ISTANBUL – “Turkish democracy is at a turning point,” Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan announced after winning a crucial vote in a referendum to change Turkey’s constitution. “We are sitting an important exam.”
Erdoğan is right, but it is he who must pass the test. If the plebiscite victory emboldens him and his allies to step up their tactics of judicial dirty tricks and media manipulation – used to great effect in recent years – the prospects for Turkey are bleak. The country will descend deeper into authoritarianism, political divisions will become irreconcilable, and yet another political rupture may become inevitable.
Too few people in Europe and the United States comprehend the extent to which Erdoğan’s government has undermined the rule of law and basic freedoms – all in the name of “deepening Turkish democracy.” Government prosecutors have mounted a series of sham trials, charging hundreds of military officers, academics, and journalists with membership in an armed terrorist organization aiming to topple the Erdoğan government. In a separate but related prosecution, they used fabricated evidence to accuse nearly 200 active and retired military officers of planning a coup in 2003, during the early days of Erdoğan’s first government.
Erdoğan and his ministers have been cheerleaders for these prosecutions. Their supporters in the media have spewed a stream of disinformation and leaked wiretaps to discredit and embarrass the accused. Meanwhile, the country’s largest independent media group has been brought to heel by huge, politically motivated tax fines.