Putinia, Orbánia & Erdoğstan
France is waiting for Marine Le Pen. Italy watches Beppe Grillo destroying his "movement" of five stars, M5S. In Britain, Nigel Farage seems unstoppable on his way to demolish the Tories. In Greece, Alexis Tsipras is preparing his radical SYRIZA party for the take-over. Switzerland should become more Swiss, says Christoph Blocher. We may label these politicians "populists" without really explaining much. What they have in common is a distinctly different view of democracy as we Europeans have known it since World War II: No old parties, no Euro currency, perhaps no Europe. Back to old-fashioned nationalism.
Looking a bit further we can see several countries that are already practicing this different kind of democracy. Their approach is following the example shown in the past by the great magician: Silvio Berlusconi. First step: when your country is in trouble or turmoil present yourself as the saviour and win the elections. Once power is yours, establish control over as many media as possible, above all television. Create a system of corrupt relationships permeating the entire society and economy. Make sure that as many influential people as possible are interested to keep you in power. Harass the opposition and critical non-governmental groups. Take control of the judiciary. Foster the economy and please the capitalists. Win the next election and all elections thereafter.
In improving on Berlusconi's time-honored strategy, Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin is successful in turning Russia into Putinia, particularly since his country never in its history experienced democracy, Western style. A few scattered opposition groups are heralding a model of governance and a life style which Russians cannot really imagine. As long as the economy is strong, Putin is safe.
One of his admirers is Viktor Mihály Orbán, Prime Minister of Hungary. In 2010 he gained power through elections. Since then he is busy strengthening the power base of his party Fidesz by applying all the rules established by Berlusconi and Putin, and inventing a few new ones such as an Internet tax. Although almost entirely surrounded by EU countries; he succeeded in turning Hungary into a virtual island. Like Putin, his success results to a good deal from nationalism. Both Russia and Hungary are nostalgic of their former hegemonial role. Large minorities of ethnic Russians and Magyars are living in neighboring countries and can be used to create trouble and boost patriotic sentiment at home. Like Russia, Hungary never really experienced a successful Western-style democracy. The two post-communist decades saw a succession of weak and partly dishonest governments which opened the door to Fidesz and its even more right-wing fellow traveler Jobbik. Firm control of the media, suppression of opposing forces, corrupt clientelism and rampant nationalism are the main pillars of Orbánia. Its main weaknesses are the economy and Hungary's international reputation, which is in tatters.
Economic progress is the reason for the astonishing success of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan as Prime Minister and now President of Turkey. A series of military coups and, as in Hungary, a succession of weak and corrupt governments prepared the ground for the increasingly authoritarian rule of Erdoğan and his unique combination of Islamism and nationalism. He succeeded in weakening the military. Dozens of the top brass were convicted of having plotted against the government. He survived a massive corruption scandal which involved his own family. Like in Russia, about 80 percent of Turks are convinced that the judiciary is a tool of the government. Like many top politicians coming from modest origins, Erdoğan appears narcissistic and is highly irascible. He ordered a new presidential 1.000 room palace built in Ankara which he know proudly occupies, a residence exceeding Buckingham Palace in size.
Erdoğan's two-pronged political strategy is based on nationalism and Sunni islamism. He asked Turkish women to have at least three children for the population to continue growing rapidly. However, Turkey's competitor as a regional power, Iran, urged women to have five children. Erdoğan tries to retain firm control of Turks and their descendants abroad and sees himself as protector of all peoples of Turkic origin, plus all other Sunnitic peoples once ruled over by the Ottoman empire. Which included Syria and Iraq. Small wonder that Erdoğan gained the moniker "sultan".
Like Putin and Orbán, Erdoğan is relentlessly busy strengthening his power base. Like them he is overdoing it. While part of the population -- the nationalists and Islamists -- are cheering him, another part is getting increasingly annoyed by his self-indulgence combined with the blunders it creates.
All three of them satisfy their peoples' obvious desire to have a "strong" man at the helm in a period of trouble and transition. But none of these leaders seems able to recognize when "strength" becomes oppression. Particularly sensitive is the religious aspect. Although Turkey is predominantly Sunnitic, Erdoğan's pursuit of Muslim Brothers' goals inside and outside his country -- for instance his staunch defense of former Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi -- is alienating religious minorities and secularists, as well as foreign observers. In Hungary it is the government's policy of promoting magyarism which goes against all ethnic and linguistic minorities from Slovak and Croat to Romani and Jews. What these leaders have in common: they cater for the majority which is pious, nationalistic and xenophobic.
Although their power base appears strong and reliable they tend to get in trouble by overdoing it. Hungarian demonstrators forced Orbán to withdraw, at least temporarily, his legislation to tax Internet use. Putin angered Russians by having to accept painful Western sanctions and imposing his own even more painful counter-sanctions. Erdoğan, trying to hush up the corruption scandal engulfing ministers and his own kin, got into a dogfight with Fethullah Gülen, the spiritual leader of a powerful "parallel structure" permeating all sectors of Turkish society. The Erdoğan-Gülen conflict reminds of the battles between medieval popes and emperors. In trying to become both emperor and pope, Erdoğan has broken the ties with his old companion and teacher who is cautiously living in exile and will take revenge when opportunity arises.
In conclusion: we are faced with a new derivative of democracy. Originating and possibly re-confirmed through elections, the Putinia- Orbánia-Erdoğstan model resembles a dictatorship based on broad popular support. Since the ruling party gains control of all public institutions and the media it remains an open question how much of public support is due to manipulation of public opinion and would vanish once manipulation ceases. This question has dogged Italy during the Berlusconi years. Even today the power of his television networks is unchallenged. Since TV is still the main source of information for most Italians, the great manipulator is busy watching the Tiber river in Rome, "waiting for the corpse of prime minister Renzi to float past" and then try to grab power again.
Once democracy has become hostage of a nationalistic, opportunistic or religious manipulator it is exceedingly difficult to get rid of him (or her). Foreign pressure is helpful but insufficient to bring about change. War or natural disaster are likely to strengthen rather than trouble the manipulator. Only a major economic crisis can force a manipulator to step down, at least temporarily, as in the case of Berlusconi. This could lead to the downfall of Orbán since Hungary's economy is already very fragile. Much stronger is Russia's economy, to the advantage of Putin. Erdoğan is riding on the crest of a wave of economic success and is perhaps the least endangered of the three. Unless Gülen succeeds in undermining him.
Heinrich von Loesch
His goal is not to turn Turkey from democracy to dictatorship but from democracy to Islamic democracy, which happens to look a lot like dictatorship but is helal.