They believe in hyper-nationalism, prefer protectionism to free trade, are not very well disposed towards immigrants and take pride in deriding the erstwhile ruling elite. They are the strong leaders the world is faced with, right wing when it comes to cultural ideas but left-of-centre, according to conventional classification, in their economic views. From Vladimir Putin of Russia and Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey to Donald Trump of the United States, they are called the new democratically elected sultans.
Have they gained traction and continue to do so because of growing Islamophobia? Careful analyses of the makings of these strong leaders, however, suggest otherwise. Erdogan has been one of the first of such strong leaders to have entered the world stage and the so-called Islamophobia did not play any role in his rise.
Erdogan’s Rise Followed Years of Political Instability
Turkey had an average inflation of 75 percent in the 1980s and 50 percent in the 1990s. Years of political uncertainty – the country had had a new government every nine months since World War II – slowed down the economy considerably. Turkey’s 1982 constitution had “established the military and the courts as protectors of the secular state”, writes Ruchir Sharma in his book Breakout Nations.
This was the background to the rise of Erdogan, a leader considered culturally right in an otherwise deeply secular Turkey. Just a year after its formation, his AK party swept the parliamentary polls in the country in 2002 and Erdogan became the prime minister a year later. He has won all elections since then.
Armed with the majority that voted for him in the recently concluded referendum in Turkey, Erdogan can potentially rule the Eurasian nation for another 12 years. This will make him the country’s longest-serving head of state, taking him past Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder and hitherto the foremost leader of modern Turkey.
Ironically, Erdogan stands for everything that Ataturk used to debunk. Erdogan was once reportedly jailed for four months for publicly reading out a poem that said, among other things, “the mosques are our barracks, the domes our helmets, the minarets our bayonets and the faithful our soldiers.”
A Turkey modelled on Ataturk’s principles imposed secularism from the top. Secularism, therefore, was elevated to the position of a new religion “dedicated to protecting Turks from Islam”.
Erdogan Initially Resisted Embracing Radical Islam
Erdogan, however, was shrewd enough to opt for the middle path, at least in his early days. He neither supported freethinking secularism nor did he endorse radical Islam.
He adopted moderate Islam as his political philosophy and had a passionate desire to pull the nation out of the quagmire of a potential economic breakdown. He did not promise more or less Islam (he was not required to raise the bogey of Islamophobia as Turkey is a Muslim-majority country).
He promised an economically powerful Turkey and delivered. Now that the country’s economy has begun to falter, he is increasingly turning towards radical Islam – an outcome that is evident in other parts of the world, including South Asia. Incidentally, a victory in the recently held referendum notwithstanding, Erdogan does not enjoy the kind of support he used to a few years ago.
Putin Credited With Changing the Course of Russian Economy
Vladimir Putin assumed office in Russia around the same time as Erdogan, in 2000 to be precise. The kind of changes he brought in his early days – consolidation of banks, cutting red tape and bringing income tax rates to 13 percent – led to a consumer boom never seen before. The per capita income, as a result, shot up from $1,500 in the 1990s to $13,000 around 2010, as Breakout Nations points out. In this case too, fixing the basics of the economy added to Putin’s popularity; everything else was incidental.
A conclusive analysis of the rise of Donald Trump will have to wait for a while.
Suffice is it to say that Trump benefited substantially from the devastating impact of the severe economic crisis the US faced after the collapse of Lehman Brothers.
While the Obama years saw a partial economic recovery, fuelled largely by extremely high dosage of liquidity injection by the Federal Reserve, growth remained mostly jobless for years. For a generation of jobless Americans, Trump perhaps managed to sell his idea of “making America great, again” (whatever that means is immaterial).
Right-Wing Leaders Failed in Austria, Netherlands
Much more than the rise of strong leaders, the fall of would-be strong right-wing leaders in Austria, Netherlands and seemingly in France is more revealing.
In the Dutch elections, Geert Wilders, also called the Dutch Trump, promised in a one-page manifesto, according to The Guardian, “the closing of all mosques and Islamic schools and a ban on the Quran”.
The fact that he lost out to his moderate rivals suggests that Islamophobia is more imagined than real.
Netherlands stayed the course and rejected extremism because the sixth-largest economy of the European Union has been on a strong recovery path since 2012.
If opinion polls are any indication, Emmanuel Macron of the radical centre is set to become the next French president, defeating his more extremist rival Marine Le Pen.
If that indeed is the eventual outcome, France, despite recent incidents of terrorist attacks, will stay the course and reject putative Islamophobia.
This is likely to happen despite the French economy not doing as well as its other European peers. The French found a way out, however, by voting predominantly for three outsiders in the first round of elections, Macron being the most prominent one.
The message for all right wingers, including many in our backyard, is loud and clear: the fear of or threat from others (Islamophobia being just one form) can get you only thus far and no further. A more durable regime can be built only around solid economic fundamentals.