It was an accidental product of tradition and protocol but, in 2019, the autumn UN General Assembly gathering was ominously introduced by four consecutive speakers who epitomised the relatively new predominance on the world stage of the autocratic strongman leader. First was Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro; followed by the US’s Donald Trump’ Egypt’s president ,Abdel Fattah el-Sisi; and Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
Two, Bolsonaro and Trump, have since bitten the dust, at least temporarily. As has the Philippines’ Rodrigo Duterte. But the question still hangs over us about the potential political longevity and resilience of this phenomenon. Others cast in the same mould still prevail: Russia’s Vladimir Putin, China’s Xi Jinping, Hungary’s Victor Orban, India’s Narendra Modi, Cambodia’s Hun Sen, Israel’s Binyamin Netanyahu, Belarus’s Alexander Lukashenko, Saudi Arabia’s Mohammed bin Salman and Ethiopia’s Abiy Ahmed.
Gonul Tol, a director of the Middle East Institute, suggested the Turkish election last week would, and did, “pose a key question of our time: is it possible to slow authoritarian backsliding and renew democratic progress?” And not only in Turkey – is Erdogan’s success in extending his increasingly authoritarian 20-year rule a harbinger of the irresistible return next year of Trump?
The tide of democratisation is still ebbing. Ranking democracies by their commitment to basic rights, the Freedom House think tank reported 2022 as the 17th consecutive year of such backsliding, in what commentator Gideon Rachman, author of The Age of The Strongman, has described as continuing “the most sustained global assault on liberal democratic values since the 1930s… a revolt against the liberal consensus that reigned supreme after 1989.”
The “new” autocrats – including Trump-like forerunner Erdogan – rule in their own name. The state, to the extent that they can control it, is merely a vehicle for their personal interests and aggrandisement, and they fashion cults of personality and a politics driven by fear and nationalism.
Erdogan’s reign has degenerated into corruption, misrule and cronyism. While a few at the top enjoy immense wealth, millions of Turks are below the poverty line and tens of thousands of oppositionists languish in jail. The biggest difference with Trump’s rule, however, is his ability to push aside the sort of constitutional and balance of power constraints that James Madison and Alexander Hamilton conceived for the US constitution, and which curtailed Trump’s often-expressed ambitions.
In some ways, Rachman writes, Trump’s win was “just part of an established global trend”. Yet “the unique economic and cultural power of the US meant that his ascent changed the atmosphere of global politics, strengthening and legitimising the strongman style, and giving rise to a wave of emulators”.
US-based academic Arjun Appadurai writes of the autocrat phenomenon as “a revolting elite which disguises its own elitism in a discourse of anti-elitism” and “that each of these revolting elites has a similar profile: resentment of traditional cultural and social elites, contempt for liberal proceduralism, hatred of intellectuals, academics, artists, activists, socialists, feminists, admiration for capitalism so long as it regulated only in their favour, and a hatred of democracy matched by their cultish pursuit of the voter (rather than the people)”.
And yet, why has Erdogan’s appeal not waned, despite an economic crisis exacerbated by his defiance of basic economic rules? And despite a slow and incompetent response to the devastating February earthquake? Despite an increasingly divided country – urban/rural, secular/religious, rich/poor, young/old? Despite a resented influx of some four million refugees from Syria, Afghanistan and North Africa?
Erdogan, who plays on voters’ sense of being put upon and under attack is, as journalist Owen Matthews puts it, both “the devil they know and the hero they know”. A port in the storm. Even if he is, in no small measure, the cause of their distress. It is a part that Trump can also play, manipulating fears with great skill.
“If citizens come to believe that there is a chance, no matter how small, that the opposition could destroy them,” notes academic Barbara F Walter in How Civil Wars Start, “they will turn to a leader who offers them protection, no matter how unscrupulous.”
The dynamics of popular revolt and disenchantment often seem paradoxical. Wealth disparities, for example, play strange games. James Fearon of the World Bank notes that, “not only is there no apparent positive correlation between income inequality and conflict but, if anything, across countries, those with more equal income distributions have been more conflict prone”.
And then there’s the lure of the strong leader. “And the bigger the crisis, the bigger the national myths of future greatness need to be to sustain people through hard times,” Matthews writes. Erdogan, like Trump, is a weaver of powerful myths whose popularity was also nourished by “hot gusts of paranoia and promises of reviving his nation’s historical greatness”.
Erdogan’s successful formula is the Trump playbook. And the authoritarian tide is not going out.