Even Under Turkish Strongman Erdogan’s Repressive Rule, the Opposition Have a Reasonable Chance of Winning. Under LHL the Opposition Not Only Have Zero Chance of Forming the Next Government but the Biggest “Opposition” Party Doesn’t Want To
Since he came to power and changed the system of government from parliamentary to presidential in a referendum in what many have called a rigged election in 2017, Erdogan has rightly been attacked for curtailing civil liberties and freedom of expression and for undermining independent institutions like the judiciary, the military and the education system. An attempted coup in 2016, so spectacularly incompetent that many consider it to have been directed by agents provocateurs tied to the ruling party, gave Erdogan the excuse to purge the judiciary, the education system and the armed forces of people he considered disloyal and also to cow the media into obedience. Opposition members have been detained and charged under vague terrorism laws or with disparaging the President while laws against online ‘disinformation’ are used to take down posts on social media critical of his government.
Yet despite the repression Turkey remains far more pluralistic than Singapore and Erdogan arguably has much less absolute power than LHL enjoys. Under a system of proportional representation his party, the AKP, and the right-wing nationalist party with which it is allied, only hold about 60% of the seats in Parliament. Erdogan is unpopular due to his economic policies of allowing the currency to depreciate which has led to high rates of inflation and eroded Turks’ real incomes. He is also held responsible for the Turkish authorities’ inadequate and tardy response to the twin earthquakes in February which killed nearly 60,000 and his government is blamed for the fact that many buildings destroyed were revealed not to have been up to building code, whether due to incompetence or corruption. The Opposition have a slim lead in the run-up to the Presidential election on 14 May. While there is understandable scepticism that Erdogan will agree to go quietly if he loses and also that he might use his influence over the Supreme Electoral Council (YSK) to rig the election in his favour, there is a real possibility that there may be a change of power.
Contrast this with Singapore where LHL enjoys nearly unfettered power over every institution in Singapore. While Erdogan’s party bought many media properties to cement their hold, LHL’s dad took care of that for him through the Newspapers and Printing Presses Act which was used to shut down the last vestiges of an independent print media in Singapore. Instead of having to use his party’s money to buy newspapers or radio like the Turkish ruling party, LHL has used state funds to cement his control. He gets to appoint the judiciary and punish judges if they make a mistake. The AG is his personal lawyer. The criteria for the Presidency have been made so stringent that only people related or under his control can be President. Whereas in Turkey there is at least the outward appearance of an independent Electoral Council. the Elections Department in Singapore is under LHL’s control giving him complete freedom to gerrymander and engineer a virtually election-proof parliamentary majority. Whereas in Turkey the Opposition hold over 40% of the seats in Singapore effective gerrymandering and the GRC system gives the PAP over 90% of the seats with only 60% of the vote. Similar laws against online ‘disinformation’ and foreign interference, which are interpreted solely by the people LHL appoints, give the Government the power to take down or publish corrections to any critical posts LHL dislikes while no such right exists for the public to correct the Government’s frequent mendacity, dissimulation and disinformation. LHL does not shy away from using his dad’s favoured tactic of defamation suits to force opponents like JBJ into bankruptcy and has used colonial laws of sedition to shut down online media he does not like. He has even started to use criminal defamation laws (like sedition abolished in the UK) to persecute journalists like Terry Xu, now that civil defamation damages can be easily crowdfunded.
The next elections may be fast approaching but in contrast with Turkey, even under Erdogan’s repressive rule, nothing much is likely to change. LHL enjoys such absolute power that even his brother, sister-in-law and nephew are scared to return to Singapore lest they be prosecuted, like some Russian czar or medieval monarch doing away with other members of his family lest they pose a threat to his legitimacy. What is shocking is that the Opposition itself does not want the government to change. Or at least the Workers Party which holds almost all the Parliamentary seats. Its leader, Pritam Singh, has astonishingly said that it does not seek a change of government. and that its medium term (ten or twenty years?) objective was to win one third of the seats in Parliament. A political party which does not seek to form the government and does not have a programme for government is not worthy of being called opposition and can instead be considered to be in a de facto coalition with or a subsidiary of the ruling party.
It is difficult to understand why Singapore’s totalitarian system, where there is virtually no chance of changing the system and the main Opposition wants to maintain the status quo, is lauded by much of the world’s media, academics and politicians compared to Erdogan’s Turkey where there is still a realistic chance of a change of government.Singaporeans and the rest of the world may continue to argue that there is nothing wrong with a bit of benevolent autocracy if it produces results but while economic growth and GDP per capita may look impressive (unless compared with Ireland) it looks much less if normalised to output per hour worked. As I have argued repeatedly (see here and here), Singapore’s purported economic exceptionalism rapidly vanishes when the right comparisons are made. If it is compared with US cities, It is not even in the top 50 for GDP per capita measured in current US$ despite being flattered by its workers working the longest hours and having a very low ration of dependents to working population. The Brookings Global Metro Monitor of the 300 fastest growing metropolitan areas put Singapore at 195th over the period 2014-16 (seemingly the latest available) and only 45th over the period 2000-2016 (when the population of foreign workers was growing most rapidly).
Rather than worrying that a change of government would destroy Singapore’s economy and lower living standards Singaporeans need to start thinking the opposite and asking if they can afford to let the PAP stay in power for even another five years, let alone twenty or fifty. If the PAP are allowed to stay in power while an opposition that has been captured by the ruling party does not even bother to appear as though it is holding the government to account. Singaporeans will continue to put money into the reserves (which hypothetically should be at least $3 trillion) without ever seeing a dollar of benefit. If Malaysia and hopefully Turkey can see a change of government then so can Singapore.