By THE EDITORIAL BOARD – The New York
The best thing that can be said about Turkey’s constitutional referendum is that many voters — 48.7 percent of those casting ballots — opposed President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s most outrageous move yet to solidify his autocratic rule. Mr. Erdogan, who had expected to win 60 percent of the vote on Sunday, lost the major cities of Ankara and Istanbul. His legitimacy was further eroded by allegations of voting irregularities from international monitors.
Even so, his victory is expected to prevail in the final count, leaving Turkey in the hands of an erratic and vengeful man and the world wondering whether a nation that for decades has served as a crucial bridge between Europe and the Muslim world can possibly have a stable and prosperous future under someone with so little respect for democratic structures and values.
The referendum culminated Mr. Erdogan’s long effort to replace Turkey’s parliamentary system with a strong presidency. And while the changes won’t formally take effect until the 2019 presidential election, the outcome tightened his already strong grip and allowed him to boast of “enacting the most important governmental reform of our history.”
Important, yes, but not in a good way. By revising or repealing 76 articles in Turkey’s Constitution, adopted in 1982, the referendum abolishes the post of prime minister and transfers executive power to the president. It allows the president to issue decrees and declare states of emergency, and to appoint ministers, senior government officials and half the members of Turkey’s highest judicial body.
As a practical matter, given his Islamist-based A.K.P. party’s majority in Parliament, Mr. Erdogan has been effectively exercising many of these powers. The fact that they have now been formally ratified in the Constitution can only reinforce his dictatorial instincts and further threaten the separation of powers on which liberal democracies have traditionally depended.
When he was first elected prime minister in 2003, Mr. Erdogan seemed committed to making Turkey a model Muslim democracy. In recent years he has aggressively cracked down on dissent and on his critics in politics, the military, academia and the press. An aborted coup last summer provided an excuse to go even further; a state of emergency was declared, and the government has since fired or suspended 130,000 people suspected of having a connection to the coup and has arrested about 45,000, leaving Turkey’s people sharply polarized.
The referendum campaign suffered from the same climate of intimidation. Supporters of Mr. Erdogan’s proposals dominated the media, and some who opposed him were shot at or beaten. Opposition parties said some ballots lacked an official stamp and at least three instances of voter fraud appeared to be captured on camera. “The referendum took place in a political environment in which fundamental freedoms essential to a genuinely democratic process were curtailed under the state of emergency, and the two sides did not have equal opportunities to make their case to the voters,” said Tana de Zulueta, who headed the international election observation mission.
Although Turkey is a vital member of NATO, it is increasingly an outlier in the alliance, which was founded on democratic values. Mr. Erdogan has picked fights with America and Europe, fanned anti-Western animosities among Turks and flirted with Russia. But Turkey remains a major factor in Syria, curbing migration to Europe and defending the alliance’s eastern flank. NATO countries should do whatever they can to mitigate Mr. Erdogan’s autocratic tendencies while encouraging the proponents of democracy in Turkey. The White House announced that President Trump called on Monday to congratulate Mr. Erdogan on the referendum result — a shockingly wrongheaded response.
Ultimately, if democracy is to revive in Turkey, it will do so because millions of Turks do not want the authoritarian system Mr. Erdogan has imposed and will find ways to reclaim their rights and freedoms.