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People who voted No in Turkey’s Sunday referendum gather in Istanbul to protest after the results. (YASIN AKGUL/AFP/Getty Images)
People who voted No in Turkey’s Sunday referendum gather in Istanbul to protest after the results. (YASIN AKGUL/AFP/Getty Images)

Erdogan tightens grip on Turkey with narrow referendum win Add to ...

From the moment he was first elected to Turkish high office as a reformist leader in 2003, Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s opponents have painted him as a Trojan-horse candidate hiding some darker agenda – specifically, a potential Islamic overthrow of Turkey’s nine-decade-old secular democracy.

On Sunday, Mr. Erdogan’s apparent narrow victory in a constitutional-change referendum turned at least some of those fears into reality. In a vote the opposition has vowed to challenge, the result cements Mr. Erdogan’s increasingly authoritarian tendencies into permanent rules that allow the Turkish President to remain in power for another decade, to eliminate key checks and balances, and to wield formidable personal control over legislation and appointments of military and justice officials.

The constitutional changes over which Turks voted on Sunday, if recognized, will make Mr. Erdogan not so much an Ottoman-style sultan or Iranian-style theocrat but more a president-in-perpetuity in the mould of Russia’s Vladimir Putin.

In photos: Celebration and protest as Turkey's president wins historic referendum with slim majority

Simon Waldman: After referendum, Turkey is more divided than ever

That is, he has become another elected leader of a once-successful democracy who has managed to alter the constitution, eliminate checks and balances, and quash or intimidate opposition forces so as to guarantee himself more or less unchecked power within a nominally democratic system. As Turkish opposition leaders noted Sunday night, Mr. Erdogan has managed to erase much of the democratic infrastructure Mustafa Kemal Ataturk put in place in the 1920s, replacing it not with a return to Islamic rule (or not yet) but with the instruments of pure personal power.

Despite having won the referendum by a very narrow margin – 51.3 per cent to 48.7 per cent, according to official results, with 87 per cent of Turkey’s 58 million eligible voters casting a ballot – Mr. Erdogan spoke Sunday night of taking on even greater powers, declaring that he would attempt to reinstate the death penalty, which was abolished in 2002, and push for further changes. “We’ve got a lot to do; we are on this path but it’s time to change gears and go faster,” he declared in his victory speech.

Yet the most visible outcome of Sunday’s referendum may be a Turkey that is violently divided against itself and ostracized by its neighbours in Europe and the Middle East. The referendum marks the culmination of five years during which Mr. Erdogan has burned the bridges he carefully built during his first decade in power with European neighbours, minority groups and political opponents.

His reputation as a uniter has gradually evaporated over the past few years as he has violently crushed democracy protests; waged relentless war against the Kurdish populations he once courted; denounced the European leaders he once hoped to join as “Nazis” and threatened to flood their countries with refugees; alienated his partners in NATO by taking an ambiguous and counterproductive role in the Syrian civil war; and used last year’s bungled military coup attempt as a pretext for arresting or purging more than 175,000 officials and jailing more than 120 journalists.

After all, Sunday’s vote did not reflect a consensus around his rule so much as a deeply divided Turkey. Urbanites and more educated Turks decisively rejected the constitutional changes, with six of Turkey’s eight largest cities, including Istanbul and Ankara, delivering No majorities. Those cities erupted in protest Sunday night, with crowds filling the streets of Istanbul chanting “Thief, murderer Erdogan,” Ankara crowds banging kitchen pots and street battles between Erdogan supporters and opponents raging in Izmir.

Likewise, it appears that Turkey’s Kurds, Alawites, Armenians and other minorities – who make up more than a fifth of the population – strongly rejected the changes, as regions with large minority populations voted decidedly No. Electoral maps showed a large swath of Yes majorities across the rural and religious centre of the country, with the urban and minority-dominated regions around the periphery rejecting the proposals strongly. The vote is likely to be viewed by those groups as a majority population of Anatolian Turks imposing their political will on the rest of the country.

The results were immediately contested by the major opposition parties. The third largest party, the Kurdish-based HDP party, declared that it would appeal a third of the votes.

Yet whatever the official outcome, it is clear that tens of millions of Turks voted willingly and often enthusiastically to turn their controversial President into something more like an authoritarian ruler – despite the fact that Mr. Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) has never quite won a majority of the popular vote.

What appears to have driven so many voters to his side was the force that has allowed him to keep opposition parties at bay for the past several years: Fear.

If the messages of most of Mr. Erdogan’s first decade – during which he served as Prime Minister – was unity and reconciliation, the message in recent years – especially after he was elected President in 2014 – has been one of fear and isolation.

Turkey’s sizable Kurdish minority, whom Mr. Erdogan courted as Prime Minister by legalizing their language and political parties, ending state persecutions and making gestures toward minority rights and “distinct society” status, has become more or less an official enemy, with Turkey’s Kurdish cities bombed more heavily than many in neighbouring Syria and even moderate Kurdish movements regarded as terrorist threats.

Likewise, last year’s coup attempt allowed Mr. Erdogan to demonize virtually any political moderates or opposition figures as threatening members of the “deep state” linked to the Islamist Gulen movement. His hostility toward opposition was visible in the 2013 Gezi Park democracy protests in Istanbul, which he crushed and denounced, and in his government’s long record of arresting and silencing critical journalists, which reached a peak last year with the takeover or shutdown of major media chains.

And after having spent a decade as a pro-European, free-trade leader dedicated to getting his country into the European Union, Mr. Erdogan has now turned aggressively against European institutions and leaders, taking a politically and increasingly economically isolationist stand.

One plausible reading holds that Mr. Erdogan’s shift to authoritarianism was the fault of European leaders: The moment they began rejecting Turkey’s EU ambitions, he gave up on much of his modernizing agenda and launched his quest for personal power at any cost.

Another theory holds that Mr. Erdogan’s shift is Middle Eastern or Russian in inspiration: He simply joined a bloc of emerging-economy leaders who saw “managed democracy” and authoritarianism as the best way to avoid personal defeat. Whatever the cause, Turkey emerges from Sunday’s referendum a country that has fallen, in a surprisingly short period, off the world’s democratic ledger.

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Follow on Twitter: @dougsaunders

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