The free world has refused to get literate in the ways wily despots overpower the state and willingly overlooked the Putin-Chávez-Erdoğan formula now in vogue: a servile media, judiciary and military; oligarchs owning the economy as proxies for the leader; a political opposition allowed to hobble around theatrically; subsidized trolls and bots shape-shifting the opinion-scape; and manufactured plebiscites precisely calibrated with myriad little tricks to produce the right outcome.
We’re in the midst of a totalitarian resurgence; this is how it’s done in the new millennium.
Even after a heavily lopsided campaign, Erdoğan has had to depend on stuffed ballot boxes. Some 1.5 million votes are currently being contested, a number that pretty much covers the margin of his 1.3-million-vote “victory.” Astonishingly, Turkey’s electoral board announced that it would accept boxes full of ballots but without seals — all such boxes thus far discovered being, mirabile dictu, full of Yes votes.
They didn’t even have the good sense to generate a few illicit No boxes to sully the picture. Even more astonishingly, at one point, the same electoral authority publicly stated that such unsealed boxes had been counted in previous elections. Let that sink in for a long moment.
But that’s a small quibble. The full scope of the Erdoğan government’s cheating has yet to emerge. How many Syrian refugees — out of the 3 million living in the country — were quickly enfranchised for the purpose? How many ballot centers were moved around in the Kurdish areas in recent weeks to complicate voting? Who will investigate the Erdoğan government’s multiple rigging strategies? The same high election council that his government has stuffed with sycophants.
I haven’t yet mentioned the hundreds of thousands jailed, intimidated and sacked; the scores of opposition candidates beaten up in the lead-up to the referendum. Let’s not forget, also, the spastic remnants of media opposition prevented from arguing the No side with details of Erdoğan’s family corruption, his incompetence in every foreign policy venture, his U-turns over Bashar al-Assad, Israel, Russia and his alienation of all Turkey’s former strategic allies.
Not to mention the oddly hysterical incidents in Germany and the Netherlands, where various AKP ministers close to Erdoğan rather operatically got themselves outlawed from conducting rallies. The entire exercise was clearly designed as a noisy farce. While Erdoğan chastised the Dutch for suppressing democracy, for supporting Hitler in World War II and the like, similar scenes occurred in Germany, also home to large a large population of expatriate Turks who, it comes as no surprise, voted Yes by a large margin.
A government that endangers the welfare of its citizens abroad like this is capable of anything. The Turkish consular authorities supervising ballots in Germany and the Netherlands have long been hand-picked Erdoğanists. You don’t have to be a conspiracy nut to wonder about vote-rigging there as numbers were transferred back to Ankara.
Erdoğan’s relentless political chicanery offers a roadmap to today’s populist dictators on how to engineer apparently democratic triumphs on their way to disabling democracy.
Erdoğan deliberately provoked chaos then offered himself up as a solution. He allowed ISIS to operate openly in Turkey; he ignited a civil war against the Kurdish population to punish them for voting against him in a crucial national election; he kept the Syrian border porous so the instability there would migrate into Turkey. He persecuted the military until they revolted, accusing outside forces of fomenting the trouble, most recently the Gülenists. With rolling Robespierre-like prosecutions, he warned half the country that opposing him will wreck their lives. He destroyed the economy but subsidized his supporters.
The only way Erdoğan has achieved any political success is by using the body politic against itself. In essence, he has delegitimized governance in order to present himself as the only way to restore it.
But in so doing, he has also entirely delegitimized himself. After all the bludgeoning, he eked out a dodgy razor-thin majority in a kangaroo plebiscite. He and other AKP leaders spoke optimistically about inclusion after declaring (early) victory, claiming the result would benefit all Turks. Only losers complain about fairness, they said.
And there’s the rub — in the murky political psychology of the new era, successful retention of power, even successful election-rigging, denotes a kind of virtue when chaos is the threatened alternative. The strongman’s promise of continuity, stability and firmness — especially while he causes turbulence — matters more than legitimacy, indeed equals legitimacy.
Winning pseudo-elections justifies all abuses in retrospect. The leader never quite feels legitimate and spends the state’s resources incessantly trying to gain it by whatever means. Eerily familiar, no? Get used to it — in Turkey and around the world.
Author: Melik Kaylan