The test of a leader's commitment to democracy is not in peaceful and agreeable times but in times of dissent and disagreement. And Turkey's president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has failed the test.
It's easy to be democratic when no one asks for rights to dissent, to express their culture, to practice a different religion, to protest against government policies that they find unfair. It's easy to be democratic if constituents obey, either mindlessly or for fear of retribution. But that's not a true democracy. Democracy is a messy business, based upon the idea that multiplicity is good, and that in the great marketplace of ideas, the best ideas win. It is the ideal that no one owns power for his own self-interest, but that power is to be used for the good of its constituents in the best possible fit. It's the idea that with discussion and debate, complaint and critique, the body politic waxes and wanes, tries this and tries that but overall improves the lot of the many.
Determining what is good for one's constituents never has and never will come from one person sitting in a position of power without an understanding of the experiences, hardships and desires of his constituents. And controlling the flow of information by seizing all of the media, the educational institutions, and the branches of government only makes this democratic goal impossible.
Democracy requires a lot of things, and among them is a free, open and ethical media establishment that fact-checks before it publishes and relentlessly checks propaganda. It requires the people's ability to hear and consider complaints and possible solutions for those complaints, and ideas for better policies. This is one way that people -- not tyrants -- can come to understand which ideas, policies and representatives they prefer.
Erdogan has failed this test and many more. He has brutally suppressed people who have protested against his policies. He has purged every branch of government of any opposition, large and small, alongside several mass media outlets and the educational academies. Human rights groups believe he has tortured and killed those who supported the failed coup. He has openly rejected the jurisdiction of the European Court of Human Rights and openly advocated for the return of the death penalty.
Astute observers should not be surprised. Turkey has never lived up to its myth. Built upon the blood, bones and property of its past and present minorities, it has buried those facts and most of its evidence alongside their mass graves. The New York Times suggests that Erdogan's true desires are to supplant Ataturk, the country's leader who both modernized and "Turkified" the country after the 1915 mass annihilation of Armenians, Assyrians and Greeks and finalized the elimination of the remaining Armenians.
The West has coddled Turkey for decades for geopolitical reasons. They have been strategic allies in NATO and for years, and with the crises and on-going wars in the Middle East, Turkey has willingly accepted the most asylum seekers and refugees of any other state. The geopolitical alliance faces some confusion with Erdogan's recent meetings with Russia's Vladimir Putin, who, according to Independent journalist Robert Fisk, was Erdogan's informant about the coup attempt. And alongside Turkey's past and present human rights abuses on its own people, the West must ask itself how long it can continue to ignore Turkey's violations. Can it justify for shaky geopolitical purposes normal relations with an oppressive leader like Erdogan? History tells us that staying silent on these matters can be a slippery slope signaling that human rights abuses are acceptable, leading thinking people to conclude that it may be time to reexamine -- or at least redefine -- the criteria for our alliances and geostrategic partners. Turkey would be a good place to start.
(Parts of this post first appeared in the spinoff.co.nz).