On liberal democracy, elections, and Turkey with Francis Fukuyama

"Democratically inclined people in Turkey really have to concentrate on coalition building and coming up with the program that is actually going to be popular if they do succeed in coming to power."

Political scientist Prof. Dr. Francis Fukuyama from Stanford University connected online to the Second Economic Congress of the Century in Izmir and gave a speech on the crisis of liberal democracies in the world and the opportunities that the 2023 elections could provide for Turkey. We interviewed Fukuyama, whose thesis 'The End of History and the Last Man' marked an era, immediately after his speech.

Abdullah Esin

Hello Prof. Fukuyama, thanks so much for talking to us, Aposto. I have just listened to your speech at Congress for Future’s Economy. You are one of the prominent figures of liberal democracy and mostly known by your historical book “The End of History”. As you have mentioned in your speech, liberal democracy is in crisis throughout the World. The number of autocracies is on the rise while liberal democracies are falling. How do you analyze the current struggle of liberal democracy? What are the main dynamics behind the crisis of democracy? What the democrats should do to restore the liberal democracy in the world?

Well, there are several different threats to liberal democracy. There is a geopolitical threat right now that is exemplified by Russia and China. That has turned into a military threat with the Russian invasion of Ukraine. So, I think that is important at a geopolitical level to show these countries that they can’t get away with attacking democracy using military force, to deter future attempts to use force in a similar way. I think the one people are worrying most is China attacking Taiwan in the same way Russia attacked Ukraine.

But for other countries, in particular for Turkey, the struggle is internal, domestic one. The main issue is winning elections. I think there is an opportunity for Turkish democracy to make a comeback if the opposition can actually organize well enough to win the upcoming election.

This is the same issue for us in the United States. The only way that we are going to defeat our form of populism is by winning elections. I think the election last November was good for the democracy in America, because a lot of the pro-Trump populist candidates lost their election bids. I think something like that needs to happen in every country where elections are still possible.

Unfortunately, there are a lot of countries where authoritarianism has consolidated to the point that there really are not meaningful elections. In those cases, there are much longer-term struggle going on. I don’t think Turkey is there yet, so you got an opportunity to use the ballot box to reverse the kind of trends we have seen in the last decade.

If the pro-democracy opposition in Turkey would win the election, what do you think about the challenges they might face? Will it be easy to restore democracy?

It is going to be a huge challenge. The first challenge is going to be economic. Turkey has an incredibly high rate of inflation that brought on deliberately by Erdoğan’s crazy monetary policy. I think there is a budget deficit and it need to rein in the money supply.

Those are all going to be very painful measures, because interest rates are going to have to go up. It is likely to trigger a recession. That is going to be very bad for the incoming government to have to deal with this legacy.

Unfortunately to some extent, it can’t be avoided. Because, Turkey’s economy is heading in the wrong direction. Unless there is a big shift in the policy, it is going to continue to deteriorate.

But there are other aspects of democratic governance that are important. What I said in my talk is that, what people want out of democracy is in a way very local and oriented towards service which governments are expected to provide. The failure to respond adequately to the earthquake was damaging to the current government. So a new government needs to make sure that it has the authority to actually build roads, make sure the electricity stays on and all of these relatively day to day activities that may not seem very dramatic but are really what in the end people want a democratically accountable government to provide for them. I would say that focus needs to be there.

I want to ask a question about the election strategy of the opposition. In Turkey,, the pro-democracy opposition from very different ideologies is trying to defeat the authoritarian populist government by forming a wide alliance. Same election strategy failed in Hungary against Orban, but the same strategy worked in Israel against Netanyahu. However, in that case, we have seen the comeback of Netanyahu as a result of the internal disagreements in the coalition. Do you think forming a wide democratic alliance is a sustainable and successful option to defeat authoritarianism?

There is no alternative. You are not going to restore democracy unless you gain political power. Right now, the only way of gaining political power is through winning an election. You are not going to win an election unless you got this kind of broad coalition. Just because it did not work in Hungary and in few other places does not mean it’s a failing strategy.

Democratically inclined people in Turkey really have to concentrate on coalition building and coming up with the program that is actually going to be popular if they do succeed in coming to power.

In your speech, you mentioned the importance of a common national identity to restore democracy. Nationalism and national identity have always been a conflict area in Turkey because of secularism debate and also because of the Kurdish issue. How do you think we can build a common national identity without falling to the trap of an ethnic or religious conflict?

As I said, I don’t think that national identity in Turkey should be built around religion. That was one of Atatürk’s great contribution to redefine a Turkish nationalism that was not based in religion.

You know the reasons for that, the religion is a very divisive issue. That is what divides many of the countries in the Middle East. Even if they are majority Muslim, there are huge splits within the world of Islam. In Turkey, you have a major split between religious people and secular people. So, if you base national identity on religion, you are going to inevitably have a huge internal social conflict. That’s really the reason that liberalism is created in the first place.

Liberalism aroused in Europe in the middle of the 17th century, after Europe’s wars of religion. Europeans spent 150 years killing each other over whether they are Protestant or Catholic. They were all Christians but they had this sectarian division. Liberalism was created in order to allow people to live in religiously diverse societies. I believe that is what Turkey needs to have.

How do you see the current relations between Turkey and the European Union? Turkey’s EU membership ideal was a part of the democratization process. Do you think there will be another rounds of negotiations after the election if opposition wins? Or is it too late already after the years of destruction?

Well I think that it is going to take a while before Europe is ready to consider Turkey again. First of all, assuming that the democratic forces win the election, there is still going to be a lot of uncertainty about how stable the coalition will be, whether there will be a return of Erdoğan and anti-democratic forces.

Until it is clear that Turkey has returned to a stable democratic path, I think Europe is probably going to be reluctant. The other problem right now is that there is a lot of competition to get in to the EU, there are a lot Eastern European countries which have been waiting for years such as Ukraine and Moldova. A lot of existing member countries are reluctant to accept new members until they are more sure of what are the politics of the new members.

Hungary is an important one, it was seen as a stable democracy and entered the EU. Since then it became an autocratic government and the EU hasn’t really got a mechanism to deal with that kind of backsliding. EU is going to be very careful about taking in any new members, not just Turkey.

My last question is about the globe. I don’t know if you agree but in Global North, the rise of the right-wing populism is seen as the result of negative consequences of globalization. In the Global South, the reason is seen as the the rise of a neo-middle class. But the result is the same in both hemispheres of the globe. Why and how different consequences of globalization have produced the same result, as the rise of the right-wing populism?

Actually, I think it is not just the difference between the Global South and North. There are many different varieties of populism. The classic form of populism was a left wing populism. You still see that in many places. In Latin America for instance, you have a number of populist presidents who have been elected, in Chile, Colombia, Peru. They are not like European populists. They are traditional people, worry about economic inequality. That is also true in many parts of the Global South.

The other think is that there is resentment to western domination of the global economy. That is not necessarily ideological but it is the experience of colonialism and the past several decades of western policies. It made people unhappy that the west continues to dominate global institutions.

All of those are separate reasons and I don’t think you are going to cure them with a single solution.

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Bartu Özden

Politics editor @ Aposto


Weekly politics publication focusing on Turkey, city agendas, and international policy.