A tale of two systems: learning from the U.S. and Turkey’s responses to political violence

In Turkey, the 2016 attempted coup and President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s failed attempt to “fix” the 2019 municipal elections share several elements with the recent assault on and invasion of the U.S. Capitol.

All three were attempts to undo the democratic will as expressed through the ballot box. All three dramatically failed. All three resulted in the loss of honour, prestige, and political influence for their authors - the putschists and their allies of July 2016, President Erdoğan in March and June 2019, and President Trump in January 2021. All three failed because the people refused to acquiesce to the will of a relatively small number of actors. In all three cases, the people reaffirmed their commitment to electoral democracy, the rule of law, and principles of justice.

Yet, all is not well. In Turkey, President Erdoğan used the pretext of finding and punishing the coup plotters to punish opponents in the media, academia, and rival political parties, who no-one believes had anything to do with the coup. But a pliant judiciary did the president’s bidding.  And though he failed in his attempt to undo the election results in Istanbul and Ankara, the attempt shows how dangerous the concentration of unchecked power in the hands of one political leader can be.

In the United States, President Donald Trump’s frivolous legal challenges and then political machinations to thwart the will of the electorate reminded Americans how fortunate we are to have checks on the power of one political leader, especially an independent judiciary whose judges enjoy life tenure.

Another one of those checks is the U.S. vice-president. Unlike other systems, the U.S. vice-president is not subordinate to the president, having been elected in their own right. Mike Pence’s refusal to go along with President Trump’s efforts to reverse votes ended any pretence that Joe Biden had not won the election. He derives this ability to act independently from the fact he is not appointed by the president or subordinate to him - he is, like the president, subordinate to the Constitution and through it, the people.

The rush to impeachment on the charge of “incitement to insurrection” without calling any witnesses or citing any evidence of an “insurrection” is revealing. For President Trump’s failure to condemn unreservedly the assault on the Capitol building and the interruption of the business of Congress was a dereliction of duty. A failure to execute faithfully the laws of the United States, his primary obligation as the chief executive of the U.S., would be a much stronger and almost irrefutable charge. Incitement to commit a crime will be hard to prove - as it always is in the U.S. justice system.

But House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and her allies needed to get the word insurrection into the air.  They knew that the media would amplify the characterisation of Jan. 6 as an insurrection, instead of as a riot, or causing mayhem, or some other less fear-inducing term. Some in the media went as far as to use the term “coup” to refer to Jan. 6 events - my Turkish friends have endured a coup or coups - Jan. 6 was not a coup attempt. 

Most alarming in the U.S., there are already hysterical voices in the Democratic Party calling for the punishment of anyone that supported President Trump. These are borrowing a page from the post-coup Erdoğan script - as Rahm Emmanuel said, never let a crisis go to waste. This is not about the perpetrators of the assault - the U.S. justice system will subject them to the full force of the law - but concerns anyone who voted for President Trump. They are all now suspect in the eyes of the radical left in the U.S.

Which brings me back to Turkey. Only the success of the coup plotters in July 2016 could have been worse in circumscribing personal liberty, freedom of speech, freedom of the press, and the concentration of power in one pair of hands than the numerous states of emergency that followed - ostensibly to protect the Republic and the people of Turkey.

For though the Turkish people put up with many restrictions to ensure a coup could never be attempted again, they would not give up their right to choose their leaders. Try as he might by compelling the election commission to order a re-running of the elections, President Erdoğan was rebuffed in his efforts to fix the mayoral elections in Istanbul and Ankara. 

The people spoke, and spoke more assertively and clearly than before. And among those voices were the election workers, committed to recording and reporting accurately the votes expressed. In this way, the U.S. and Turkish electoral systems have a great commonality - thousands of dedicated election workers who would not allow themselves to be bullied out of doing their jobs honestly and properly.

Back to the United States. Will the most extremists, power-hungry elements of the Democratic Party be able to stifle dissent, differing political views, and silence 75 million U.S. citizens who voted for Donald Trump in November 2020 by labelling them enablers of the “Insurrectionist-in-Chief”?  Will they be able to increase their power by reducing civil liberties as Erdoğan did in the pretext of protecting the Republic? I hope not.

As former U.S. President George Bush reportedly said: the events of Jan. 6 do not define the United States; how we respond will.

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.