Modi and Erdoğan: strong leaders putting their democracies in peril

Power talks. EPA/TYAGI

At the beginning of May, Turkey’s president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s first post-referendum foreign visit was to meet India’s prime minister Narendra Modi. Despite Erdoğan’s controversial pro-Pakistan statement just before the trip, the pair were pictured sharing friendly hugs as they vowed to tackle terrorism and extend economic relations.

As they did so, it was hard not to notice the similarities between the political journeys of these two strongmen – and what is happening to their countries. Both have been using religion to cling to power, and pushing back the secular fabric of Indian and Turkish politics.

Both are right wingers who employ nationalist rhetoric, and both became politically stronger as they sought to polarise the multicultural societies they govern. Modi and Erdoğan also claim to be reforming the stagnating economies of their respective countries, turning them into “rising global powers”.

The two leaders come from modest economic and educational backgrounds, but have successfully adopted “strong man” images which are extremely appealing to their respective constituencies. They brand the long established political workings of their countries as elitist, and promote populist policies. The strong resemblance of the two leaders has not gone unnoticed.

Erdoğan is a product of political Islam in Turkey, which was pushed back under the earlier secular regimes for decades. He came to power with the ambitious ideal of changing the very character of the nation. And he has slowly but surely achieved his goal.

His party, the AKP (Justice and Development Party) gained sweeping victories in elections, and in 2014 he was elected as president in a referendum. Since then, Turkey has gone into democratic reverse, becoming an increasingly authoritarian country. Civil rights have been undermined and the country is more polarised than ever. Increasing communal violence during election periods is just one example.

The Modi-led Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) also came to power in 2014, motivated by the agenda of “Hindutva”, the notion that India is the homeland of Hindus only. Since Modi became prime minister, minority groups, particularly Muslims and Christians, have been regularly attacked and are living in a very hostile environment. Modi supporters have stepped up their campaign against inter-religious marriages and the eating of beef. Mass conversions to Hinduism are enforced by his party activists.

Both in India and Turkey, the authoritarian tendencies of these two leaders have brought serious danger to democracy and human rights.

Modi’s dominant style of leadership has reduced the scope of dissent. Activists are also voicing concerns over the intensifying climate of religious intolerance and political interference in academic and cultural institutions. In response, the state is using coercive powers to suppress opposition on the pretext of national security and Indian identity.

In Turkey, ever since the attempted coup in July 2016, human rights violations have became ever more visible. As soon as the putsch was quashed, a state of emergency was declared (it has been almost a year now). Emergency decrees have been used to purge thousands of members of any kind of opposition. Academics, journalists and politicians have been dismissed from their positions, arrested or silenced.

Anti-coup protestors in Turkey. EPA/SUNA

As in India, these purges have been conducted under the pretext of national security. Many civil society organisations have been banned from receiving foreign funding and forced to close down. The media is under constant pressure to be subservient to the regime. The referendum which gave Erdoğan even more executive powers as president changed the regime of Turkey from a parliamentary to a presidential one.

Two of a kind

Erdoğan is not prepared to let go of power, nor is he shy about letting the world know that he does not care about what the “West” thinks. He is more interested in forming alliances in the East, and happy to ignore Western criticisms about human rights and democracy.

Despite the similarities between the two leaders and the changes they are making, India is better placed than Turkey in terms of freedom and democracy. Democracy watchdog Freedom House defines Turkey as a “partly free” country where there is no press freedom, while it defines India as a free country with a partly free press. According to the World Democracy Index, Turkey is a hybrid regime while India is defined as a flawed democracy.

Modi fans. EPA/SINGH

Compared to Turkey, then, India has a better democratic framework – but it is under constant threat. Modi is continuing to win key state-level elections. His party is on the verge of gaining a majority in the upper house of the parliament and having one of its members elected president. A lack of effective opposition and a subservient national media are helping Modi on his way. The future of the country’s democracy is seen by many as high risk .

Erdoğan and Modi have seriously damaged the secular character of their countries and managed to centralise power in their own hands. Both countries have previously been examples of modern states with secular values. But the rapid deterioration of democracy in Turkey and India now poses serious challenges for peace and stability in their respective regions. No doubt the two men will meet again soon – they have plenty in common, and much to discuss.

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