Strongmen Die, but Authoritarianism Is Forever

It’s reassuring to think authoritarian governments depart with their leaders. It’s also wrong.

Hungary's Prime Minister Viktor Orban and his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan sign agreements in Ankara on December 18, 2013. (Adem Altan/AFP/Getty Images)
Hungary's Prime Minister Viktor Orban and his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan sign agreements in Ankara on December 18, 2013. (Adem Altan/AFP/Getty Images)

A few summers ago, a Turkish military officer stopped me to chat after a lecture I gave at a conference in Washington. During our conversation, he observed that Western analysts tend to exaggerate the importance of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, insisting that “He is just a man, but we [the armed forces] have been around for a long time and will still be here when he is gone.” The suggestion was that the military can wait out Erdogan — this was before the failed July 2016 coup — and when the Turkish leader does finally leave office, Turkey will revert to something resembling a pre-Justice and Development Party (AKP) status quo.

This idea — that if Erdogan were to lose an election, retire, or die, Turkish politics would automatically change — is not limited to the officer I met. Any number of Turkish academics, journalists, and policymakers have expressed their belief that Turkey would return to a system that was democratic enough to inspire hope that one day Turkey could join the club of democracies.

Their conviction has more to do with hope and faith than analytic judgment. Erdogan and his party have irrevocably altered Turkey; there is no going back.

Turkey’s political trajectory is an exemplary case of a country permanently rolling back democratizing reforms, but it’s not the only one. Hungary’s Viktor Orban and Jaroslaw Kaczynski’s Law and Justice party in Poland are undermining the rule of law, democratic values, and human rights in the service of what they define as authenticity and security. These are developments that predate the migrant crisis that is buffeting Europe, though the large number of people from Africa and the Middle East seeking refuge in the European Union has made Orban’s and Kaczynski’s message more politically potent, and thus the undoing of democratic institutions and liberal values politically acceptable, for large numbers of Hungarians and Poles.

Observers often describe the way these leaders — including Erdogan — have forged illiberal democracies, or in Turkey’s case, an elected autocracy, as demonstrations of power politics. But these pejoratives are meaningless outside the imprecisions of newspaper editorials. Orban, Kaczynski, and Erdogan have articulated a vision of the future of their societies that appeals to and makes sense for large numbers of people. The Hungarian and Polish leadership have done so basically in opposition to the liberal principles upon which the EU was built. In the Turkish case, the AKP’s program can best be summed up as piety, prosperity, and power. Voters in all three countries have justly rewarded these leaders.

Yet for all their apparent success, the Turkish, Hungarian, and Polish leaders have opposition. Over the last 15 years, about half of Turkey’s electorate has consistently opposed the AKP and Erdogan. In 2016, Orban staged a referendum aimed at preventing migrants from entering Hungary. The proposed measure received 98 percent support of the people who voted, but in a political blow, it fell well short of the 50 percent voter turnout needed to become binding. In Poland, the Law and Justice party’s turn away from the West produced the Committee for the Defense of Democracy that has been able to bring large numbers of people into the streets at various times to protest Kaczynski’s worldview.

But what’s important is how, in response to opposition, leaders in Turkey, Hungary, and Poland have established new institutions, manipulated existing ones, and hollowed out others to confront political challenges or to close off their possibility. Formal institutions come in the form of laws, rules, regulations, and decrees; their origins are found in political contestation and often reflect the interests of the winners in those conflicts. Informal institutions are uncodified, but that doesn’t mean they are less powerful than formal institutions. Sometimes these norms, which are based on the way things have long been done, are more powerful than written rules. The old boys’ network that has sustained elite, white, male privilege in the United States has often trumped legislative and administrative measures created to level the playing field for women and minorities.

One of the best examples of institutional manipulation is the way in which Turkey’s AKP used its majority in the Grand National Assembly to whitewash a 2014 parliamentary investigation into corruption charges against four government ministers that threatened to ensnare Erdogan and his family. The process rendered the idea of parliamentary oversight essentially meaningless and gave the Turkish leader an opportunity to argue — credibly for his constituents — that the original allegations were an attempted coup. Since the corruption allegation, Erdogan has manipulated institutions to reverse the outcome of an election he did not like in 2015, tried his opponents in courts packed with his supporters, and debased Turkey’s electoral laws to ensure the passage of a referendum on constitutional amendments that would grant the presidency extraordinary powers.

The AKP has used the legal system to jail journalists — most often on spurious terrorism-related charges — and force ownership changes in the media industry. These attacks on the press, along with the transformation of the state-owned broadcaster and state-run news service into an arm of the AKP, have crowded out independent newsgathering. In the recent elections, the state-owned Anadolu Agency called the presidential election for Erdogan well before the Supreme Electoral Council — made up of AKP appointees — could count the vast majority of ballot boxes. This prompted Erdogan to appear on television graciously accepting another presidential term, making it impossible for the election board to contradict Anadolu’s projection and thus rendering the board a mere prop in AKP’s electoral theater.

The institutional manipulations and innovations during the AKP era that have been employed to serve Erdogan’s goals will endure after he is gone. This is because institutions tend to be sticky — they remain long after the moment when they are needed, often leveraged by a new cohort of politicians to advance their agendas. This does not imply that institutional change is impossible. It is just that revisions take place in the context of existing institutions and previous innovations. For example, the origins of Egypt’s current repressive laws concerning the press and civil society organizations can be traced back through any number of revisions to the 1950s and 1960s. In this way, authoritarianism tends to build on itself. It may eventually give out, but short of a revolution that undermines a mutually reinforcing political and social order, institutions will have a lasting impact on society. Despite all the apparent change in Egypt since early 2011, the country’s politics still revolve around a system that Gamal Abdel Nasser and the Free Officers founded in the 1950s.

The data social scientists have generated indicate that transitions to democracy often fail: Some countries lose their democracy, and those that do only get it back in rare and very specific circumstances. France became democratic again after the defeat of the Vichy government and Nazi Germany. Hungary and Poland were supposed to be shining examples of transitions to democracy. Those countries may yet live up to democratic ideals that as EU members they ostensibly share with other democracies, but because of what Orban and Kaczynski have done, the path to that goal will be long and hard. As for Turkey, no doubt the military will outlast Erdogan, but it is unclear if it will outlast Erdoganism.

Steven A. Cook is the Eni Enrico Mattei senior fellow for Middle East and Africa studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. His latest book is False Dawn: Protest, Democracy, and Violence in the New Middle East.

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