Democracy is under threat. From Vienna to Washington, Caracas to Istanbul, men with scant regard for the institutions that uphold democracy have been elected, threatening civic freedoms not just in their own countries, but setting dangerous precedents for others to follow. Could it happen here?
The number of true democracies in the world raised slowly for the first few decades after the end of World War Two, accelerated through the seventies with the last vestiges of Western colonisation gaining their independence, and with the overthrow of many of the dictators in Western Europe and South America. It sped up further after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989.
But the number of people living in true democracies is now in decline.
A recent report by the ‘V-Dem Institute’ in Gothenburg states that while the majority of the world’s population lives under democratic rule, democratic qualities were in decline in 24 countries across the world in 2017, including India and the Unites States, impacting 2.5 billion people.
V-Dem (short for Varieties of Democracy) makes the important point that the threats come mainly from non-electoral aspects of democracy such as media freedom, freedom of expression and the rule of law. And as history has shown the biggest threats to democracy almost always comes from within. We should never forget that Adolf Hitler was democratically elected. As was Recep Tayyip Erdogan – the President of Turkey.
Erdogan was Prime Minister of Turkey from 2003 to 2014, when he was elected President. The role of President used to be a Head of State with largely ceremonial powers, but following a referendum in 2017 the Turkish Constitution was changed to vest all executive powers of government with the President, and eliminating the role of the Prime Minister.
In Turkey referendums to change the Constitution require only a simple majority, a result of an earlier change initiated by Erdogan in 2007 – he is clearly a man who plays the long game. In some democracies a two-third majority is required, a measure that helps to protect against partisan and purely politically motivated changes.
From an inauspicious beginning as a minority party leader 15 years ago, Erdogan is now the autocratic ruler of a country with a population the size of Germany. There have certainly been rumblings of electoral tampering from time to time, but overall he has achieved his position of unprecedented power through free elections.
The 2017 referendum was ‘inspired’ by the failed – and some say staged by Erdogan himself – coup d’etat of 2016. The coup lead to the inevitable declaration of a state of emergency, in turn an excuse to arrest more than 200 journalists and close over one hundred media outlets. Since then, it’s gone from bad to worse, with a systematic crackdown on opposing voices – more than 50,000 people have been arrested and many more have lost their jobs on spurious grounds.
Once an advocate for reconciliation with the oppressed Kurdish minority, Erdogan’s government is now actively and openly persecuting anyone not of the Islamic faith. With the pretext of “protecting the country from terrorists”.
All this and more is made possible by other constitutional changes that in effect makes it illegal for ‘The Grand National Assembly of Turkey’ (parliament) to investigate the executive branch of government; which is led by a president who also has the power to dissolve parliament and appoint judges.
Within a few years Turkey has gone from a largely democratic country to a virtual dictatorship.
It is a classic case of manipulating the foundation of democracy – elections – to break the three pillars that uphold it – the legislature, the courts and the executive. The fourth pillar – freedom of the press – becomes collateral damage in the process. Erdogan has masterfully used democracy to become a leader with a free reign to do as he pleases more or less unopposed.
So could this happen here?
To start with, our constitution has proved itself to be quite resistant to change. Since federation in 1901, only 8 of 44 referendums have been carried.
But as a result, our constitution (an act of British Parliament, not our own) is full of clauses no longer relevant. It includes provisions for the power of the sovereign (in London) that an Erdogan would find quite convenient; such as article 59 which states that “The Queen may disallow any law within one year … and such disallowance … shall annul the law …”.
The convention of the venerable Westminster system dictates that this doesn’t happen, but it is nevertheless an example of the inadequacy of our constitutional protection.
More importantly, our constitution does not explicitly regulate the separation of powers. Nor are the fundamental rights that underpin democracy mentioned: freedom of speech, equal treatment before the law and the presumption of innocence, the right to and protection of privacy, freedom of association, non-discrimination and equal right to education and work.
We may take those for granted, but they are not protected fully against an opportunistic strong-man (or woman) in Canberra. We have seen several examples in recent years of new laws that directly contravene the principle of free speech – the Border Force Act is one example.
We have a potential future prime minister (Peter Dutton) who callously disregards the importance of human rights. We have members of Parliament who clearly does not even understand how democracy works (Pauline Hanson and others). We have a government who uses fear and (for now) vocal intimidation as their weapon against anyone who disagrees with them. Our government’s persecution of the weakest of the weak – refugees – remains largely unopposed by a tepid Labour party too afraid of a voter backlash. A weak opposition is always one of the enablers for the usurpers of the rights of others. As it was in Turkey.
We may be a long way from the Bosporus, and we are a mostly secular nation not mired in religious dogma. We have a long tradition of democracy and of defending it, including from the Ottoman Turks at Gallipoli. We have strong and largely independent courts. We are a multi-cultural country with a robust and diverse press not easily silenced.
But we still cannot afford to be complacent and be oblivious to the totalitarian trends in other parts of the world. Whilst European leaders continue to denounce Turkey, our major ally (the United States) is led by a ‘man’ who was the first to congratulate Erdogan on his most recent election ‘victory’!
But democracy is not just about winning elections. A properly instituted democracy is first and foremost about the protection of human rights. Reform of our constitution is long overdue. But before we get to that, we need to establish a Bill of Rights that once and for all enshrines democratic rights as the basis for how this country is governed and protect us from the Erdogan’s and the Trump’s of the world.