A couple of years into Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s rule, much of the outside world hailed him as a great statesman. America’s major publications argued that he would deepen the country’s democratic institutions and reconcile its observant Muslim residents to the secular republic founded by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. The picture in Europe was not so different. From Germany to Sweden, everybody who was anybody celebrated the changes Erdogan was ushering in. In October 2004, the European Commission even helped him deliver on one of Turkey’s most long-standing aspirations: In recognition of the country’s democratic progress, it formally invited Turkey to apply for membership of the European Union.
Even when the picture started to sour in the late 2000s, elites outside and inside the country were slow to acknowledge the severity of the threat. Erdogan moved to consolidate his control over the military with the help of show trials that traded on trumped-up charges; but, Erdogan’s defenders rationalized, hadn’t the military’s outsize role in the country’s politics been a real problem? Erdogan moved to turn more and more religious strictures into secular law; but hadn’t the country’s fierce secularism, which excluded women who wore the headscarf from public universities, been far too zealous? Finally, Erdogan started to change the electoral system in his favor and rumors of outright manipulation grew ever more pervasive; but wasn’t it incontrovertible that he’s genuinely popular among his people?
At every step of the way, there was a way to excuse each one of Erdogan’s attacks on democratic institutions and to refuse to connect the dots. But after Sunday’s “election” the end result can no longer be in doubt: Erdogan mounted a sorry show of a popular plebiscite to invest himself with nearly plenipotentiary powers. Turkey is no longer a liberal democracy, or even an illiberal one. Like Russia or Venezuela, it is an electoral dictatorship.
The facts speak for themselves. Since a failed coup in the summer of 2016, the Turkish state has jailed more than 300 journalists under the transparent pretense that they are “terrorists” and fired more than 100,000 state employees it decried as “enemies of the people.” Turkish state television has long since become a purveyor of pure government propaganda, and Erdogan’s allies also control the vast majority of private media outlets . The leader of one opposition party had to campaign from jail, and protesters were often roughed up by the government’s infamous security forces.
On the day of the election itself, there were also plenty of irregularities: On social media, there were widespread reports of pre-filled ballots. Election observers were beaten. In some Kurdish areas that are highly inimical to Erdogan, armed men tried to stop voters from casting their ballots altogether.
All of this manipulation and intimidation was enough to give Erdogan a little under 53 percent of the vote, just enough to clinch the presidency in the first round of voting. Though the mandate is narrow, the power he has claimed is huge: As a result of a narrow referendum victory last year, the powers of the presidency have been vastly expanded. As president, Erdogan will now enjoy the emergency powers he claimed in the wake of the coup in perpetuity. In that sense, the Turkish political system now enters a phase of admirable honesty: It has finally dispensed with any pretense that there are other institutions that can check his will or put an end to the arbitrary punishment of his political enemies.
Outside observers had once hoped that Erdogan could free Turkey from its authoritarian vestiges and overcome the long-standing personality cult for Ataturk. Instead, he has turned the country far more authoritarian than it had been in decades and redirected the personality cult toward himself.
This is a great tragedy for Turkey, which once looked like the Muslim-majority country most likely to build a stable democracy. But it is also a serious warning for other countries.
There are, of course, many differences between Turkey and most of the other countries in which liberal democracy is now under threat. The fact that Erdogan was able to destroy the political system in a country that had never been fully democratic and had never quite resolved the tension between its deeply religious population and its militantly secular institutions does not mean that populists will be able to pull off the same feat in Italy or the United States. And yet, the similarities are substantial enough that it would be folly to dismiss them out of hand.
The Turkish case shows that authoritarian populists can, in the long run, prove surprisingly effective in delegitimizing anybody who disagrees with them by denigrating the opposition and telling lies about critical journalists. It shows that, even if about half of the country deeply hates them, populists can stay in power by mobilizing a fervent base. And it also shows that political and intellectual elites, both inside the country and around the world, persistently underestimate the threat that these kinds of leaders pose to the survival of democratic institutions.
It is a set of lessons we would do well to take to heart in the United States.