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Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan delivers a speech during a rally a day after the referendum, outside the Presidential Palace, in Ankara, Turkey, on Monday. (AP)
Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan delivers a speech during a rally a day after the referendum, outside the Presidential Palace, in Ankara, Turkey, on Monday. (AP)

Globe editorial

Globe editorial: Turkey, Erdogan and the end of liberal democracy Add to ...

There are two important takeaways from the Turkish referendum result on Sunday, in which a slim majority appears to have voted to replace the country’s liberal-democratic system of government with what amounts to a dictatorship. One of the takeaways is ominous, especially today. But the other is positive and speaks to the courage of people who resist cynical attempts to undermine democracy.

The ominous first. A terrifyingly large portion of the Turkish people has been fooled into voting against their highest interests by a wannabe despot who played to their fears, nationalism and ignorance. Thousands of these people were out on the streets on Sunday night, celebrating the fact that they had just demolished the institutions that protect their freedoms.

It was a sickening sight. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has claimed victory in a referendum that will give the president unilateral powers of decree, eliminate the competing position of prime minister, reduce the country’s elected parliament to a non-entity and make every judge the personal appointee of the country’s omnipotent ruler.

The Turks who voted Yes were rejoicing in nothing less than the end of their liberty. In interviews, they told foreign reporters that Mr. Erdogan will use his new powers for good, of course – that prosperity and security are around the corner now that this great man will be unfettered by the chains of parliament, the courts and any other check on the whims of the head of government.

But they are fooling themselves. This imaginary benevolent potentate is not the Mr. Erdogan the world has seen for the past decade. Once a secular reformer, the former prime minister has duplicitously and violently accreted power in the office of the president, so much so that the constitutional changes proposed in the referendum are essentially a moot point.

Those who imagine Mr. Erdogan would never use totalitarian powers against them were not paying attention when he arrested and jailed tens of thousands of teachers and bureaucrats after a weak coup attempt last year, closed newspapers, detained journalists and neutered his political opposition. They were probably equally unfazed by his announcement on Sunday that he might bring back the death penalty.

And why? Because they were charmed by Mr. Erdogan’s conceit that he, and only he, can protect them from terrorism, from economic insecurity, and from the meddling of “crusaders” in Europe and beyond. He played to their prejudices and fears, all the while resorting to violence and false arrest to silence reasonable voices.

During the referendum campaign, Mr. Erdogan accused European countries of “Nazism” after they refused to allow his ministers to hold Yes rallies for Turkish émigrés inside their borders. With his populist takeover of the government – a coup abetted by disgruntled nationalists and cowed politicians – it is the Turkish President who is working in the Nazi model.

Those who voted Yes will, without question, one day dearly miss the protections they jettisoned with their ballots. Dictators can find enemies anywhere, and they always do. If the referendum results hold up, and Mr. Erdogan is elected the country’s first constitutional autocrat in 2019 as expected, no Turk will be safe.

The referendum result itself is where the positive takeaway lies. Even with the full and brutal arsenal of the government behind the Yes side during the campaign, Mr. Erdogan has barely eked out a victory. The official count as of Monday was 51.4 per cent for the Yes and 48.6 per cent for the No.

This, with a No side that was systematically prevented by Mr. Erdogan’s government from getting its message out, and whose leaders were hassled, arrested and even murdered.

As well, the great Mr. Erdogan’s not-so-great victory was only possible in a referendum in which officials counted ballots that didn’t bear the official stamp of the office that oversees Turkish elections – raising the distinct possibility of voter fraud – and one that foreign observers were barred from monitoring.

Thousands of protesting No voters were right to claim on Monday that Mr. Erdogan’s victory is illegitimate until proven otherwise. Canada and other liberal democracies should loudly add their voices to the call for an unbiased examination of the result.

There are millions of Turks who weren’t cowed by their President’s fearmongering and didn’t succumb to his dangerous nationalism. They understood that no self-aggrandizing strongman can fix all their problems on his own, and that voluntarily abandoning an independent judiciary and an accountable legislature is a suicidal move.

In today’s political climate, in which nationalist extremism is on the rise on all continents, they took a brave stand against a dangerous man. Their courage must be supported by those who want to see liberal democracy survive the 21st century.

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