Ukrainians have seen the game being played by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan before. It goes like this: become prime minister, then switch to president and boost your powers by tinkering with the constitution.
Authoritarians like Erdogan don’t change the rules of the political system to make it better and more equitable, they do it to increase their own power and to attempt to stay in office longer — as former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych did here in 2010, as Russian President Vladimir Putin is doing, as many other tyrants have done.
Erdogan is an authoritarian leader edging towards dictatorship, if not already there: Since an abortive coup last year, 40,000 people have been arrested, including more than 2,700 judges, and nearly 200 journalists, with many still imprisoned. University deans have been sacked, and thousands of civil servants suspected of supporting the alleged coup plotter, Fethullah Gulen, have lost their jobs. He has cracked down on his critics in politics, the military and the press.
Erdogan has been in power since 2003. In 2014, he switched to the presidency having, as prime minister, run up against a three-term limit imposed by his party. But the presidency is supposed to be a politically neutral office that acts as guardian of Turkey’s secular system — unsatisfactory for an Islamist politician like Erdogan.
So on April 17, Turkey held referendum to boost the president’s powers. Under the approved changes, the presidency will gain executive powers, snatched from the abolished post of prime minister. With his party controlling the legislature, Erdogan’s new role will be greater than the sum of its parts.
Such a power grab should be deeply disturbing to all onlookers, but most disturbing is the way Erdogan obtained his supercharged presidency: dishonestly. International election monitors said the April 17 poll fell short of democratic standards, video of suspected vote rigging has emerged, the opposition campaign was stifled, and the election commission appears to have broken the rules to help Erdogan obtain a narrow win.
Despite that, Erdogan has received congratulations on his win from abroad, including from, incredibly, Ukraine and the United States. Both countries should know better than to applaud authoritarianism and dodgy votes.
Erdogan should be feeling more heat for his usurpation of power. Instead of him telling election observers to “know their place,” he should be told straight that destroying Turkey’s democracy is unacceptable. So far, we haven’t heard that from anyone.
Ukrainian and Western leaders are looking more spineless all the time, stifling criticism in deference to Turkey’s geopolitical importance and NATO membership as well as, in Ukraine’s case, a much-needed trade and political partner. Looking the other way as Erdogan savages the democratic hopes of 80 million people — many of whom with close personal and business ties to Ukraine — will bring neither stability nor prosperity.