The votes from Turkey’s constitutional referendum are in, and President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has claimed victory for his side, even as the result remains disputed. What’s clear is who the winner is not: constitutional democracy. On the surface, the amendments turn Turkey into a presidential system instead of a parliamentary one. Underneath, they strengthen the personal authority of Erdogan, who in the last decade and a half has gone from prime minister to president to quasi-authoritarian leader.
Erdogan has shown once again that he is the vanguard of a new breed of semi-authoritarians that includes Viktor Orban of Hungary and potentially Jaroslaw Kaczynski of Poland. These aren’t your grandfather’s would-be fascists, who might have come to power by election but then planned to abolish them and assume total dictatorial power.
Instead, the new authoritarians’ playbook calls for maintaining regular elections and the outward forms of multiparty democracy, while in fact consolidating power and cooking the books just enough to keep winning the popular vote. Erdogan, like his emulators and colleagues, has weakened the free press and free speech without completely shutting down all alternative political voices.
After all, Erdogan put his proposed systemic changes up for a referendum, which is not what dictators traditionally did. Yes, he made efforts to silence opposition. And his AK Party may have cheated in other ways in some jurisdictions. Yet the fact remains that the election was clean enough — and close enough — that we will probably never know enough to say a majority of the voting public didn’t want the result.
All this leads to a genuine puzzle: Why bother? If your plan is to erode constitutional democracy in favor of authoritarianism, why follow most of the rules most of the time?
Part of the answer is that Erdogan, like Orban and the Polish PiS party, is carefully calibrating just how much support he actually has, and how much real opposition exists. Where somewhere close to half the population doesn’t like you, the challenge for the semi-authoritarian is to avoid pushing the opposition into all-out refusal of your legitimacy.
Call it the Hosni Mubarak lesson: If enough people want the president out, the people will go to the streets. Then the army will do the rest, undertaking a coup in the name of democracy.
By maintaining at least the basic forms of constitutional democracy, the semi-authoritarian avoids alienating the opposition to the extent that it will try to overthrow him.
Erdogan has proved twice in recent years that he has achieved this balance, thus avoiding the fare of Mubarak. In the Gezi Park protests of 2013, he faced a huge public demonstration in Istanbul. He eventually shut down the protest by force. But the army didn’t take the opportunity to make a power grab.
Then, in 2016, some elements of the army did try a weird, half-hearted coup. It failed, in large part because the public didn’t take to the streets in support of the army. Much of the public seems to have felt that the coup was anti-democratic. Erdogan might be semi-authoritarian, but he had been elected and that was still less authoritarian than a military regime.
The other partial explanation for semi-authoritarianism is that today’s rulers don’t actually believe in total dictatorship as a desirable method for staying in power. Erdogan had the experience of being banned from politics for Islamic rhetoric. Orban lived through the fall of Communism, as did Kaczynski. That should be enough to teach anyone that rule without meaningful opposition doesn’t work very well.
Of course the new semi-authoritarians might fantasize about total power. But their real fantasy seems to be getting re-elected forever by more than 50 percent of an adoring public.
It’s not a coincidence that these leaders’ parties are all populist. And populism glories in speaking for “the people,” defined narrowly enough to exclude the opposition.
The last self-interested twist in the semi-authoritarians’ strategy is that they are keeping their options open should they lose popularity someday. Most true dictators are assassinated or end their lives in prison or exile.
But if the opposition is liberal-democratic and constitutionalist, it seems plausible that if it eventually comes to power, it won’t severely punish the semi-authoritarian as it would the true dictator. The populist semi-authoritarian will be able to say, when he’s out of power, that he followed the constitution, and that his successors should, too. Most liberal-democratic governments will be too rights-oriented — or wimpy — to exact punishment.
It emerges that semi-authoritarianism is a terrific way to stay in power so long as you have a populist base and a willingness to erode free speech and free elections.
The world doesn’t yet have a good set of tools to respond, as Europe’s ineffectual responses to Hungary and Poland show. As for Erdogan, his position is invulnerable relative to regional neighbors and European counterparts. Expect more leaders around the world to follow his lead.
Noah Feldman is a Bloomberg View columnist. For more columns from Bloomberg View, visit http://www.bloomberg.com/view.