Op-Ed

In a world of populist tyrants, this still was a good week for democracy | Opinion

Ekrem Imamoglu, who opposes Turkish strongman Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, won 54 percent of the June 23 vote to become mayor of Istanbul.
Ekrem Imamoglu, who opposes Turkish strongman Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, won 54 percent of the June 23 vote to become mayor of Istanbul. AP

Democracy goes through ups and downs, even experiencing recessions like the stock market. This is a particularly tough time for democracies around the world, with some places once judged to have turned the corner on their authoritarian past coming back as bigger, badder, anti-democratic governments. Hungary, Poland, Italy, Russia, the Philippines and several other countries are riding on the edge of populist electoral sentiment.

This week, however, was a particularly good one for people yearning to be free. It was an especially good week for those wanting to keep or to take back their government. Three nations showed us the way: Turkey, Ethiopia and the Czech Republic.

Let’s face it, democracies around the world are getting challenged by dictators and demagogues. My Hoover Institution colleague Larry Diamond’s new book, “Ill Winds,” assesses this abysmal global state of democracy, finding that these ill winds are whipping up “Russian rage, Chinese ambition, and American complacency.”

Diamond argues that, “After three decades in which democracy was spreading and another in which it was stagnating and slowly eroding, we are now witnessing a global retreat from freedom.” Together, he and I research China’s current global challenge to democratic systems and norms while watching a growing global democratic backsliding. There’s plenty of bad news on this front.

But here’s the good news from this week: People and institutions are starting to fight back.

Let’s start by talking Turkey. Istanbul, to be precise. American ally and elected strongman Recep Tayyip Erdoğan runs the country with a steel will and a clenched fist. He specializes in imprisoning journalists, academics and anyone else who disagrees with his person and policies. He’s a tough SOB who runs the country like his own private Ottoman court.

Until last weekend.

Earlier this spring, the cosmopolitan residents of Istanbul, Turkey’s most important and Westernized city, barely succeeded in voting in an opposition mayor who promised to stand up to Erdogan’s rule. It was a stunning victory that shocked the nation’s president. So he nullified the election and called for a do-over. Needless to say, when popular political will is wantonly overturned, people get a little upset.

Last weekend, however, people power prevailed. Erdogan’s candidate got crushed. The margin was of landslide proportions. Chalk one more up for democracy, but Turks need to stay vigilant and watch their backs.

In Ethiopia, a groundbreaking and reform-minded young leader, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, is moving aggressively to achieve peace with neighboring Eritrea, check China’s increasingly influential investments and root out institutionalized state corruption. Some Ethiopian players feel threatened, especially certain ethnic groups and parts of the military with eroding power. The result: A group of officers staged a bloody coup d’etat over the weekend that succeeded in riling up regional and ethnic disgruntlement. They killed the head of Ethiopia’s armed forces. On a continent where military coups sweep in like the weather, the early stages of the coup looked like a potentially rough storm for Ahmed’s government. The good news? The coup storm kicked up some dust, caused some damage, but thankfully blew over quickly. The democracy held firm.

Finally, in the Czech Republic, a quarter of a million people amassed to protest the cavalier and corrupt Chancellor, Prime Minister Andrej Babis, a Putin-lite populist accused of siphoning-off European funds and appointing a national justice minister who will never indict him. Czechs have had enough of his manipulative and divisive politics, so they took to the streets last Sunday to show his party what democracy looks like. For those of us who covered the 1989 Velvet Revolution, it was a nostalgic and hopeful moment. Unfortunately for the demonstrators, no single opposition party or movement yet represents their frustrations and anger. Regardless, the first step to unity and power is stepping up to reclaim what’s lost.

That all happened this week. Other recent moves and movements around the globe show a rekindled demand for human dignity and rights. Mass demonstrations broke out in Hong Kong; there were electoral victories in Slovakia that also brought in the country’s first female president; and a shake-up in Sudan is showing signs of lasting change. Winds can, indeed, shift, and we are suddenly feeling a whisper of fair breezes and potentially calmer seas.

Demonstrations and defenders of democracy fought both complacency and the odds in Asia, Africa and Europe this week. In Miami, those presidential candidates debating America’s authoritarian tendencies these days made an argument for U.S. democracy, too.

The American electorate should look to recent world events for a reminder of how to be a brave and unified people. America is a young country, but an old democracy that is ever in need of renewal. We occasionally need others to goose our electoral tradition of voting our conscience and convictions. The 2020 elections must prove that we care as much about our own democracy as those who live in Prague, Istanbul and Addis Ababa care about theirs.

Markos Kounalakis covered war, revolution and peace in Europe, Asia, and the Americas and currently researches press freedom and democratic movements at the Hoover Institution.

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