The people of Hong Kong and Istanbul show the way

The rise and rise of authoritarians surrounded by mixtures of dirty money and fawning cronies in the media seems to have been a worldwide phenomenon in the last five years. From Brazil to India, from the USA to Russia, recent elections have been won by old men who dream of getting rid of elections altogether, as well as dismantling the checks and balances of the rule of law and democratic processes. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey has been a particularly successful autocrat, rewriting the constitution to centralise power while curtailing parliamentary oversight, as well as appointing members of his family to influential positions (such as Minister of Finance). In addition to the disturbing list of ”what might soon be ex-democracies” is the People’s Republic of China, where the Communist Party (CCP) – firmly in power since 1949 – exerts ever more spectacular efforts to keep the people subservient.

However, there are limits to this madness as large numbers of people in Hong Kong and Istanbul – two global cities – have shown in the last few weeks. Perhaps their protests will mark the beginning of the end for authoritarians delighting in the techniques of political repression. Perhaps not…[1]

Since British colonial rule ended in 1997 Hong Kong (with 7.5 million inhabitants) has been a special administrative region (SAR) of China; not an independent country, but with its own government, a multi-party parliament and a ”chief executive” at the top. But when the latest incumbent Ms. Carrie Lee, bowed to CCP pressure and proposed legislation to allow extradition of suspected criminals to the People’s Republic, the citizens of the ex-colony took to the streets. The upshot of the mass mobilisation was a vicious attack on demonstrators by the police, followed by even larger protests culminating in withdrawal of the legislation. Not surprisingly Hong Kong’s (relatively free) citizens do not wish to run the risk of finding themselves at the mercy of the Chinese legal system, where people’s rights are limited to those allowed by the all-powerful Party. But the struggle isn’t over yet.

Thousands of kilometres to the west, recent local government elections in Turkey provided an opportunity for people to voice their opinions about Erdogan and his AK movement, which have seemed increasingly unassailable. The man himself rose to power in the 1990s as mayor of Istanbul, a city of over 15 million inhabitants. When the opposition CHP narrowly won the election in the city in March, the President did everything he could to undermine the result. In the end he forced the Turkish electoral commission to agree that there would be a re-run. The CHP rallied around their candidate Mr. Ekrem İmamoğlu, mobilising millions of voters in the city. The result was an increased majority for the CHP with 54 per cent of the votes cast, indicating that the days of the AK and Erdogan’s dominance may be numbered. Huge crowds danced and celebrated on the streets of the vast city.

Thus, the people of Hong Kong and Istanbul have shown that authoritarians can be pushed back, using mass mobilisation through both street protests and the ballot box. These impressive displays of non-violent opposition are important steps towards re-asserting the necessity of democratic governance. However, there’s little doubt that the dangerous autocrats in numerous other countries have been observing these confrontations and drawing their own conclusions about how to use repressive instruments and fear in order to remain in power. From Hungary to Thailand, from Nicaragua to Sudan, the struggle against corruption and authoritarianism has a long way to go.

[1] As I completed this little essay, the Observer newspaper published an editorial underlining the same concerns, assessing the disgusting performance of Vlad the Bootin at the recent G20 summit of world leaders. Of the twenty heads of government at the meeting, I guess at least eight could be characterised as full-scale authoritarians, willing to resort to brutality – such as murdering journalists – and condoning violence against opponents. At the same time, several of these so-called leaders are busy tearing up arms agreements so that they can accelerate the over-militarisation of the planet. See:

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