The Greek and Turkish Elections, and Ours
By Robert Zaller
This past month saw elections in Greece and Turkey, both requiring runoffs, and a critical moment in the United States, which verged until its last deadline on the first national default in its history. None off these events provided good looks for the state of democracy, if the government of Turkey, recently ranked 107th on a list of world states in that category can be so described except as on an endangered species list.
Greece, the ancient birthplace of democracy, was without it for two thousand years, although the example of it helped to revive it on the eastern seaboard of North America, when the thirteen colonies established by Great Britain there rebelled against their mother kingdom. Britain itself had helped to provide the model, having itself previously established a representative government after overthrowing its own monarch, Charles I, in a revolution that grew out of a civil war. That experiment did not last, although the memory of it lingered and was partly regenerated by a second revolution at the end of the seventeenth century.
In the eighteenth century, Britain was slowly evolving toward popular government, although still well short of what could be described as a democracy. The Thirteen Colonies did not wish for such a state itself, and when they won their independence, the Constitution they devised after a chaotic episode of state legislative independence was a republic that fell (and still in significant respects falls) short of a democracy. In fact, “democracy” in our time is no single system but a set of variations round a single principle most pithily expressed by Abraham Lincoln as government of the people, by the people, and for the people.
It is debatable whether this principle has ever been truly fulfilled, except briefly in moments of revolutionary ferment. “Government of the people” is a phrase that of course can describe any kind of state, democratic, autocratic, or tyrannical, where effective control of a population is established by any means, free or forced. “By the people”—i.e., by the population or some recognized subset of it—has existed for any length of time only in small settings. The compromise required in larger ones has been representative bodies elected by citizen voters. “For the people”—Lincoln presumably meant functioning on behalf of common interests rather than special ones—is the goal of democratic governance as such, but so rarely achieved as to be far more an ideal rather than a reality—in plainer terms, a dream.
This should not necessarily be held against democracy as a system, although thinkers since Aristotle have suggested that oligarchy, the rule of the powerful few, is its inevitable result. Democracy is a dynamic system, and the common interest, established only by continuous debate and regular election, is always in flux to some extent or another. Basic principles, such as majority government and the rule of law, may be agreed upon, but men and women and their institutions must interpret and uphold them on a day-to-day basis. Democracy is in short not stable but rather a continually shifting process. Hence, whatever its tendencies toward oligarchy, it is always open to the temptation of autocracy. We see that widely today, in what has been described by Gideon Rachman as the age of strongmen. One of them, as we shall see, is Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the now re-elected President of Turkey. But let us look first at the election in Greece.
Modern Greece, like the early American republic, was in turmoil in the first years of its birth. America considered making George Washington a king, but monarchy was no longer what it had been, and the French Revolution dealt it what would eventually be a fatal blow. America itself had to evolve slowly toward democracy, including the abolition of slavery, the enfranchisement of women, and the extension of civil liberties—projects still in many ways incomplete where not, at the moment, in retreat. Greece had a monarchy imposed on it, and for a century and a half struggled to define its limits. Not until it was abolished—ironically, by the dictatorship of the Junta—did modern Greek democracy emerge, albeit under American tutelage. It has not been an altogether happy experiment, partly because of the geopolitical environment that surrounds it and constrains its choices. In one respect, however, the Greeks have retained the spirit of the ancient Athenians, namely in their refusal to bear any yoke. Only one modern politician, Eleuftherios Venizelos, has exercised transgenerational and sometimes extralegal authority except in periods of conquest or coup. That said, nepotism—the alternate successions of the Papandreou and Mitsotakis clans, the latter currently in power—is still a disturbing phenomenon, though hardly unknown in American politics as well.
The background to the current Greek election is still the abasement of Greek democracy by its international and mainly European creditors following the Continent-wide economic crash of the 2010s, for which Greece was made to pay most heavily and for a period to effectively cede its sovereignty. It brought about the one significant change in the lineup of Greek political parties since the 1980s, namely the replacement of the Papandreou dynasty’s party, PASOK, by a new and previously obscure Leftist group, Syriza, under the leadership of a youthful new leader, the thirtyish Alexis Tsipras. Syriza’s abrupt rise was also a rejection of the major conservative party, New Democracy, which had regularly alternated in power with PASOK, although its defeat at the polls, less severe, still left it intact. But the overall message of the election was clear: Greek voters, faced with the bankruptcy the European Union (read: Germany) and the World Bank imposed on it, had repudiated the political system whose profligacy and corruption was held responsible for its economic catastrophe.
There was enough truth in this charge to justify the blame cast on the system, but the Greek economy—only 2% of the European Union’s as a whole—was hardly responsible for the general crisis of the Continent as a whole, which was precipitated by a collapse of financial markets in the United States. Greece, in short, was singled out not because it had caused the crisis but because its symbolic (but also very real) punishment would divert attention from the malfeasance of much larger actors, beginning with Germany itself. Tsipras and his colleagues, wholly inexperienced, only brought even more punitive measures on Greece, including the forced sale of major public assets and a public humiliation of Tsipras in front of the European Parliament such as no national leader in memory had been forced to undergo. By means of a snap election, Tsipras was able to cling to power until 2019, when New Democracy, no more beloved than before but under Kyriakos Mitsotakis the only viable alternative, prevailed as leader of a coalition government. This is the government that, still short of a working majority, will go the polls in a runoff election on June 25.
Mitsotakis—and the Greek electoral system as a whole—has won no greater popularity for New Democracy than it had before, and in addition to corruption and incompetence, has exhibited marked authoritarian tendencies. The economy has recovered to a degree, to some extent because Greece’s European masters, preferring an establishment party that better holds far left or hard right political forces at bay, have been slightly more accommodating. The general public remains little better off than before, however, with unemployment and inflation still high, and the vast losses it suffered now largely baked into the system. Meanwhile, various scandals and high-handed moves have characterized its conduct. Security forces have occupied college campuses, presumably to preserve civil order but reminiscent of the lethal tactics of the Junta in its waning days. Opposition politicians and journalists have been placed under secret government surveillance, itself a plausible pretext for the suppression of a free press and open debate but also only the tip of an iceberg of a worldwide spyware consortium that led last August to the resignation of a nephew of Mitsotakis from his supervisory position in the national intelligence service. Migrants fleeing conditions in the Middle East (and sometimes forced from refuge by the Erdogan government in Turkey, well paid by the European Union to harbor them), have been met with punitive incarceration and generally unacceptable treatment. This latter situation is, to be sure, by no means confined to Greece, as anyone conversant with conditions along Italy’s long coastline or America’s southern borders can attest, but it is nonetheless a serious and ongoing violation of acknowledged human rights, in which the government has been accused of deliberately stranding refugees at sea and violating the tenets of the European Union for their treatment and protection.
Mitsotakis has been most deeply embarrassed by the rail collision near Tempe in February of this year, which took the lives of fifty-seven passengers, many of them students. His first reaction to the disaster, placing blame on rail workers, quickly backfired as details of the crash became known. Greek railways, widely criticized as the most dangerous in the European Union, had received substantial E.U. funding to modernize itself, but virtually none of the supposedly targeted improvements had been made, and the monies received were largely unaccounted for. Corruption was the culprit, and death the result. Many tens of thousands of strikers and protestors poured into the streets of Athens and Saloniki, and public outrage was greater than at any point since the student massacres of November 1973 that had tipped the scales against the Junta. Mitsotakis hastily retreated, taking belated responsibility for the crash but, aside from accepting a few resignations, offering no explanations and authorizing no bipartisan investigation.
Such an episode might well have resulted in the fall of a government, and Mitsotakis had no popularity to spare; on a visit to Greece last year I heard a popular appellation for him, to use the term in a way more suitable for family readers, Mitsoduckface. Under such circumstances, it might seem extraordinary that Mitsotakis not only appears all but certain to win a second term in office but with double the vote of its likely nearest rival. The explanation for that lies in that rival, which remains Syriza, whose leader is still Alexis Tsipras. As an opposition party, Syriza had managed to lift its polls to about 30% of the electorate, largely as a protest against New Democracy. With an actual election in prospect, however, its share of the vote fell swiftly by a third. New Democracy gained a net of nothing from Syriza’s defectors, which were spread instead itselfover minority parties, including a revived PASOK hoping to rise from the dead.
What may we conclude from this unedifying survey? There is neither a leader nor a party in Greek politics at the moment that has the confidence of any substantial portion of the public or appears to represent its interests or hopes. This is not a phenomenon confined to Greece. The Conservative Party in England clings to power despite the collapse of several governments and auguries of a sound defeat in an election not mandated until 2025 by a Labour Party that itself has long ceased to represent workers, and under Keir Starmer now seeks to co-opt the mantle of Brexit that gave the Tories their last electoral victory. French President Emmanuel Macron, happy to rule autocratically when he cannot garner votes, is as unpopular a figure as holds office anywhere in Europe. German Chancellor Olaf Scholz leads a shaky coalition with little conviction. The most decisive leader in Europe, Viktor Orban of Hungary, is also the most autocratic, heading a state that has won its own description—an “illiberal democracy,” i.e., a government that retains the forms of democracy but is tightly run by a ruler who, controlling the press, the courts, elections, and public life and institutions generally, retains power without free opposition. Nominally, members of the European Union require an internally open democratic process with elections among freely competing parties. Hungary remains a member of the E.U., as does Poland, another illiberal democracy with the forms but not the norms of a democracy, a paradox that saps the E.U.’s fundamental principle and bodes ill for its future. Greece has not reached that point, but, with popular disillusionment in its political system growing, it could be headed in that direction.
Turkey, not a member of the European Union but of NATO, was ruled by its founder, Kemal Ataturk, until his death in 1938. For more than sixty years after his death, no political figure emerged to challenge his legacy, and each one paid obeisance to the vision he had molded of a society whose secular deity was Ataturk himself, and whose adoption of formally democratic norms alternated with periods of military control. In the Western sense, Turkey could not be called a democracy, but the cult of Ataturk himself acted as a check on any single would-be authoritarian leader retaining power for long.
Turkey’s fortunes changed with the rise of Recep Tayyip Erdogan, an astute politician who, after two terms as Mayor of Istanbul (and a subsequent four-year ban from political activity) was elected prime minister in 2003. Like Vladimir Putin, Erdogan at first made gestures toward the West, hoping for Turkey’s admission into the European Union and access to its largesse. At the same time, he set out to dethrone Ataturk, replacing his vision of a secular state with one based on Islam. Gradually cultivating an image of himself as the indispensable leader of this new order, he suppressed opposition, jailed opponents, and built—again like Putin—palatial residences at vast public expense. Basing his rule on a religiously tinged nationalism, he has lately projected himself in terms of a grand if vague program for reviving the dominion of the old Ottoman Empire, including of course Greece, on whose territories and resources he has made ongoing claims. Here, too, his ambitions seem to resemble those of Putin, who has likened himself to Russia’s great expansionist tsar, Peter the Great.
Erdogan does not, however, have a still-vast territorial state of a Putin at his command, oil and gas-rich, and with what is now the world’s largest nuclear arsenal. Nor does he have a population long subservient to autocratic rule. Turkish democracy was always an imperfect experiment, but political opposition, however constrained, does exist, and elections are held that do at least in part reflect it. In addition, the Turkish army remains a quasi-independent institution whose power to intervene in politics makes it a check not only on democratic “excess” but on civilian autocracy. These limits were exposed when, in 2016, Erdogan suppressed a serious military revolt, and in 2019, when he lost popular elections in the nation’s capital, Istanbul.
The most difficult problem Erdogan faced, however, was the two-term limit imposed on the office of prime minister, the legal basis of his power. Again, his solution mirrored that of Putin, who rotated between the offices of president and prime minister, exercising autocratic powers interchangeably in both. After winning the ceremonial office of president in 2014, Erdogan systematically enlarged its powers until it had effectively become the sovereign authority. However, it did remain elective, and this year’s contest carried with it the real possibility of defeat despite Erdogan’s virtual monopoly of the media, his unlimited campaign purse, and the colorlessness of his chief opponent, Kemal Kilicdaroglu. With an absolute majority of votes required for election, Erdogan made early claims to victory, but—that much of democracy remaining—he was finally obliged to admit that he had won only a narrow plurality. With the help of a third-party candidate who endorsed him in the runoff, he finally prevailed by an embarrassingly narrow margin of 52-48%. He nonetheless pronounced it a resounding triumph, turning out followers for celebratory parades. His term will run until 2028, when he will have been uninterruptedly in power for twenty-five years.
Erdogan does have opposition that seems unlikely to go away, most ingrained in major cities and particularly in Istanbul, where rampant inflation, exacerbated by his refusal to raise interest rates, has led to double and near triple cost of living increases. Ataturk’s legacy has not been entirely erased either, and dashed hopes for entry into the European Union remain. The military, although radically purged, still awaits its turn. And the bitter resistance of Turkey’s long-oppressed Kurdish minority, as ever a favorite whipping-boy, leaves the southern region of the country perpetually unsettled. Added to that was the recent catastrophic earthquakes in the same area, which exposed not only the incompetence of Erdogan’s response but the scandals of shoddy construction in the region that helped raise its death toll to 50,000.
Erdogan has however cultivated support too, particularly among religious and cultural conservatives. If some autocratic leaders have been voted out of office, such as Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, others have continued to prosper, including Narendra Modi, who governs what is now the world’s most populous state, India. The phenomenon of autocratic leaders entrenching themselves in power in hitherto-functioning democracies is clearly one on the rise. Even England had such a figure recently in Boris Johnson, who attempted to unconstitutionally prorogue Parliament, only to be rebuffed by the courts. Johnson remains a figure in British politics, and his return to power cannot be ruled out.
This brings us to the present case of the United States, one unprecedented in its history. In 2016, Donald J. Trump, a shady real estate mogul and wisecracking television celebrity, won the presidency of the U.S. with the openly solicited support of Putin’s Russia and despite a deficit of nearly three million in the popular vote. The four years of Trump’s presidency, marked by broken treaties, brazen violations of statute law, unexampled corruption, and two impeachments, ended with his defeat by a seven-million vote majority, and a decisive margin in the Electoral College. Against this he funded and led a campaign climaxing in a violent insurrection against Congress to prevent the certification of his elected successor, Joe Biden. In other words, he attempted by seditious conspiracy—treason, in plainer terms—to overthrow the transfer of power in a government of which he was still head. There can be no doubt of this, as amply attested in the million pages of documentation and testimony compiled in bipartisan Congressional investigation. And yet Trump remains uncharged of this, the most serious civil crime a public official can commit, still declaring his victory over Biden, and free to seek the presidency again in 2024. In a banana republic, such conduct might pass with a shrug; in a country that proclaims itself the world’s defender of democracy, it is a dereliction of duty and constitutional responsibility that beggars belief. In America, at this moment, democracy is not only in turmoil but peril. When and if this bleak period passes, the question to be answered will be why the prosecution of Trump has languished in the hands of a Department of Justice that has dragged its feet for two and a half years on as defining a case as it may ever face.
Democracy was a singular experiment for two millennia after it first emerged in Athens, and even there it was a male fraternity from which slaves, resident aliens, and of course women were excluded. Most of the democracies founded in post-World War I Europe had collapsed by 1939 or would soon yield to conquest, and most would not be revived until after 1989. There is certainly no guarantee of democracy’s long-term survival. It requires a population educated for the difficult tasks of citizenship, and willing to assume them. It needs perpetual vigilance against tendencies toward oligarchy, and, in capitalist societies, the accumulation of private wealth that feeds them. The recent elections in Greece and Turkey, two countries with very different backgrounds, show many of the pitfalls to which it is liable, and the elections coming next year in the United States will be a further test. Believers in democracy as the only form of government compatible with human dignity for all, of whom I am one, will wish it well against the odds and work for its success. The more of us, however, the better.