One more for illiberalism

Turkey’s President Erdogan won his constitutional referendum Sunday by a narrow margin (more or less 51/49, but the results aren’t official yet). The approved amendments will confirm the power already concentrated in his hands by making Turkey’s government a presidential system: eliminating the office of prime minister, strengthening the president’s hand in judicial appointments, and enabling Erdogan to stay in power for more than another decade.

But while he won the referendum, Erdogan has lost legitimacy. The result was no acclamation. Erdogan lost the vote in Turkey’s three largest cities: Istanbul, Ankara, and Izmir. The overall margin was tighter than expected, given the government’s noisy campaign in favor. Since the coup attempt last summer, Erdogan has eviscerated much of the opposition to his rule, especially in the media, universities, schools, and security forces. “No” campaigners were few and far between. There are even reports of ballot-box stuffing, which I am told is not common in Turkish elections.

Erdogan will nevertheless treat the referendum as authorization to do as he likes. In recent years, that has meant cracking down on political opponents, abandoning the hope of EU membership, cozying up to Russia, fighting against Kurds, and intervening in Syria (but accepting a future role there for Bashar al Assad). The crackdown on followers of Erdogan’s erstwhile ally, Fethullah Gulen, has been particularly ferocious, as Erdogan contends Gulen was behind the July 2016 coup attempt. But Erdogan has also targeted secularists and others who have dared express doubt about the benefits of his rule.

In the end Erdogan’s fate may be determined as much by economics as politics. Turkey’s economy is on the skids: growth has slowed, tourism has collapsed, the Turkish lira is devalued, unemployment is up. The economic reforms and rapid growth that generated a good deal of Erdogan’s popularity in the 2000s have stalled. The renewal of hostilities against the Kurdish armed rebellion has roiled large parts of the country and damaged the economy. Erdogan is no longer the crusading Islamist opposed to corruption and ready to make peace with the Kurds. He merits more recognition in the years since he was elected president in 2014 for crony capitalism than for opening up the Turkish economy.

Washington will do little to resist Erdogan’s worst instincts. While it would prefer that Turkey remain on track towards the EU, the Administration needs Ankara to continue to allow use of Turkish bases in support of US operations against the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq. Turkey would also be vital to any eventual military operation against Iran. President Trump may even be inclined to extradite Gulen, though doing so depends on judicial proceedings that have barely begun.

Illiberal democracy has had another win, even if the margin was narrow. Chalk up approval of the referendum with Brexit, the election of Trump, and budding autocrats in Hungary, Poland and elsewhere. The advocates of liberal democracy are going to have to up their game if they are going to stem the illiberal tide, which has lost lately only in the Netherlands. Next stop: first round of the French presidential election, April 23.

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