Turkey and Poland are two geographically unrelated countries. The roots of their history and the present state of their governments are unrelated. They do form an emerging political mosaic that allows us to see into the future: an unhealthy nationalistic surge, and a domestic repressive political climate, and a “me” mentality. These conditions have created a danger to the dynamics of any form of democracy not only for the citizens of these two countries but will be the seeds seized upon to impact their neighbors and ultimately our own national security interests. We see that moment in the rhetoric of our President and the acts of his ministers.
In Poland, during and after the German occupation in WWII, neither the people nor its government were anything but hostile toward minority groups. Some thought that when Lech Walesa came to govern in 1980, the country was on a path to democratic reform. Democracy ebbed and flowed during which the Country became a member of the EU and NATO. In 2015, the picture changed. As in the United States presidential election, Poland moved hard right and, in doing so, turned the Polish democracy on its head. In its latest move, the ruling party –Law and Justice—did the unthinkable in a democracy and ended the Country’s judicial independence. In a decisive move, the governing political party purged an overwhelming number of judges. It is tantamount to the Republican party dismissing those Justices on the Supreme Court they found to be counterproductive to their platform. In Poland, Judges who were not considered loyal to the ruling party were dismissed and replaced by those who were. Sound familiar?
Turkey, Istanbul, was once a beautiful country and city to visit. A country that was known for its marvelous array of spices, food and antiquities of wonder. A country that has moved from a democratic state to what could be defined as a dictatorship wrapped in a democratic election. Notwithstanding its present political stance and leadership, it is embraced by the United States because of geopolitical necessity in a troubled area of the world.
When we visited Turkey, it was a democratic nation-state. Today it is not. How did the country move so dramatically away from its democratic roots? What prompted its people to change their chant from democracy to embracing a man who was permitted to destroy an open, independent press? Turkey became a hard right Muslim nation and experienced a childish, attempted coup that failed. 150 members of the press have been arrested, and the working conditions of the press were best described in a report from Reporters Without Borders. Just three years ago, it ranked Turkey 149 out of 189 countries that support a free press. That ranking placed Turkey between two countries– one a failed state (Congo) and the other where journalists are regularly utilized as targets for murder (Mexico).
Turkey is a country where judges are indiscriminately rounded up and arrested by the Government. Where thousands of high ranking officers in the military either escape to another country or are arrested for alleged treason. Where thousands of police officers and hundreds of academicians were fired from their jobs with their passports confiscated. The Guardian has reported that the Turkish President has dismissed thousands of state employees under a so-called emergency decree for alleged connection to terrorist groups. At last count 130,000 people have been dismissed from their jobs with their passports confiscated during this period
The Associated Press has reported, as I am writing this commentary, that the state of emergency declared by newly reelected President Erdogen, after the failed coup and that has been in place for two years will be lifted. The emergency rule allowed the government to bypass parliament on all key issues. The latest nail in the democratic life of the people of Turkey is that the so-called “democratically” elected president’s role will be transferred to that of an “executive presidency” (no checks and balance in his authoritative control).There will be a completely revamped charter providing him greater authority as its president. In his latest decree the President has abolished the office of the Prime Minister. He will draft the budget and, as noted, chose the judges and have the ability to dismiss the Parliament at will. All this occurring as 12 non-governmental organizations, three newspapers and one television station were shuttered.
Despite the government’s decision to lift the state of emergency, a close look at the proposed statutes that will replace the emergency decree does nothing more than maintain the repressive status quo. The new laws would still allow the government to detain its citizens for an extended period without a criminal charge. The pending legislation would also give the government the power to stop people from leaving the country or traveling freely within the country. And to tighten control further, if you were “considered” a threat, you could be removed from your state job with your passport confiscated. To tighten control even further, if a person’s rights were revoked, the government had the right to penalize one’s spouse.
Clearly, the history in Poland, in the specifics, differs from that in Turkey. That is not the point. The point is that individual rights in both countries are being circumscribed by an elected government. The individual citizen, in both of these countries, has forfeited their rights through an election process. A process that has been cherished for generations, and that has been the method by which we elect a person who will respect and protect all of us. Where their story converges, is the lack of civility and spear point of those running for elected office. The aim of their political campaigns was to target the lowest common denominator—the masses. To demine and ridicule those least able to defend themselves. To promise anything and all things, rational or not for one voting group after another. Civility and truth was not a hallmark, and when a candidate’s approach was lacking in civility and honesty, it became permission for all to act similarly. The elections in Poland and Turkey did not become a debate about values but one of intolerance, bigotry, self-interest and in the end dishonesty. The mob won.
It matters not which way I turn, the sign posted is held high: “Me First”. What does that mean and at what cost to each of us? Why has the vocal majority become so angry and in turn vengeful? Why do we tell people— “go back to where you came from” — based on their language or color of their skin, their tribe or religion? All of us, at one time or another, other than the American Indian (and even they did not somehow materialize out of nowhere on this continent), came from “somewhere” else. Seventy years ago, my father told a black person, who was ill and could not afford to consult with a private physician, that a good alternative would be a doctor in an emergency room of a very fine nearby hospital. He was admonished: “I aint gonna sit on any bench next to a spick!” Why the anger and why the disgust? And that was seventy years ago.
The mob language today is often accompanied by threats of violence. What little civility and tolerance that exits is mocked and ridiculed by our leaders and chanted by the crowd turned mob. We are discarding and crippling the usual barriers that were a natural support of civility. The barriers that held us within permissible conduct are ignored by those in power and that conduct filters down to those who feel empowered, or believing they have been rejected or ignored thru the decades, and its “now their turn”. The crowd then becomes the catalyst for greater unacceptable behavior by the leaders. So, in Poland, the latest attack is against an independent judiciary, and it is destroyed; in Turkey, unless you are likeminded your rights and freedom are evaporated.
One is hard pressed to look at the international scene and find a country that is welcoming without conditions. And as we turn inward and view our own political system, there are those among us who today, and this is difficult to comprehend, openly support the candidacy of an avowed Nazi, a holocaust denier and a white nationalist, each running for elected office under the banner of an American flag and a national political party. How did that happen?
Two countries, Poland and Turkey, two different histories and cultures, and yet the more they are different, the more they seem the same, and the deadly infection they breed is spreading. And it is here.