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29Mar17


Turkey's Dangerous Path Away From Democracy


Authoritarian leaders have long appreciated the power of fanning fears of real or perceived enemies to garner popular support. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey is good at this. He has exploited a conflict with Kurdish insurgents and a failed coup to win elections and wage a brutal crackdown on critics, and now he is picking a fight with Europe to rally support for a referendum next month on constitutional changes that would essentially give him unfettered power. The tactic might get him some votes, but like the powers he seeks, it has dangerous consequences for Turkey's future.

His pretext for bashing Europe is that leaders in Germany and the Netherlands have barred his proxies from holding campaign rallies among the millions of Turks living in their lands. Never mind that campaigning abroad is illegal under Turkish law, or that Mr. Erdogan has already stacked the odds in his favor at home by arresting scores of journalists and closing down more than 150 news organizations. Branding Germans or the Dutch as Nazis creates yet another external threat that might convince Turkish voters of the need for a tough boss who knows how to deal with such foes.

Whether his strategy succeeds will become clear in the referendum on April 16. Under the proposed changes, the president would have the sole authority to appoint and dismiss government ministers and could dissolve Parliament on any grounds; he would also appoint six of the 13 members of the country's top judicial board, and the others would be elected by Parliament, which would most likely be controlled by the political forces of the president.

Mr. Erdogan is aware that this could mark a fateful retreat from the Westernization that has guided Turkey for several decades now. Though Turkey's accession to the European Union has been on ice for some years now, put there in large part by European leaders reluctant to include a large Muslim nation in their grouping, the agreement signed more than 50 years ago establishing an accession process, along with Turkey's membership in NATO and other international forums, have signified an intention to embrace the principles of democracy, rule of law and respect for human rights.

When he first came to power in 2003 as prime minister, Mr. Erdogan seemed to welcome this direction. Now, sadly, Europe has become his enemy of convenience. At a rally on Saturday, he acknowledged that the referendum could close the doors to the E.U. For that reason, he continued, "a 'yes' vote is very important because Turkey is not the stooge of anyone." As the referendum approaches, the Turks would do well to ask whether they really want to take so dangerous a step backward.

[Source: The Editorial Board, The New York Times, 29Mar17]

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