THE PRIME minister of Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has been elected president in the nation’s first popular vote for the office, receiving 51.7 percent of the votes cast. Already the country’s leader for a dozen years, Mr. Erdogan has declared that he wants to build a “new Turkey” and promised after the vote to respect the desires of the whole country, which is deeply divided. But his actions in the last year or so have called into question Mr. Erdogan’s approach to democracy and his view of the world beyond. Will the “new Turkey” be different from the old?
A member of the NATO alliance, Turkey has come a long way in recent decades. A secular Muslim nation that has avoided some of the extremes elsewhere in the region, Turkey can and should play a vital role in both the Middle East and Europe. Yet this ambition has been badly dented by Mr. Erdogan’s erratic and disconcerting behavior. His recent criticism of Israel during the conflict in Gaza was over the top. At a rally in Istanbul, Mr. Erdogan declared that Israel “will drown in the blood they shed” and compared the Jewish state’s goals to those of Hitler. That was repulsive and unbecoming of a head of state. Under Mr. Erdogan, Turkey also hosted for far too long the vicious militants now tearing up Syria and Iraq in hopes of building an Islamic caliphate.
Mr. Erdogan has taken steps that tattered the values of freedom of speech and association that underpin any democracy. When protests broke out last year in Istanbul’s Taksim Square, Mr. Erdogan’s government responded with excessive force. Several people were killed and thousands injured. It was the response of a leader who saw the protests as a personal affront rather than as free expression.
Turkey also has compiled one of the world’s worst records for jailing and intimidating journalists. When a major corruption scandal broke in December, tape recordings emerged on which Mr. Erdogan was heard advising his son to conceal large amounts of cash. Mr. Erdogan has called the tapes a fake, but the social media in Turkey had a field day. Critics of Mr. Erdogan and the government wrote freely about the corruption allegations on Twitter; the tapes were posted on YouTube. Mr. Erdogan’s response was to shut down both. Is this the “new” country that Mr. Erdogan was talking about?
Mr. Erdogan has made no secret of his desire to strengthen Turkey’s presidency into a more powerful office. It’s not clear whether he can succeed at changing the constitution. But before any such attempt, Mr. Erdogan ought to demonstrate that he respects basic principles of democracy. Otherwise, more power for the presidency will be used only to enhance one man’s stature, and that is not in Turkey’s best interests as a nation.
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