Wave of populism

Populist leaders dislike the style of administra­tion that democracie­s require

Dünya Executive - - FRONT PAGE - Ilter TURAN Columnist

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.

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