The siren of modern authoritarianism

The siren of modern authoritarianism

Ottawa Citizen, November 2014.

Ottawa Citizen, November 2014.

ISTANBUL — This siren is supposed to be a lament, but it sounds like a warning. Screaming across all of Turkey — over the once-besieged Gezi Park in Istanbul, beyond the $615-million palace of pomposity in Ankara, all the way down to the inky rivers of ISIL oil flowing in from Syria — it wails to mourn the passing of the democratic iconoclast Ataturk 76 years ago.

Or maybe it mourns his vision. As they do every Nov. 10, neighbours lean over their balconies and shopkeepers pause their brooms mid-sweep, peering up at nothing but sound. If they’re looking for a liberal democracy, they won’t see it here.

Turkey’s not a dictatorship, of course. But that’s no longer the point. In many countries, the siren of authoritarianism — a cacophony of battered civil rights, scapegoated minorities and nationalistic fervour — now blares even over ballot boxes. Elections and capitalism on the one hand, and authoritarianism on the other, are clasping each other. And while Turkey’s heavy-handed, sort-of-but-not-really-democratic type of rule is becoming increasingly common, established liberal democracies aren’t quite putting a finger on what its type of rule is, and how to respond effectively.

Human Rights Watch calls systems such as Turkey’s “abusive majoritarianism.”But Freedom House’s vice president of research Arch Puddington tells me wryly, “I don’t have a nifty one or two-word description. They are electoral democracies with a disturbing number of authoritarian features.”

In Turkey, these features have recently included journalists being jailed for criticizing President Recep Erdogan (or having a water canon aimed directly at them), YouTube and Twitter being banned, shoeboxes being stuffed with $4.5 million by a government ally, and the conviction being maintained that all of these features are justified by virtue of the government having won a majority.

“With Erdogan,” Puddington says, “we go back to the election issue. ‘I won the election, so these other checks and balances are null and void in Turkey.’”

And Puddington does have a nifty two-word description for the type of regime that he and other experts believe Turkey may be veering toward: “modern authoritarianism.”

Last month a Freedom House article counted off the five “concessions — largely illusory in nature — to the world’s prevailing democratic order” that most modern authoritarian systems make. They pay insincere respects to pluralistic media, calling off the pre-publication censorship dogs while ghettoizing independent news; to civil society, leaving harmless NGOs alone while harassing civil rights advocates; to rule of law, refraining from holding quite so many summary executions and from imposing quite so many curfews, while punishing dissidents through obsequious legal systems; to political competition, holding regular elections while crippling anyone else’s chances of ever winning one; and to economic openness, engaging in global trade while simultaneously engaging in cronyism.

These last two features of modern authoritarianism — ostensible political and economic openness — create confusion for established liberal democracies.

Supposed political openness can obfuscate whether a modern authoritarian system only feigns democratic intentions for the sake of credibility, whether it has its own cultural “style” of democracy that deserves respect, or whether it’s simply travelling the potholed, tortuous road to democracy. Meanwhile, economic integration and security concerns can complicate sanctioning civil and human rights violations — and enervate the will to do so.

Which is why a new Freedom House report determines that established liberal democracies strongly support elections abroad without adequately supporting human and civil rights through trade. Perhaps we still don’t understand how integral civil rights are to democracy. Perhaps we do understand and just don’t know how to promote them and protect our own interests.

Perhaps we’re correctly embarrassed by our own rights violations.

Whatever the reasons, China’s President Xi Jinping can stand confidently beside President Obama while openly threatening foreign journalists. Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orban can sit comfortably in the European Union while declaring liberal democracy expendable. And Erdogan can shrug off accession negotiations to the European Union while setting off the siren of modern authoritarianism.