Voters approve a more powerful presidency
Turkey’s referendum vote Sunday put substantially more power in the hands of its presidency, occupied by Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the instigator of the measure. It is difficult to wish Turkey well as it turns away from democratic, representative government.
It is even more difficult to be sanguine when the change was approved by Turks by only a reported 51to-49 percent margin, after a one-sided campaign engineered by Mr. Erdogan’s government, including intimidation of the media and countless arrests and firings of potential opponents of the government. Opposition to the new structure of government came largely from Turkey’s secularists (as opposed to its Islamists), its urban population, and its Kurds and other religious minorities. The opposition also has expressed concerns about whether the election process was clean.
Nonetheless, it is easy to see why Turks would have voted for the referendum, with the mantle of security, strength and stability which Mr. Erdogan strove to surround himself in the campaign. Turkey experienced a shocking, unsuccessful attempted coup d’etat last July. Ostensibly in response to the coup attempt, the Erdogan government fired and arrested thousands of people. These included 40,000 teachers, 8,000 army officers, 8,000 police and 4,000 judges, wreaking chaos in these important sectors of Turkish society.
It is difficult to estimate the effects of a failed military coup d’etat on a society.
Turkey’s international situation also gives reason for Turks to seek stability and security in governance. It borders on long, ongoing wars in Iraq and Syria, and on Iran and Russian Caucasus nations. It has an important Kurdish minority, estimated at 25 percent, which has potentially irredentist aspirations to a Kurdish state formed of areas of Iran, Iraq, Syria and Turkey.
Turkey’s economy has generally flourished under Mr. Erdogan’s leadership, although its important tourist industry has been damaged by acts of terrorism and the presence or flow-through of migrants from the wars in the east seeking to reach Western Europe through Turkey. The European Union, to which Turkey has long sought accession, seems to have distanced itself from Turkey to the point of now being considered by most Turks to be inaccessible.
Thus, in that context, the ambitious Mr. Erdogan made his move, which appears to have been successful. If he retains the leadership of his AKP party, and it continues to win elections, both likelihoods, he could remain president until 2029. The United States should probably just get used to it, and to him.
Mr. Erdogan and Turkey retain two bones in their craw with regard to the United States. The first is that America’s favorite supported combatant in the Syria war is a Syrian Kurdish group, which the Turks consider to be among their enemies. The second is the continued presence in the United States, in Pennsylvania, of one of Mr. Erdogan’s opponents, Fethullah Gulen, whom he maintains was behind last year’s attempted coup d’etat. The Trump administration has so far declined to address that lingering problem. Mr. Erdogan has undoubtedly not forgotten it. Even if he did not win the referendum big, he won it, and will feel vindicated in his approach to governance by it. He and Vladimir Putin, the other regional czar.