April 2, 2014 5:59 pm

Authoritarian Erdogan sets an unappealing precedent

The idea of a citizen with individual rights seems alien to the leaders of Turkey, Egypt and Iraq

At the height of the mass rebellion across Turkey last summer against the autocratic whimsy of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, it fell to President Abdullah Gul to point out that “democracy is not just about elections” and that “the messages with good intentions [from the protests] were received”. All the irascible Mr Erdogan could growl at the time was: “What message?”

As he has made clear since, and with his latest triumph in local polls this week – in the face of a cascade of leaks implicating his inner circle in graft and exposing his interference in court cases, public tenders And the media – elections in his view are the only thing that matters in a democracy. Mr Erdogan has set aside pillars of the rule of law such as independence of the judiciary, tightened the state’s grip on outlets of free expression such as Twitter and YouTube, and vengefully vowed to root out former allies among judges, the police and spies who turned against him.

Appealing to the “sanctity of the ballot box”, the neo-Islamist prime minister – who has won three general elections, three municipal contests and two referendums since 2002 – called on his millions of followers to give his opponents an “Ottoman slap” at the polls. It looks as though he now plans to follow through with a good kicking.

Although Turkey, influenced by its ambition to join the EU, seemed to have been building a Muslim democracy rooted in institutions, Mr Erdogan’s wilful authoritarianism is turning it into a less appealing template for the region. The Turkish polls will be followed by elections this month in Iraq and next month in Egypt. They will show that the ballot box, if not held in place by a dense tissue of institutions and a basic consensus about rules, is just another tool of zero-sum politics waged to conquer. The objective is exclusive power, which compounds rather than resolves problems. At least in Turkey politics, so far, is a contact sport rather than another arena for open combat.

In Egypt Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, the general basking in popular adulation for toppling the divisive if elected government of the Muslim Brotherhood, will be crowned president in elections at the end of May. But his bandwagon has already flattened nearly all opposition, Islamist or secular.

Since July’s coup Egypt has experienced probably the most violent period of its modern history, with a ban on the Brotherhood likely to stoke up a gathering jihadi insurgency. Last week 529 Islamists were sentenced to death, and another 919, including the Brotherhood’s leader, put on trial in kangaroo courts even the military tribunals of the former dictatorship never matched. Egypt’s judiciary is inviting ridicule, dispensing humiliation not justice.

The army, meanwhile, the only institution that counts, has deepened the bootprint of its sprawling business empire, taking charge of billions of dollars in aid from the Gulf, as well as the investment of even more billions it expects from the same source.

Iraq’s general election this month has at its centre the attempt by Shia Islamist Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to win a third term, and consolidate the sectarian hold on power he secured by dismantling the fragile consensus between Shia, Sunni and Kurds. That has reopened the gates to al-Qaeda jihadism, which had died down after the Anglo-American invasion of Iraq and the communal carnage it ignited.

Mr Maliki, after purging leaders of the Sunni minority and alienating the Kurds, has a pinched vision of Iraq’s future, and a zero-sum attitude towards the power- and revenue-sharing essential for it to have one. His vain attempt to centralise power and inability to place state above sect threatens the break-up of the country. With no consensus on the shape of the state or, indeed, whether to build it, he incarnates the sectarian hoarding of public offices as factional booty; one Shia official says when the prime minister finishes work he even locks his own office and pockets the key.

Mr Erdogan also has an acute case of patrimonial entitlement, referring to the electorate as “my nation” and, after Turkey last month shot down a Syrian jet that may have strayed over its border, to “my aerospace”. He acts as if his preternatural prowess at the polls entitles him to intrude even into the private lives of Turks by, for example, legislating restrictions on alcohol or abortion.

Mr Sisi comes across as a populist chameleon at the centre of a personality cult, who managed to make the Brotherhood believe he was one of them, and then the people believe he is the saviour of the nation.

But what these leaders all have in common is the inability to give their citizens space and autonomy, partly because the very idea of a citizen, with individual rights but the public security of independent institutions that belong plurally to society in all its diversity, seems wholly alien to them. Elected they may be, but democracy is not about sultans, pharaohs or, in Mr Maliki’s case, a conspiratorial faction chief.

david.gardner@ft.com

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