MANILA, Philippines ― On Sunday, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey’s charismatic president, will face his biggest electoral test yet: A game-changing referendum that will decide whether he will become an all-powerful president until 2029.
The failed 2016 coup against the Turkish government provided Erdogan the perfect pretext to fully consolidate power. He is enjoying his highest approval rating yet and he will likely win the upcoming referendum.
It’s puzzling that Erdogan is so popular after almost two decades in power against the backdrop of an economic slowdown, growing international isolation and the troubling polarization of Turkish society akin to the height of Cold War, when coups and protests were a normal affair.
Turkey represents one of the most fascinating ― and disheartening – cases of a reverse fairytale. A Muslim-majority country, Turkey kicked off this decade as a role model for the Middle East and beyond, combining the virtues of a booming market economy with the appeal of a vibrant Islamist democracy.
This venerable status was achieved under the charismatic leadership of Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party, or AKP, which relied on the support of both rural and urban voters, the aspirational middle class and the newly-emerging pious entrepreneurial class ― the so-called “Anatolian tigers.”
A former mayor of Istanbul who combined administrative competence (he resurrected the city’s freshwater supply, for example) with popular conservative regulations (he banned alcohol in city-owned cafes), Erdogan possessed an uncanny ability to reach out to both ordinary folks who admired his authenticity and sincerity, and to the business elite, who admired his competence and vision. Overtime, the oratorically gifted Erdogan and impeccably organized AKP became indistinguishable ― the former secured full control over the latter.
Populists have managed to supplant unappealing rational-technocratic politicians across emerging market democracies.
Under Erdogan’s watch, during the first decade of the 21st century, Turkey experienced an unprecedented period of economic prosperity and political stability. Relishing organizational coherence, a grassroots support base, a progressive political agenda and successive landslide electoral victories, the AKP was broadly seen ― even across the Western world ― as a harbinger of a new era of hope and freedom in Turkey.
At the height of the Arab Spring in 2011 and 2012, Turkey was held up as a strong model worthy of emulation by its neighbors. But Turkey’s apparent success failed to shape the trajectory of regional political developments. If anything, the exact opposite took place.
As the revolutionary upheavals across the Arab world gave way to a new wave of terror, coups and chaos, Turkey’s democracy, in turn, gave way to the resurfacing of neo-Ottoman despotism. Beginning with the Gezi Park protests in 2013, which quickly morphed into a nebulous anti-government movement, Erdogan began to tighten his grip on Turkish politics.
Having sidelined his laic critics and elements of the “deep state” through the controversial Ergenekon trials, Erdogan now moved toward suppressing the liberal-progressive opposition. Over the next few years, the Turkish government began to crack down on a popular movement led by the influential Pennsylvania-based cleric Fethullah Gulen, a chief rival who was previously seen as a key ally of the Islamists in power.
Turkish nationalism, with an Islamist tinge, has gained verve and vigor.
But far from being perturbed by the growing concentration of power in the hands of one man, a significant section of Turkish society has come to see Erdogan as a guardian of peace and order, the last protector of the Turkish state against indigenous and foreign conspirators.
Notwithstanding current economic conditions, large sections of Turkish society are also grateful for more than a decade of sustained economic growth under Erdogan’s leadership, where Turkish nationalism, with an Islamist tinge, has gained verve and vigor.
As Indian essayist Pankaj Mishra observes, the enigma of populist resurgence and resilience lies in the “emotional and psychological allure” of charismatic leaders who ― through their “powerful rhetoric and imagery” anchored by “mastery of digital communications” ― have managed to firmly supplant the cold, calculating, rational-technocratic politicians across emerging market democracies.
From India and Indonesia to Turkey and Russia, the main lesson one derives upon closer observation is that right-wing populists like Erdogan derive their political capital not from delivering on their core promises, but instead by convincing people that they are sincere and strong-willed leaders who are bent on dismantling the ancien régime ― and bringing about a brighter future for the ordinary folks.
Similar to Erdogan and the AKP, in India, Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party are now virtually indistinguishable. Modi is a controversial and tough-talking former chief minister of the western state of Gujarat, and he recently managed to score a major electoral victory in a regional election in Uttar Pradesh, the most populous state in the country. The BJP won 312 out of 403 seats, a landslide victory that has been interpreted as an affirmative referendum on his administration so far.
Beyond the scale of Modi’s breathtaking electoral victory ― the largest in decades ― is the fact that Modi has largely fallen short on delivering on his key economic promises in terms of growth, poverty alleviation or employment generation. In recent months, Modi has come under vigorous criticism for a controversial demonetization policy, which adversely affected a cash-based economy and tens of millions of poor families who struggled to secure new banknotes on time. It could possibly take years before the Indian economy fully recovers.
Modi has largely fallen short on delivering on his key economic promises.
And yet, Modi, a Hindu nationalist, maintains his position atop Indian politics and public opinion largely because of his image as a sincere, decisive man of the people. He’s revered as a man from a low caste and humble beginnings who made it to the top with hard work, competence and leadership.
Even more interesting is the case of Russia, a has-been superpower in dire economic straits due to chronic corruption, mismanagement and sanctions over Moscow’s adventurist campaigns in Ukraine and the post-Soviet space.
After a decade of boom times ― mainly due to high oil prices ― the Russian economy has been contracting, adversely affecting wages, savings, basic benefits, pensions and foreign exchange reserves of the once bright shining star of emerging markets.
Putin is as popular as ever, despite Russia's status as a has-been superpower in dire economic straits.
As the economist Ruchir Sharma notes, Russia today is nothing more than a hydrocarbon power with few if any globally competitive industries. And yet, the latest polls suggest that Putin, a former intelligence officer and political official in St. Petersburg, is as popular as ever. After more than a decade and a half in power, he has a whopping 81 percent approval rating.
Putin’s genuine popularity is a product of a well-choreographed nationalist and Slavophile rhetoric, effective deployment of a well-oiled, state-sponsored propaganda blitzkrieg via both mass and social media and now-familiar uber-macho imageries.
And this brings us to President Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines. To be fair, he has yet to finish his honeymoon year in office. Based on my recent travels to Brussels, Canberra and Washington, D.C., it seems that he is broadly seen in negative terms in the West ― sometimes unfairly.
The mainstream media, the Catholic Church and civil society groups in the Philippines and across the West widely criticize Duterte’s war on drugs and human rights record.
Critics are quick to point out that under Duterte, the economic situation is far from impressive.
While the growth rate is still robust, business confidence is down, credit rating agencies are warning of regulatory uncertainty and a potential downgrade, big-ticket infrastructure projects are in limbo, the Philippine peso is the worst-performing currency in Southeast Asia, the first current account deficit in 14 years is on the horizon and inflation is picking up. Duterte doesn’t deserve all the blame for these setbacks, however.
Duterte’s strongest suit is his aura of a sincere and strong-willed leader who cares for ordinary Filipinos.
And yet, Duterte enjoys one of the highest approval ratings of any leader in any country. While not fully in agreement with his harsh crackdown on suspected criminals, the vast majority of Filipinos are both supportive of Duterte’s war on drugs and have expressed growing satisfaction in terms of perceived safety and order.
The Philippines is experiencing the same phenomenon as in India, Indonesia, Russia and Turkey. Duterte’s strongest suit is his uncanny ability to project an aura that he is a sincere and strong-willed leader who cares for the ordinary Filipinos, is tough on the (liberal) oligarchy and just needs more time, patience and support to transform a broken nation.
After all, a majority of voters nowadays are not motivated by utility-maximization but instead by an inexplicable emotional and personal affinity to leadership. Fed up with broken promises and business-as-usual politicians, a large section of the electorate across the democratic world is placing all its hopes in outside-the-box leaders like Erdogan, Modi, Putin and Duterte.
Though Turkey seems to have left behind its best days under Erdogan, the charismatic president, by all indications, is set to win the upcoming referendum, which will decide the fate of the country’s democracy for decades to come. If victorious, the Turkish leader will likely join Putin as among the most powerful and durable populist-authoritarian leaders of our time.