Editorial Board

Turkey Takes a Stride in the Wrong Direction

Erdogan has moved his country closer to one-man rule.

They are fans.

Photographer: Chris McGrath/Getty Images

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s victory in last weekend’s constitutional referendum moves his country further away from the Western model of liberal democracy and closer to one-man rule. It was a narrow and disputed victory as well, which heralds continued instability and the measures needed to suppress it. Turkey is still moving in the wrong direction.

QuickTake Turkey's Divide

The constitution’s new provisions will abolish the post of prime minister, subordinate parliament, and let the president in effect control the judiciary. It’s true that Erdogan had already expanded and entrenched his powers as president, but the new constitution makes it official: In Turkey, the principle of separated powers is defunct.

The referendum was held during a state of emergency, with the No campaign all but shut down. Yet Erdogan’s margin was narrow. Just over 51 percent voted for the changes. The cities of Istanbul, Ankara and Izmir were all opposed. Turkey’s main opposition party has challenged the result, citing a decision to count millions of ballots that did not bear the official stamp.

Meanwhile Turkey faces pressing economic needs, a resurgent conflict with Kurdish rebels, and instability in neighboring Iraq and Syria. These problems, deeply troubling for Turks, also have implications for the West. The partnership with Turkey has played a critical role in the NATO alliance, the fight against terrorism, and the struggle to manage the influx of refugees from Syria and elsewhere.

Repairing that partnership won’t be easy. During the referendum campaign, Erdogan said the governments of Germany and the Netherlands were Nazi-like. He talks of further votes on, among other things, restoring the death penalty -- a proposal that would make Turkey’s eventual accession to the European Union even less likely, were that possible. Frustration over the EU’s endless equivocating on Turkish-EU relations is understandable, but that hardly justifies moves that widen rather than narrow the differences.  

The economy will prove an early test of whether Erdogan, despite everything, might aim to be a unifying rather than divisive force. His early successes in reducing poverty and expanding economic opportunity made him popular. Recently, though, the economy has struggled. The government’s meddling in monetary policy has undermined confidence and allowed inflation, now at more than 10 percent, to get out of hand. Cronyism is rampant, and many Turks with money and skills have moved abroad. Growth has slowed, and has come to rely too heavily on consumption and foreign debt.

However much Erdogan talks up Turkey’s relationship with Russia and his willingness to turn away from Europe, close economic relations with the EU remain crucial. Europe has played its full part in letting this relationship sour, and both sides should try harder to restore it. Even now Europe could help do that -- for instance, by renegotiating the Turkey-EU customs union to allow free trade in a wider range of Turkish products. Binding Turkey’s economy more closely to Europe’s serves an immediate mutual interest and in the longer term will incline Turkey toward liberal politics.  

But there’s no denying that, right now, things look bad. Erdogan’s new powers follow years of anti-liberalism, a post-coup crackdown on opponents and journalists, and a one-sided referendum campaign fought in a climate of fear. It seems unlikely that the president will use this win to heal divisions, revive the economy, and mend ties with Turkey’s traditional allies. That, nonetheless, is what his country needs him to do.

    --Editorial: Therese Raphael, Clive Crook

    To contact the senior editor responsible for Bloomberg View’s editorials: David Shipley at davidshipley@bloomberg.net .

    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.