Fifteen years ago Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was the hope of the Islamic world. As mayor of Istanbul he had governed one of the world’s great cities as a smart technocrat.
Then, when he became Turkey’s prime minister in 2003, every western leader wanted him to succeed. At the intersection of Europe and the Middle East, he seemed like a bridge between cultures.
On Sunday, the now-president declared himself winner of a referendum that all but ends democracy in Turkey.
Vast new powers – wide control over the judiciary, broad powers to make law by decree, abolition of the office of prime minister and Turkey’s parliamentary system – effectively make him a dictator.
Erdoğan can run for two more terms, giving him another decade in power. With a vote from the neutered parliament, he would be able to run for another term that would end in 2034.
Voting took place in a government-created atmosphere of violence, intimidation and fear. Turks campaigning against the referendum were attacked and shot at.
For much of the past year Erdoğan’s government has been working to stamp out what remained of democratic opposition to his rule.
Since the attempted coup last July, some 40,000 people have been detained, including 150 journalists; 100,000 government employees have been fired and 179 TV stations, newspapers and other media outlets have been closed. The state now controls more than 80% of media; many opposition leaders are in jail.
Still, the vote was very close and there are many accusations of fraud.
It did seem hard, in the lead-up, to imagine Erdoğan would allow himself to lose. For example, the Evet (yes) campaign had 485 minutes of TV time; the Hayir (no) side less than one-tenth of that. The president and his cabal campaigned vigorously and unashamedly for Evet.
Not that it will matter much now. Erdoğan will use his new powers to the full. “It means the country is totally split,’’ James Jeffrey, a former US ambassador to Turkey, told the New Yorker. “Half the country loves him, and half the country loathes him.”
That was reflected in the vote: the country’s three major cities (Istanbul, Ankara and Izmir, plus the liberal and educated western coast) voted against him; the insular, inland, less educated interior voted for him.
Erdoğan has used one trumped-up enemy after another to justify his drive for absolute power. In 2013 came the Gezi Park protests, where police cracked down on peaceful demonstrators, killing several people and injuring thousands more.
Since the coup attempt Erdoğan has laid down sweeping emergency powers and exploited the crisis to neutralise any remaining opposition.
The US and Europe have generally allowed the strongman to have his way, refraining from criticising Erdoğan in case he gets worse.
“Democracy is like a train,’’ Erdoğan was said to have remarked years ago. “You get off once you’ve reached your destination.”
It’s not clear he ever said this. But after 15 years Erdoğan and Turkey are stepping off the train.
European observers said today the referendum took place on an “unlevel playing field” and in a political environment where fundamental freedoms were curtailed.
The observer mission said voting proceeded in a largely orderly fashion, but criticised the country’s election board for a controversial last-minute decision to count unstamped ballots as illegal and lifting an important safeguard against fraud.
They also said the restrictions on media outlets and arrests of journalists ensured the Evet campaign received the lion’s share of coverage, tilting the odds in their favour.
Erdoğan’s response? “We neither see, hear nor acknowledge the political reports you [election observers] will prepare … we will continue our path.”
He could next hold a referendum on reintroducing the death penalty, which would end Turkey’s campaign to join the European Union.
Last night the cabinet extended the country’s state of emergency by three months.