Turkey’s Erdoğan experience holds lessons for the US on Trump

Unlock the Editor’s Digest for free

The writer is director of the Turkey programme at the Middle East Institute and author ofErdoğan’s War: A Strongman’s Struggle at Home and in Syria’

To millions of Americans, one of the top contenders for November’s presidential elections, Donald Trump, was not joking when he said that he wanted to be a dictator on day one if re-elected. After all, he had tried to overturn the 2020 election and his supporters stormed the Capitol to stop the winner from taking power. Trump’s opponents, therefore, applauded a decision by the Colorado Supreme Court to remove him from the state’s 2024 ballot because of his alleged role in the Capitol attack.

In February, the US Supreme Court will hear the case and might bar Trump from the ballot. Many think that it should. But while legitimate fears abound that a second Trump presidency could irreparably destroy American democracy, an unlikely case — that of Turkey under President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan — offers a cautionary tale as to how far one should go to stop a wannabe autocrat.

As someone who was born in Turkey, a country that has degenerated into autocracy under a Trump-like populist, I know all too well that when a populist threatens to dismantle democracy, we should believe him.

Before taking the reins of the country, Erdoğan famously said that democracy was a tram you get off when you reach your destination. He did, indeed, get off the democracy tram once he had accumulated enough power. It was not just people like me who continued to vote for him despite the early red flags that paved the way for the country’s authoritarian turn. His opponents also helped him get there.

Populists do not come out of nowhere. Lack of public trust in democratic institutions helps fuel their rise. Populists fan that frustration by framing institutions of liberal democracy, such as courts, as creations of a self-serving corrupt elite and cast themselves as their victim.

Invoking victimhood has bolstered Erdoğan’s political career. A key moment in his long tenure was 1998, when he was the up-and-coming Islamist mayor of Istanbul. He was sentenced to 10 months in jail and banned from politics for reciting a poem that the secular establishment saw as a threat to the constitution. Erdoğan capitalised on the four months he served in prison to cast himself as the true democrat, waging a war in the name of “the people” against an authoritarian establishment that used the courts to go after those seeking to challenge their privileged status. Appealing to victimhood helped Erdoğan capture votes well beyond his predecessor’s Islamist base in the 2002 elections.

Another turning point was 2007, when Erdoğan’s party chose Abdullah Gül, a politician with roots in Islamism, as its candidate for president. The move placed Erdoğan, then prime minister, on a collision course with Turkey’s secularist military, which threatened to intervene to block Gül’s candidacy. The secularist main opposition party boycotted the first round of voting in the parliament, which used to elect the president, to prevent a quorum and petitioned the constitutional court to nullify it. The court heeded.

To capitalise on the sense of victimhood among his supporters, Erdoğan called early elections and secured a resounding victory. What was designed to be a move by Erdoğan’s opponents to undercut him ended up strengthening the aspiring autocrat. He used these efforts to legitimise jailing his opponents via sham trials, packing the country’s institutions with loyalists and muzzling the press by saddling critical media outlets with huge penalties for alleged “tax irregularities”.

Turkey and the US are surely different. But similar contexts have given rise to their populists: polarisation and distrust in democratic institutions. Erdoğan exploited these to turn Turkey’s imperfect democracy into an autocracy. Imagining a similar scenario in the US is not as far-fetched as it once was. The US Supreme Court could certainly solve America’s Trump problem by disqualifying him from the ballot. That, however, would only strengthen the very forces that paved the way for his rise in the first place, no matter how legally sound the court’s decision might be. For who can guarantee there will not be another Trump?

Instead, in November 2024, America needs what Turkish politics failed to deliver in the May 2023 elections: a resounding popular defeat of autocratic populism. When masses question the legitimacy of the system, autocracy is best rejected in the ballot box, not in the courtroom.

Source link