Turkey, once a dependable ally of the West, is on the verge of becoming an authoritarian dictatorship.
As the NATO alliance ponders how to protect its citizens from an avalanche of refugees, humanitarian catastrophe, and terrorists on its eastern door, Turkish voters ponder the referendum of referendums.
The question before them is whether to vote on April 16 to give Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan authority to rule by decree, lifetime immunity from prosecution and extra-judicial powers that totalitarian dictators all say they can’t live without.
Although the controversial, radical political Islamist president has been ruling by state of emergency since an aborted coup last July, he insists he needs a revised Constitution. By his lights, only radical constitutional amendments will enable him to vanquish fanatical extremists of diverse types, including the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and Islamic State. Oh yes, and the new constitution supposedly will pave Turkey’s path to the “great nation” status it held during the Ottoman times.
But since the president’s referendum drive is trailing in the polls, Mr. Erdogan has been making a full-court press to rally a “yes” vote among the Turkish diaspora. He sent his top cabinet ministers in the last two weeks to stump for the referendum among the 2-million strong Turkish vote base in Germany and the Netherlands. To his disappointment, first Germany and then the Netherlands denied permissions to his Justice and Development Party (AKP) ministers to energize the base at his campaign rallies.
Mr. Erdogan marshaled national pride and personal pique to counter-attack. He openly called the politicians in those countries “remnants of Nazis,” while orchestrating large, angry demonstrations on the steps of Dutch and German embassies and stopping the Dutch ambassador’s return to Ankara. AKP supporters in Rotterdam took to the streets in violent clashes with police.
Desperate to win the referendum, the president is burning bridges with the EU regardless of the costs. Although contrary to Turkey’s long-term interests, Mr. Erdogan is hell-bent to stir up nationalist support for his referendum with macho rhetoric against Turkey’s European allies.
It isn’t hard to see why the president is seeking immunity from prosecution.
Among the future troubling worries of mr. Erdogan are upcoming prosecutions for money laundering, circumvention of the Iranian embargo and bank fraud in a New York federal court. Mr. Erdogan used a Turkish-Iranian businessman, 33-year-old Reza Zarrab, to handle huge money transactions between Iran and Turkey breaching sanctions against Iran.
Mr. Erdogan reportedly is worried that Zarrab, who is arrested in New York and has pleaded “not guilty,” will testify against him. Another legal tar pit Mr. Erdogan faces is the now-exposed illicit support for years given to terrorist organizations in Syria including the Islamic States and the al Qaeda affiliates.
Close observers of Turkish elections will tell you that Mr. Erdogan is known for his pursuit of phony enemies especially when the voting nears. His enemy list includes the United States, secularists, the Israelis, the Kurds and now the Europeans, who by the way are Turkey’s chief trading partner. Having closed all opposition TV stations and newspapers, and having jailed hundreds of reporters and editors, the Turkish lapdog press parrots his narrative of a heroic but encircled hero. Especially now with the media in Turkey almost completely controlled by Mr. Erdogan, the majority of Turks hardly see on TV news stories other than those Mr. Erdogan wants them to hear.
The canny head of state in Turkey is a master of intimidation.
With Europeans more apprehensive than ever of terrorist attacks, Mr. Erdogan has ramped up the message of his clergy supporters to advocate a Turkish form of Salafism, basically pushing his base towards jihadists in Europe as well.
He has threatened to close the NATO air base in Incirlik, has insinuated that he could unleash another flood of migrants from Syria, Iraq and many countries in Africa and may well choose to open the portals of Islamic State towards Europe. Counterterror experts estimate that the ISIS cadre in Turkey numbers in the thousands. One of the pro-Erdogan papers published an article recently suggesting that Turkey should take the fire to the homes of Europeans, so that Europeans would have to deal with it in their own countries.
The time has come for the West to raise its loudest voice against the human rights violations in Turkey and make it clear to the victims that they have a champion in the nations of the West. Mr. Erdogan has cleverly played the Syrian refugee and Incirlik-airbase cards against the West for years to gain appeasement from some who are afraid to upset the NATO apple cart.
The time for rethinking that alliance is now, before it is too late.
• Ahmet S. Yayla, an adjunct professor of criminology, law, and society at George Mason University, formerly served as professor at Harran University in Turkey. He is co-author of “ISIS Defectors: Inside Stories of the Terrorist Caliphate” (Advances Press, 2016).