eyes on the U.S.

From Pinochet To Trump, When Democracy Is Under Attack

Celebrations in Santiago in Oct. 2020 when the country voted to replace its constitution
Celebrations in Santiago in Oct. 2020 when the country voted to replace its constitution
Benjamin Witte

A dictator-in-waiting orchestrates a violent assault on the seat of government. Shots are fired. A stunned world watches what most agree is an attack on democracy itself, a rejection of what had long seemed self-evident: that a nation's health and prosperity depend on an orderly transfer of power from one elected leader to another.

Two days after the stunning scenes in Washington, I am reminded of those grainy scenes from a different historical chapter in another nation's capital, Santiago, Chile. It was nearly a half century ago, when military forces, under the command of General Augusto Pinochet, launched their assault on the La Moneda presidential palace on Sept. 11, 1973.

In doing so, Pinochet and his collaborators toppled the democratically elected government of then-president Salvador Allende, who died in the mayhem and was quickly replaced by a military junta. Next came a wave of excruciating human rights abuses and a dictatorship, under Gen. Pinochet, that would last for 17 long years.

Chile was eventually able to reestablish a democratic system of government; but even now, more than three decades after the infamous strongman finally stepped aside, his legacy lives on. And while some credit Pinochet for planting the seeds of Chile's relative economic success, many others see him as a stain that's still in need of removal.

That ongoing debate was put to the test in a referendum last October on whether to scrap the country's constitution. And when the votes were tallied, the result wasn't even close. Nearly 80% of voters chose the apruebo (approve) option, backing efforts to dump the 40-year-old document despite uncertainties about how or when a new constitution will be drafted.

The U.S. Capitol in the aftermath of its occupation by pro-Trump supporters — Photo: Rod Lamkey - Cnp/CNP via ZUMA Wire

The result of the plebiscite was even more remarkable given that — as backers of the status quo point out — the constitution has, for all intents and purposes, already been rewritten thanks to numerous reforms and amendments by the democratic governments that succeeded Pinochet. But any lingering whiff of authoritarianism in the document was enough to welcome the opportunity to write a whole new constitution.

The assault on the Capitol by supporters of President Donald Trump, who had refused to guarantee a seamless transfer of power after his defeat to Joe Biden, seems to mark a turning point in the American political system. And perhaps there are lessons to cull from Chile's recent history.

Unlike the United States, with its proud, uninterrupted tradition of democracy and a 234-year-old constitution that most Americans treat with a "holy book" kind of reverence, most Chileans understand that theirs is an imperfect system, one in need of constant revision and improvement.

There is much that can and should be improved in America's system of democracy.

And as an American who spent years living and working there, it was something I always admired. It stood in sharp contrast with the U.S. political mindset, where faith in the inherent genius of the system supposedly blessed directly by God has inoculated it from meaningful and necessary reform.

The dictatorship in Chile, instead, shattered any illusions about the inevitability of the systems of government that both preceded and eventually replaced it. In some ways, this was a good thing.

From voter suppression strategies to district redlining, corporate campaign financing, and an anachronistic electoral-college system that twice, in the span of just 16 years, sent men to the White House who failed to win the popular vote, there is much that can and should be improved in America's system of democracy.

Doing so, however, requires a bit of humility. Seeing its very seat of government breached was an ugly and embarrassing scene for the United States, and shocking for those around the world who look to the country as a model of democracy.

Fortunately, unlike back in Santiago all those years ago, it won't mark the start of a brutal dictatorship. Still, America would do well to see the riot in the Capitol for what it was: an urgent warning, and an opportunity to start making improvements to its system of democracy now, before it really is too late.

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Erdogan And Boris Johnson: A New Global Power Duo?

As Turkey fears the EU closing ranks over defense, Turkish President Erdogan is looking to Boris Johnson as a post-Brexit ally, especially as Angela Merkel steps aside. This could undermine the deal where Ankara limits refugee entry into Europe, and other dossiers too.

Johnson and Erdogan in NYC on Sept. 20

Carolina Drüten and Gregor Schwung


BERLIN — According to the Elysée Palace, the French presidency "can't understand" why Turkey would overreact, since the defense pact that France recently signed in Paris with Greece is not aimed at Ankara. The agreement covers billions of euros' worth of military equipment, and the two countries have committed to come to each other's aid if they are attacked.

Although Paris denies this, it is difficult to see the agreement as anything other than a message, perhaps even a provocation, targeted at Turkey.

Officially, the Turkish government is unruffled, saying the pact doesn't represent a military threat. But the symbolism is clear: with the U.S., UK and Australia recently announcing the Aukus security pact, Ankara fears the EU may be closing ranks when it comes to all military issues.

What will Aukus mean for NATO?

Turkey has long felt left out in the cold, at odds with the European Union over a number of issues. Yet now President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is setting his sights on another country, which also wants to become more independent from Europe: the UK.

Europe's approach to security and defense is changing dramatically. Over the past few months, while the U.S. was negotiating the Aukus pact with Britain and Australia behind the EU's back, a submarine deal between Australia and France, which would have been worth billions, was scrapped.

The EU is happy to keep Erdogan waiting

Officially, Turkey is keeping its cards close to its chest. Addressing foreign journalists in Istanbul, Erdogan's chief advisor Ibrahim Kalin said the country was not involved in Aukus, but they hope it doesn't have a negative impact on NATO. However, the agreement will have a significant effect on Turkey.

"Before Aukus, the Turks thought that the U.S. would prevent the EU from adopting a defense policy that was independent of NATO," says Sinan Ülgen, an expert on Turkey at the Brussels think tank Carnegie Europe. "Now they are afraid that Washington may make concessions for France, which could change things."

Macron sees post-Merkel power vacuum

Turkey's concerns may well prove to be justified. Outgoing German Chancellor Angela Merkel always argued for closer collaboration with Turkey, partly because it is an important trading partner and partly because it has a direct influence on the influx of migrants from Asia and the Middle East to Europe.

Merkel consistently thwarted France's plans for a stricter approach from Brussels towards Turkey, and she never supported Emmanuel Macron's ideas about greater strategic autonomy for countries within the EU.

But now she that she's leaving office, Macron is keen to make the most of the power vacuum Merkel will leave behind. The prospect of France's growing influence is "not especially good news for Turkey," says Ian Lesser, vice president of the think tank German Marshall Fund.

Ankara fears the defense pact between France and Greece could be a sign of what is to come. According to a statement from the Turkish Foreign Ministry, the agreement is aimed "at NATO member Turkey" and is damaging to the alliance. Observers also assume the agreement means that France is supporting Greece's claims to certain territories in the Mediterranean which remain disputed under international law, with Turkey's own sovereignty claims.

Paris is a close ally of Athens. In the summer of 2020, Greece and Turkey were poised on the threshold of a military conflict in the eastern Mediterranean. Since then, Athens has ordered 24 Rafale fighter jets from France, and the new pact includes a deal for France to supply them with three frigates.

Photo of French President Emmanuel Macron and Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis on September 27 in Paris

French President Emmanuel Macron and Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis on September 27 in Paris

Sadak Souici/Le Pictorium Agency/ZUMA

Erdogan’s EU wish list

It's not the first time that Ankara has felt snubbed by the EU. Since Donald Trump left the White House, Turkey has been making a considerable effort to improve relations with Brussels. "The situation in the eastern Mediterranean is peaceful and the migrant problem is under control," says Kalin. Now it is "high time" that Europe does something for Turkey.

Erdogan's wish list is extensive: making it easier for Turks to get EU visas, renegotiating the refugee deal, making more funds available to Turkey as it continues the process of joining the EU, and moderniszing the customs union. But there is no movement on any of these issues in Brussels. They're happy to keep Erdogan waiting.

Britain consistently supported Turkey's ambition to join the EU

Now he is starting to look elsewhere. At the UN summit in September, Erdogan had a meeting with British Prime Minister Boris Johnson at the recently opened Turkish House in New York. Kalin says it was a "very good meeting" and that the two countries are "closely allied strategic partners." He says they plan to work together more closely on trade, but with a particular focus on defense.

 Turkey's second largest export market

The groundwork for collaboration was already in place. Britain consistently supported Turkey's ambition to join the EU, and gave an ultimate proof of friendship after the failed coup in 2016. Unlike other European capitals, London reacted quickly, calling the coup an "attack on Turkish democracy," and its government has generally held back in its criticism of Turkey.

At the end of last year, Johnson and Erdogan signed a new free trade agreement, which will govern commerce between the two countries post-Brexit. Erdogan has called it "the most important treaty for Turkey since the customs agreement with the EU in 1995."

After Germany, Britain is Turkey's second largest export market. "Turkey now has the opportunity to build a new partnership with the United Kingdom and it must make the most of it," says economist Ali Kücükcolak from the Istanbul Commerce University.

Erdogan is well aware of this, as Turkey is in desperate need of an economic boost. Inflation currently stands at 19%, and the currency's value is consistently falling. Turks are feeling the impact on their daily lives: food and rent are becoming increasingly expensive, while salaries remain unchanged.

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