Emerging markets use the same anti-democratic methods

Emerging markets use the same anti-democratic methods

“All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Tolstoy’s line from his novel “Anna Karenina” was reminded to us by Fabio Ostermann, the head of a Brazilian think tank. It was indeed an appropriate reference, since we were a bit like five big families gathered to talk about our unhappy lives!

Let me clarify. Journalists, activists, think tankers, politicians and academics - in short, opinion-makers - from five emerging markets, (Argentina, Brazil, Mexico, South Africa and Turkey), gathered in Buenos Aires upon the initiative of German think tanker Friedrich Naumann, to discuss challenges to our respective democracies.

At first sight, listening to others, you tend to say, “Well, we are better off here, or worse off there.”

Turkey will probably not compete with Mexico’s challenges in fighting against organized crime, or with the 115,000 households that were victims of kidnapping last year, or 47 murders a day last year in South Africa. However, Turkey could rival in some other aspects - perhaps on the number of women murdered due to domestic violence, or the number of child marriages.

Indeed, each country has its own specific problems. However, there are certain shared commonalities as well. Listening to the others, one would think modern day authoritarian rulers use similar methods or suffer from the same type of greed. Take South Africa’s President Jacob Zuma, who used state money to turn his private home in his hometown Nkandla into a lavish residence. It is reminiscent of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s new office in Ankara with 1,000 rooms. The big difference, of course, is the controversial presidential premise does not belong to Erdoğan; as is advocated by the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), it belongs to the nation. But the similarity between Turkey and South Africa in this case stems from the inefficiency in the accountability and in the way efforts to question public spending are dismissed. The public protector in South Africa found that Zuma had breached his constitutional obligation to protect state revenues. But the South African Parliament dismissed this view, saying the constitutional court can only rule on whether the president has breached his constitutional obligations.

In the Turkish case, when a local court ruled that the construction of the new presidential premise was illegal, Erdoğan, who was then prime minister, defied the court by saying, “I will finish the construction, I will go and work there; let’s see if they can stop me.” As of today, we can say he has done exactly what he said he would do.

One also has a sense of deja vu when Brazilian activists talk about corruption allegations against Brazil’s current President Dilma Rousseff and her predecessor Luiz Lula da Silva. When corruption scandals erupted, both said they were not implicit, and both were re-elected. As was the case in Turkey, where the ruling party did very well in the local elections despite corruption allegations, the lack of reaction to corruption allegations seems to be a common feature of the public in emerging markets.

Populist rhetoric and policies also stick out as common features. Rousseff’s statement that “If the Central Bank was to be independent, there wouldn’t be bread on the table of Brazilians,” reminded me of Erdoğan’s open criticism of the Turkish Central Bank’s interest rate policies. We found out that despite her rhetoric, Rousseff appointed a liberal to head the Central Bank; isn’t this similar to the fact that Ali Babacan, who favors the Central Bank’s independence, maintained his position as minister responsible for the economy, despite a Cabinet reshuffle after Erdoğan was replaced by Ahmet Davutoğlu following the presidential election?

A lot of Turkish journalists who have lost their jobs would have said, “I have seen this movie before” while listening to Argentinian journalist Luis Rosales speak. The owner of the television station he worked for was forced to sell his media outlet to a pro-government company. Following a phone call from Argentinian President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner about a specific reporting event, Rosales first faced editorial interference on his comments and later lost his job.

Tolstoy did not live in a globally-integrated world. Unhappy families have some commonalities. One thing that separates Turkey from the other emerging markets, though, is its anchor to the EU, a group that, despite some ups and downs, is composed of “happy families.” Happy families are alike; they respect the main tenants of democracy such as the rule of law, the freedom of the media, etc. Being anchored to the EU will slowly but surely help overcome the challenges to Turkish democracy.