Wave of populism
Populist leaders dislike the style of administration that democracies require
The preliminary results of the constitutional referendum, in which some 51 percent of Turks voted to change Turkey’s governance from a parliamentary system to an executive presidency, are still incredibly fresh. I will reserve my analysis of the result for my next column. What I can say now is that the process of amending the national charter wrought deep divisions in our country, dragging us toward polarization, before the vote even took place.
Despite some of the arguments we’ve heard, it’s actually beyond debate that the changes to our national charter will greatly weaken the separation of powers and the system of checks and balances that are indispensable to a liberal democracy. Those governing Turkey seek to distance themselves from the parameters of liberal democracy - which was never fully established here anyway - to put in place a system they argue will more effectively concentrate decision-making in a single center.
Let’s first acknowledge that this is not a preference that has emerged just in our country. Leaders riding a wave of populism around the world dislike the style of administration that liberal democracies require, finding it restrictive, and try to change it – sometimes through formal means, sometimes informally. For example, the Polish government has made legislative changes to bring the constitutional court under its control. The Trump administration, for its part, is trying to subordinate federal departments by sending in vanguard forces, apparently called “beachhead teams,” to shape those agencies.
Another characteristic that is not unique to Turkey is that populist leaders everywhere exhibit a tendency of intolerance toward the opposition. In almost every country with a populist government, disrespectful language is used against the opposition, and sometimes it is outright scorn.
The opposition is generally accused of working against a nation’s interests in cooperation with its enemies. The Polish government has accused its predecessor of covering up the death of President Lech Kaczynski, killed in a 2010 plane crash, saying it was a Russian conspiracy, despite a lack of convincing evidence. In Venezula, the Maduro regime, which is turning into a dictatorship, blames the economic crisis, a product of its own extraordinary incompetence, on the opposition’s troublemaking and alleged cooperation with foreigners.
The intolerance populist administrations show towards the opposition also manifests itself in restrictions on freedom of ex- pression and the press. We have all seen U.S. President Donald Trump accuse the U.S. media of lying and distorting his statements. Perhaps Trump was inspired by Turkey’s system of accreditation applied to the press when he refused to accept press outlets that he doesn’t approve of into news conferences.
The press is not the only source of critical views. In many countries, universities, where intellectuals gather, have become targets. The Hungarian government recently introduced a law that changes the criteria for foreign educational institutions to continue operating there. The target is the Central European University, established by American investor and philanthropist George Soros. Shortly after it opened, the university became an important center of learning, with a faculty that enjoys international prestige, and its professors frequently criticize the authoritarian government of Prime Minister Viktor Orban. A similar situation arose in Russia, when the government body overseeing higher education attempted to cancel the licence of a private business university in St. Petersburg until President Vladimir Putin decided against it.
Populist regimes also find the existing legal framework obstructive. A slow-moving bureaucracy that prevents a political administration from accomplishing what it wants to will frustrate every elected government at times. In fact, a political leader’s success can be measured in how well he or she can compel the bureaucracy to produce results.
However, in a liberal democracy, it would not occur to politi- cians to merely sidestep the law. But populist governments are not dissuaded from exceeding the parameters of the law to carry out their work. This would amount to a violation of the fundamental principle of rule of law in a liberal democracy. In Turkey, the approach is expressed as, “Nothing will happen if the constitution is violated once.” But once the constitution is violated, it opens the door to further abuse. In the Philippines, President Rodrigo Duterte encourages the security forces to summarily execute suspects in the fight against drugs and feels it is unnecessary to even prosecute the accused.
A new term has cropped up in political literature: post-truth politics. Populist regimes can conjure up imagined realities – some might call these lies – to please the masses, then after some time convince the unquestioning masses of another truth that contradicts their first assertion. How this is even possible will keep social psychologists busy for a long time. I’ll confess that I have trouble understanding it myself.
So, as I’ve outlined, Turkey is a well-known example of the wave of populism that is sweeping the world, rather than an exception. Even countries not ruled by a populist have rising populist movements. It’s clear that liberal democracies, the product of the industrial age, are facing increasing challenges. Perhaps it will be resisted, or perhaps it will strengthen. The referendum in Turkey was an experiment that will help us see how this country’s politics will evolve. Let’s hope this experiment does not burden society with a heavy cost.
A new term has cropped up in political literature: post-truth politics. Populist regimes can conjure up imagined realities to please the masses, then after some time convince the unquestioning masses of another truth that contradicts their first assertion.