You could describe what has happened in Hong Kong and Istanbul as classic cases of authoritarian rulers scoring own goals. Who knows how they will deal with this in the medium term, writes Alexander Görlach.
For friends of the free world order, it is the second victory within days. First, the mass protests in Hong Kong showed Beijing’s President Xi his limits. And now, exactly one week later, the citizens of Istanbul have also taught Turkish leader Erdogan a lesson in democracy. The opposition candidate, Ekrem Imamoglu, was elected as new mayor of the metropolis of 15 million by almost 800,000 votes.
Recep Tayyip Erdogan himself was once mayor of the city on the Bosporus. The “Sultan,” as his supporters call him, was not happy with the result of the March 31 election. At that time, Imamoglu had already beaten the candidate from Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) by almost 20,000 votes. The AKP forced an election rerun.
There followed a volley of criticism from all over the free world. But even the Turks themselves did not want to put up with this. Tens of thousands interrupted their summer holidays and returned to Istanbul to vote. Imamoglu’s now immense lead speaks volumes.
Turning point for Erdogan
For President Erdogan, who began the millennium as Turkey’s successful moderniser, a turning point is now at hand. It is now clear that he will not be able to maintain the power he wanted to cement through planting people in public offices and constitutional amendments. In previous ballots, be it the presidential election or the referendum on constitutional amendment, more than half of the citizens in secular Turkey voted for Erdogan — the opposition could not touch him. Nevertheless, the opposition remained active and has now won its first major victory. This result shows that Turkey’s civil society is still a real presence.
The attacks on civil society began after the failed coup attempt in July 2016. Since then, undesirable/unwelcome journalists have been imprisoned without trial, publishers have been intimidated, thousands of civil servants have been dismissed, and critical public voices have been bullied. It is quite possible that the Erdogan opponent and preacher, Abdullah Gülen, could have planned a coup against the Turkish president, as he claims. Nevertheless, Erdogan and his government have so far failed to provide any evidence for this accusation. And that is why we must show understanding for the views of those interpret the Turkish Government’s actions first and foremost as a cleansing of the enemy camp.
Division in Germany’s Turkish community as well
There is not only division in Turkey, but the Turkish community in Germany has also been divided, with opponents and supporters of Erdogan arguing fiercely. Politicians in Germany, in turn, have found it difficult to respond appropriately to this dispute, in which President Erdogan is not a neutral observer.
In fact, the German government should close down the DITIB, the German arm/branch of Turkish religious authority, since it is more concerned with Erdogan’s political propaganda, than the salvation of the Muslim souls. Erdogan’s rhetoric in this dispute is similar to that of China’s President Xi: One is and always will be Chinese or Turkish, no matter which passport one has.
It is obvious that such assertions are intended to permanently disrupt the international order, which depends on the cooperation of nation states that define themselves through their citizens. Russian President Putin has at least gone to the trouble of distributing Russian passports to people in Crimea in order to disguise the annexation of a foreign territory as being a measure to protect Russian citizens.
Don’t take everything from the “strongmen” anymore
In the past two weeks, however, it has become apparent that people are no longer willing to accept everything from the so-called “strongmen,” as they like to call themselves. This is the lesson from the events in Istanbul and Hong Kong, that “everything will be fine.” Contrary to what populists all over the world would have us believe, for the vast majority of people democracy remains the desired form of government. Democracy, in this context, also means a state order based on the recognition and enforcement of human rights.
However, in both countries it is only the battle that has been won and not the war, as the saying goes. It remains to be seen how Presidents Xi and Erdogan will react in the medium and long term to this victory for democracy in Hong Kong and Istanbul.
Alexander Görlach is a senior research associate at the Institute on Religion and International Studies at the University of Cambridge as well as a senior fellow at the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs and honorary professor for ethics and theology at the University of Lüneburg. He has also held a number of scholarly and advisory positions at Harvard University. He holds PhDs in comparative religion and linguistics and is a guest columnist for several publications including The New York Times, Swiss daily Neue Zürcher Zeitung and business magazine Wirtschaftswoche.