatively democratic legacy—is not ousted from power in this election, the prospects for human rights and democracy will suffer greatly, not just in Turkey, not just outside its borders for Kurds in northern Syria, but in the region overall and, indeed, the world.  Strong democracy has had a tough time taking root outside the West, and there are many democracies far less stable in the non-Western World than Turkey.  Yet another reelection of Erdoğan intensifying his illiberal, oppressive regime will embolden and boost leaders with authoritarian tendencies throughout other non-Western struggling democracies (even some within the West), from Prime Minister Narendra Modi in India to President AMLO (Andrés Manuel López Obrador) in Mexico and many others throughout Asia, Africa, and Latin America.  And even if the Turkish opposition does win, there is nothing preventing Erdoğan from making a comeback if things do not go well or the coalition fractures (see the dreadful return of Netanyahu now looking to rig the Israeli system in his favor, sparking the largest sustained protests in Israel’s history as nation turns seventy-five).

Shortly after Trump’s inauguration, I wrote that Russian President Vladimir Putin was a major orchestrator and supporter of a drift towards democratic fascism throughout the world: governments that were coming to power democratically, then destroying those democracies from within with right-wing populist agendas that mobilized voters to remake the system to favor themselves over “the others” and limit both fairness in elections and freedom in society overall to those ends.  Trump is a major member of this movement, but so is Erdoğan, leading the nineteenth-strongest economy in the world and the nearly eighty-seven million people of Türkiye into a fascist ditch.  Let us remember that Trump turned a blind eye and silently held back criticism when members of Erdoğan’s personal security detail assaulted American citizens protesting the Turkish president in Washington just after his visit to meet Trump at the White House in 2019.  We should hope both will fail in their bids for more time in power along with all their illiberal ilk.  Democracy finds itself beset globally and has for years now, and a defeat for Erdoğan would be a win not just for Türkiye and the Middle East, but for the entire world, a major setback for the forces of populist fascism and some much-needed succor for those anywhere fighting for ruled-based representative democracies that respect minority rights and the principles of freedom, fairness, and free debate that preserve the rights of all.

See directly related May 10 article by Brian graciously published by The UnPopulist: Turkey’s Best Shot for Defeating its Illiberal President Is This Sunday (and feel free to hit that heart like button there!)

© 2023 Brian E. Frydenborg all rights reserved, permission required for republication, attributed quotations welcome

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