Recep Tayyip Erdogan always made it clear that he would stop at nothing in the pursuit of power. Ruthless, impulsive, with no moral compass at all, he is a bad friend and a worse enemy. The first requirement of a would-be dictator like him is to whip up a sense that the nation has a grievance, is being made to suffer from some injustice. Iran is made out to be usurping what ought to be Turkey’s supremacy in the Muslim world. The Europeans from time to time promise that Turkey will join the European Union, only to go back on their word because they are racists, successors to the Nazis. The Greeks, Israel, the Kurds, Vladimir Putin, Bashar al-Assad, are so many anti-Turkish conspirators. The second requirement of a would-be dictator is an opposition too fragmented and too frightened to stand up to him. Erdogan’s good fortune in this respect came to a head last July when the army mounted a coup against him. It is sometimes hard to accept that democracy might depend on generals and tanks, but that proves to be the case in most Muslim countries, and some others too.
The army had saved Turkey in several previous crises. The latest coup was so incompetently staged that it played into Erdogan’s hands. The coup was the work of traitors and terrorists, he said, all in the pay of an elderly cleric in exile in the United States. Mass arrests followed. Somewhere in the order of 140,000 people have been pursued and purged. Intellectuals, the media, and universities no longer have freedom of expression.
The referendum serves the purpose of converting these conditions of pre-dictatorship into the real thing. Parliamentary government is to be replaced by presidential government. The office of prime minister becomes superfluous, and is to be suppressed. The president remains in office as long as he wants, until 2029 is the rumor about Erdogan. There appears no way to be rid of him, or any procedure to have a successor, much less a challenger. Among other retrograde steps that apparently lie ahead is the restoration of the death penalty.
Istanbul, Ankara, and other major cities voted not to make the constitutional changes. The Yes vote was in the countryside, where illiteracy, gender inequality, and electoral fraud flourish. Modernity versus backwardness, education versus ignorance — the referendum has immediately split Turkey into irreconcilable halves. The Turks will pay heavily for it, and so will the rest of the world.