NEW YORK – Many historians and economists insist that we live in an age shaped by vast and impersonal forces. The actions and decisions of one man or woman, no matter how powerful, cannot determine the destiny of nations. This may be true much or most of the time. But there are moments when an individual leader’s choices can change the course of history. That has certainly been true in Russia, and it may soon turn out to be true in Turkey as well.
In Russia, the very existence of the regime constructed by President Vladimir Putin can be traced to a single decision taken by a single man, Boris Yeltsin, for purely personal reasons. As Yeltsin prepared to stand down as Russia’s first democratically elected president, he sought a successor who would protect his personal safety and wealth, and that of his family, in his dotage. Putin, the gray ex-KGB man, seemed much better equipped to fill that role than more democratically inclined figures like, say, Sergei Stepashin, another of Yeltsin’s prime ministers, who had showed little enthusiasm for the First Chechen War in 1994.
Yeltsin’s choice may have fit his personal agenda, but it consigned Russia to a return to authoritarianism. In a sense, then, Yeltsin was responsible both for opening Russia to a democratic future and for closing that chapter in the country’s history.
Turkey’s future, too, is now seemingly in the hands of one man: former President Abdullah Gül. With Turkish voters headed to the polls on November 1 for the country’s second general election this year, Gül must decide whether to stand behind President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. His choice may determine whether Turkey remains on a democratic path or veers toward a future shaped by Erdoğan’s own brand of Putinism.
Gül has been placed in this critical position because, in the last election, held in June, Erdoğan’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) failed to win a governing majority, much less the constitutional majority that would enable Erdoğan to transform Turkey’s parliamentary system into a presidential one.
After the election, the AKP went through the motions of seeking to forge a coalition that could form a government – an effort that many speculate Erdoğan sabotaged, so that he could call new elections. Now that new elections have been called, Erdoğan is using nationalist appeals, and even the suggestion of actual war against a national minority, the Kurds, to propel his party to victory. This rhetoric is reminiscent of Putin’s bellicose stance during the Second Chechen War in 1999, which boosted his popularity considerably, helping to make him a viable contender to succeed Yeltsin.
Erdoğan once claimed that democracy is “like a train,” in that “when you reach your destination, you get off” – a simile with which Putin would undoubtedly agree. For both leaders, democratic systems are little more than blunt tools that can be used to advance one’s personal ambitions, and then discarded at will.
But there is one big difference between Putin and Erdoğan. Once Yeltsin was out of the way, Putin was dependent on no other figure; he was master of the Kremlin, the ultimate arbiter of disputes among the rival figures and clans of the post-Soviet Russian elite. Erdoğan, by contrast, had a partner in forming the AKP: Gül. And Gül, unlike Yeltsin, has retained a powerful and loyal political following since leaving office.
When the AKP – which advocated a moderate form of Islamist politics that challenged the secularism that had prevailed since modern Turkey’s founding – won its first election in 2002, it was Gül who served as Prime Minister, because Erdoğan was banned from holding political office at the time. The economic reforms and other liberalizing measures undertaken under Gül’s leadership led many people to believe that the AKP was creating a form of Islamist politics akin to that of European Christian Democracy.
But when Erdoğan took over as Prime Minister in 2003, Gül was effectively shunted into the shadows (Turkey’s presidency at the time was a largely ceremonial office). And as Erdoğan, like Putin, concentrated power in his own hands, Gül’s social and economic achievements began to be dismantled. No one speaks of the AKP anymore as a model for Muslim democrats to follow. And, indeed, many senior AKP members who helped Gül’s government to succeed have left – or been driven from – the party.
In his book Profiles in Courage, John F. Kennedy wrote that, in politics, there comes a moment when “a man must do what he must – in spite of personal consequences, in spite of obstacles and dangers, and pressures.” For Gül, that moment is now.
Gül can remain silent and watch his former friend and political partner follow in Putin’s authoritarian footsteps, making a mockery of his own efforts to show the world that Islam can coexist with democracy, modernity, and tolerance. Or he can speak out against Erdoğan’s plans, thereby helping to preserve his life’s work and, even more important, his country’s democratic system. Such a profile in courage is precisely what Turkey needs today.
Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2015.
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