The Guardian view on the Turkish referendum: Erdoğan entrenches himself | Editorial

Editorial
‘Turkey’s turn to autocracy is now all but complete.’ Photograph: Elif Sogut/Getty Images

It is no exaggeration to say Turkey has entered a daunting and unpredictable new chapter in its political history as a result of last Sunday’s referendum, which narrowly approved the introduction of sweeping constitutional changes granting its president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, unprecedented and wide-ranging powers. If implemented, these reforms will all but recreate Turkey as a sultanate, almost a century after Ataturk founded the republic on the ruins of the Ottoman empire.

For Europe, and for Turkey’s western allies within Nato, the transformation is likely to have important consequences. Relations, already tense, are bound to deteriorate further, at a time when Turkey’s cooperation on the refugee issue in particular is still crucial. The wary reaction in Brussels, Berlin and Paris testified to this new discomfort. In particular, President Erdoğan was warned that if he fulfilled his threat to reintroduce the death penalty he would immediately end all prospect of rapprochement with the EU.

The referendum was won by a narrow margin; the opposition alleges the vote was stained by violations. International observers say it took place “on an unlevel playing field”. None of this has prevented Erdoğan’s ruling Justice and Development party (AKP) and its supporters from heralding what they see as a new era destined to entrench one man’s power as well as a nation’s strength and resilience in the face of external and domestic enemies.

Turkey’s turn to autocracy is now all but complete. The Republic’s system of checks and balances is set to be crushed. Yet it also remains a deeply divided nation, one in which the clash between those who stand for Ataturk’s legacy and those who want to overturn it, between defenders of a secular system and proponents of conservative Islamic values, between Kurds and Turkish nationalists, between once dominant military structures and new AKP elites, is bound to fuel yet more tensions. That this referendum was organised in the midst of spectacular levels of political repression following last year’s failed coup attempt – with tens of thousands thrown in jail, dozens of journalists exiled or detained, and yet more tens of thousands of civil servants, teachers, and judges thrown out of their jobs – has done little to legitimise the reforms Erdoğan has long sought to push forward. The Turkish strongman has deliberately polarised his country, spreading terror through large-scale purges and the hounding of dissidents, as well as by throwing his military forces into full-on war against Kurdish separatist groups, and, more recently, by fostering multiple crises with European governments.

Turkey’s political slide is as momentous as it was hard to predict in the early years of AKP rule, the first by an Islamist government. Democratic and economic reforms were applauded by the west. Soon, the EU was ready to open tentative membership negotiations. After the political instability and corruption of the 1990s, this was a new Turkey, whose Islamic leadership seemed no more radically religious than Europe’s Christian Democrats, and whose modernisation would, it was hoped, spread prosperity and fundamental rights. Mr Erdoğan had once said “the mosques are our barracks, the domes our helmets, the minarets our bayonets, and the believers our soldiers”, but he also promised a “pro-European” course – and for a while, he stuck to it.

The rough, working-class Istanbul kid became the voice of the rising middle classes of provincial Turkey, especially Anatolia with its pious, social conservatism. He also inherited an authoritarian streak from his father, a ship’s captain who once hung him from the ceiling by his arms for swearing. A thirst for power, combined with paranoia and a shrinking circle of advisers, played a role. Tensions and chaos in the Middle East, where Turkey once believed (after the 2011 Arab spring) that it could become a model for others, may have contributed to the unravelling. Turkey’s civil society certainly fought back against creeping despotism, including in the 2013 Gezi park uprising.

This is a complex country which one man alone, however ambitious and relentless, can neither embody nor entirely box in. Resistance may yet rise up again. But for now, as Mr Erdoğan ruthlessly upends the country’s institutions, it’s Turkey’s democrats – those who struggle bravely for values and who believe there is nothing inevitable about millions of citizens being forced to obey – who deserve, and must get, all the support Europe can offer.

By using Yahoo you agree that Yahoo and partners may use Cookies for personalisation and other purposes