- - Tuesday, April 18, 2017


Turkey has been bumping along on the ragged margins of democracy for years. With this week’s slim approval of a governmental reform referendum, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has proclaimed that the nation can “change gears and continue along our course more quickly.”

Endorsement of his amendments to the Turkish constitution are likely to steer the nation into a spider web of harsh and unforgiving authoritarianism. With Turkey’s application for European Union membership all but dead now, and its continued role in NATO a dubious proposition, the West is entitled to shudder.

The Erdogan-backed campaign for radical change prevailed by the narrowest of margins — 51.4 percent to 48.6 percent — and grants the president far-reaching new powers, foremost among them the way to complete the Islamization that will eliminate Turkey as the continental link between east and west that was established by Mustafa Kamal Ataturk, the founder of modern Turkey. The constitutional amendments that bolster the president’s executive powers eliminates the office of prime minister, enables the president to hold office for two five-year terms and a third one with approval of the Parliament, grants the president the freedom to lead a political party, and awards him a leading role in appointing judges.

The razor-thin winning margin has prompted charges of ballot fraud from opposition political leaders, who say the government “assisted” the Erdogan-backed “yes” vote. Indeed, Mr. Erdogan told the international monitors who support claims of ballot fraud, “Know your place.” President Trump, perhaps forgetting his place, couldn’t resist calling Mr. Erdogan with congratulations he might want to recall in the coming months.

The vote was surprisingly close, considering that Mr. Erdogan put his heavy thumb on the scale, ordering a crackdown on independent newspapers and the men and women who write for them, and the arrest of tens of thousands of “suspects” in the army in the wake of the attempted coup last July.

Mr. Erdogan tried to export his influence to expatriate Turkish communities in the West. This resulted in a bit of backlash in the Netherlands, where the government denied the Turkish foreign minister entry to campaign for the referendum among Turkish expats. Mr. Erdogan for his part called unfriendly Europeans “Nazis,” and among other things hinted that he would restore the death penalty for certain crimes, which would make Turkey ineligible for membership in the European Union.

Mr. Erdogan is clearly no democrat. He once compared the pursuit of democracy to a journey by train: “You ride it until you arrive at your destination, then you step off.” The president may have decided that this is where he and Turkey step off the train. The loss of Turkey as its eastern buffer would be a particular blow to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. When Turkey joined NATO in 1952 many thought this would lead Turkey into full integration with the West. Now Mr. Erdogan’s growing hostility to Western values, his purging of his military to rid it of the remnants of democratic impulse, and a tilt toward a harsh version of Islam puts integration into the West in grave doubt.

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