France and Turkey Show That Liberal Democracies Struggle for Survival

Despite living under a prolonged state of emergency, citizens of Turkey and France went to polls that can radically alter direction of both countries. Results confirm that the established liberal democratic model of governance continues to face lethal challenges. Results confirm that the established liberal democratic model of governance continues to face lethal challenges.

Turkish voters were asked to approve constitutional changes that the opposition calls a power grab by President Erdogan. The main changes proposed would introduce a presidential system and erase several key checks and balances, raising the fear that Turkey’s short-lived plural democracy is coming to the end.

The referendum was organized under conditions that were strongly condemned by international observers. Almost a year after an attempted coup d’etat, Turkey remains in a state of emergency. At the same time, it is involved in a messy conflicts in Syria and with domestic Kurdish insurgents. Moreover, years of aggressive persecution of independent media prevented opposition from effectively addressing Turkish public. The changes were approved with the thinnest possible majority (51-49%) with a lingering suspicion of voting fraud.

A week later, France voted in the first round of the presidential election. Its winner Emmanuel Macron is sometimes called the “French Justin Trudeau” for his young age and uncompromisingly liberal positions. Given his strong advocacy of open borders, free trade and European integration, France seemed to resist the move towards illiberalism sweeping through the world recently.

However, that perception was deceptive. Macron won the first round and is an overwhelming favourite for overall victory. But he was the only major candidate that ran on a liberal platform. Extreme-right and extreme-left candidates that explicitly wish to close borders to trade and/or migration gained combined 40% of votes. Marine Le Pen, whose party has a history of holocaust denial, attacks on foreigners and extreme nationalism, gained only 4% less votes than Macron and will face him in the second round.

The sharp divide between the friends and enemies of liberal democracy in the two major NATO member countries show that the populist uprisings in 2016 were not one-off events but part of a fierce battle over the character of our societies that rages all around the world. In Turkey, liberal democracy seems to have lost. In France it is likely to survive another round. But for how long?

Karl Popper in his The Poverty of Historicism well explains why claims of “historical inevitability” are fundamentally unscientific and likely false. Indeed, the ongoing deterioration of democracy, social liberties and press freedom in Western and non-Western countries may well be reversed eventually. However, the scary abyss is getting closer.

By the way, who was the only Western leader that called Erdogan to “congratulate him on the referendum victory”? The same US President that backhandedly endorsed Le Pen on Twitter.

Marine Le Pen surrounded by allied European extreme-right leaders

Marine Le Pen surrounded by allied European extreme-right leaders