Winston Churchill once said that the best argument against democracy is a five minute conversation with the average voter. This idea often comes across as arrogant or elitist, but maybe it hints at a real problem with the democratic process: its emphasis on popular support can be both its greatest strength and greatest weakness. Last week's referendum on Turkey's executive powers is an excellent case in point. Ever since last year's failed military coup against his rule, Turkish president Erdogan has increasingly been consolidating power throughout the country and clamping down on traditional democratic freedoms. In order to provide legitimacy to his actions, he called for a special referendum that would grant substantial powers to his office. Surprising almost no one, Sunday's vote (supposedly) passed by 51%, meaning that Erdogan has basically attained the level of authoritarian leader in Turkey.
To be fair, there are many allegations of voter fraud, and the major cities of Istanbul, Ankara, and Izmir all voted against the referendum. But even if many of these votes were illegitimate, there is no denying that a substantial portion of the population knowingly and willfully voted away key components of their own democracy. Similar scenarios are playing out in Egypt and the Arabian Gulf nations, where large portions of the population continue to support authoritarian presidencies and absolute monarchs. So why would anyone vote away their own rights? This week, we'll take a look at the reasons for Erdogan's rise to (nearly) absolute power.
Erdogan's power grab has been a textbook example of exploiting destabilizing situations as a means to consolidate influence. The desire for the perceived stability of a strong executive has been one of the driving forces behind authoritarian movements throughout the Middle East (and the world in general). They see places like Syria, Iraq, and Yemen all falling apart because of weak governments and civil unrest, so they turn to the one person in the country who appears to have the influence, willpower, and temperament to ensure that their nation doesn't turn into a failed state. Erdogan has proven himself to be a master at using destabilizing situations (ISIS terrorism, Kurdish separatist violence, and the recent failed coup attempt) to enhance his own perception of competency.
We don't need to go far back into American history to see a similar trend. Lincoln used the Civil War to declare martial law, Roosevelt used the Great Depression to greatly expand the scope of the federal government, and George Bush used the chaos of the 9-11 attacks to pass things like the PATRIOT ACT. Indeed, nearly every re-election campaign makes some sort of appeal to stability in order to gain support. Throughout the campaign trail this past year, both Clinton and Trump scared their supporters with the fear of instability under the other's presidency. The people who voted in favor of granting Erdogan these powers aren't stupid. They know what this vote means and are choosing what they believe will be a path towards stability for themselves and their country. It's hard to fault them for that.
But stability isn't the only reason many in Turkey have decided to cast away some of their democratic freedoms. These days, it's no surprise that a two-party or multi-party democratic system can be frustrating. America's political system has been plagued with hyper-partisanship and gridlock this past decade, so it should be little surprise that some people around the world see this as a severe drawback of the democratic process. Democracy doesn't always work quickly, and this is often by design. The allure of authoritarianism and a strong executive is that they tend to just get things done, regardless of popular opinion. This is part of the reason Erdogan's platform of consolidated power has appealed to so many people. He's able to basically say "Just give me all the power and I'll fix it for you."
This is precisely why so many nations in the world still have authoritarian rulers and others are trending that direction. Though places like Saudi Arabia or Russia have limited human rights, the majority of the powerful/privileged people in these societies do not believe they will be impacted by these problems, so they continue to support the system. It may come as a surprise to many in the United States, but not everyone holds the values of individual freedom and representative democracy as sacred. In this context, it can seem logical why someone would choose to sacrifice some of their personal freedoms for the sake of finally seeing results in their government. How many of you would accept some limits on your personal freedom if it meant your political tribe would be in power indefinitely? The truth is, we all continue to support systems that are unfair or oppress people because they provide benefit or comfort for ourselves.
In many ways, the Turkish referendum highlights some of the fundamental shortcomings of the democratic process. This doesn't mean the system is doomed, Turkey has always been a little different from the traditional democracies of Europe and the Western world after all. But when political systems become too interested in their own self-preservation rather than truly representing the will of the people, it allows dictators, authoritarians, and demagogues to steal their legitimacy. It's happening all over Europe, the United States, and now Turkey. Only by recognizing that the democratic system requires cooperation and compromise can we hope to keep it alive.