Turkey as a trendsetter in the slide to authoritarian rule
As a frequent visitor to Europe, these days are the first time I have come across such a discrepancy between governments and the elites. There is an acute polarization in many societies, which makes me feel like saying “join the club.”
I could sense this in Poland, where I was for a few days last week. The policies of the Law and Justice Party (PiS) are not just a source of discontent among the elites, but they almost come as a shock.
The rise of anti–Semitism in the country is at alarming levels and it is difficult to understand, as the Jewish community only amounts to a tiny fracture of the Polish population.
It is also not easy to understand how large parts of society so completely lack any empathy for refugees and resist the settlement of immigrants, when Poles have themselves throughout history experienced long periods as political refugees or economic migrants.
There is such a large community of Polish migrants in Britain that they almost constitute a separate heading in Brexit talks.
As the xenophobic and anti-immigration narrative has started to gain momentum in Europe, some mainstream center-right parties have started to embrace some of the rhetoric normally used by the extreme right, in a bid to prevent the fleeing of their fringe voters to the extreme right. By the same token, the center-left - which usually voice opposition to racist–xenophobic rhetoric - has toned down its protests in a bid to avoid losing fringe voters to the center-right.
It was refreshing to see that in Poland many local municipalities have not endorsed an anti–immigrant rhetoric out of fear of losing votes. Jacek Karnowski, the mayor of Sopot, where the European Forum for New Ideas (EFNI) took place, did not refrain from praising his Turkish counterparts in his inauguration speech. He was especially impressed by the fact that officials in Kilis, a province on the Turkish–Syrian border that now hosts more Syrian refugees than its own population, spoke of refugees as “our Syrian brothers.”
When I had the opportunity to speak to Karnowski, I found out that his efforts to resettle a group of Syrian children from Kilis to Sopot had been obstructed by the central Polish government.
The mayor of Sopot is not alone in endorsing a different line from the central government. Last June, 12 cities - including Gdańsk, Kraków, Poznań and Warsaw - signed an agreement on cooperation in the field of migration and integration, as well as a declaration on the creation of local immigrant integration plans.
Both the mayor of Sopot and Gdansk, who played a key role in these declarations, have been in office for a long time. It is thus little wonder why Jaroslaw Kacynski, Poland’s de facto ruler, wants to introduce a law limiting mayors to terms in office. “Currently it is not on the agenda, but it could be introduced suddenly at any time. These days legislation passes very quickly from parliament,” said the mayor of Gdansk. This sounded very familiar!
Indeed, while there are many differences between President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and European populist–nationalist leaders in terms of their rise to power - since Erdoğan’s initial policies in the first half of his 14 years in government are in huge contradiction to the latter half - he can still be considered a trendsetter in terms of the methods he uses to keep its grip on power.
Kacynski and Hungarian Prime Minister Victor Orban are following in the footsteps of Erdoğan, trying to gradually dissolve the separation of powers, taking control of the judiciary and the media.
Critics of populist-nationalist leaders naturally focus on their unfair and unconventional ruling methods. Social media is also blamed as it becomes an effective tool in the hands of the forces in power to spread propaganda based on lies.
But sometimes critics also fail to see that the lack of efficient opposition also plays a role in the slide to authoritarian rule. The liberal opposition in Poland, for example, is criticized for having too little to offer. The EU has been a bedrock of Poland but the opposition’s vision that loyal membership of the EU will be a panacea to all problems does not resonate much throughout the whole country.
When a few months ago President Andrzej Duda vetoed judicial changes that Kaczynski wanted to introduce, the opposition started to pin its hopes on a possible split in the PiS, welcoming a new political party in the right. This also sounds quite familiar in Turkey, because after being frustrated in hopes of a split emerging in the ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Party), opponents of
President Erdoğan started to pin their hopes on a split in the Nationalist Movement Party, which has in the recent period been providing staunch support to Erdoğan.
Across Europe, social democratic or center-left parties are in decline, as once against demonstrated by the recent German election results. The lack of an efficient social democratic opposition often leads to the rise of the extreme right, and in countries with weak democratic institutions it leads to a slide to authoritarian governance. Civil society representatives in these countries are now facing a greater challenge, having to assume a greater task in halting this slide.