The patterns of the Cold War era — which was also the era of independence for much of Europe’s colonial empire — are beginning to recur in greater numbers. In one of the least desirable of those patterns, constitutional “democratization” in the emerging post-colonial nations made it easier for new strongmen to establish autocratic rule. Understandably, the West cheered on developing-world voters when they approved constitutional changes that broke the power of legacy autocrats. Too often, however, the old autocrats were merely replaced by new ones, who had used constitutional change not to empower the people but to vanquish their own rivals.
Turkey, where voters approved significant changes to the constitution this weekend, was never a colony. We can hope the post-colonial dynamic won’t play out there — but concern is amply justified. The revisions in question, proposed by the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), target the two elements of the national government that have most steadfastly sought to enforce Turkey’s Kemalist tradition of secularism: the military and the courts. AKP has pressed an overtly Islamist agenda since its formation from the older Islamist Virtue Party in 2002. But up to now, AKP has been stymied by the stature of the military general staff and the secularist tradition of the courts.
The new reforms approved by the voters remove those checks. One will allow Prime Minister Erdogan to try in civil court the military-coup plotters who seized control of the government in 1980, when Turkey was beset by internal violence. This power will prevent the military from serving as a check on radicalized political majorities. In a change much like FDR’s court-stacking proposal of 1937, another constitutional revision expands the nation’s constitutional court from 11 to 17 judges and provides that the prime minister will appoint 14 of them, with the legislature choosing the other three.
Erdogan has more sweeping changes in mind for the Turkish constitution, but those will wait until after next year’s national election. Although his popularity has been slipping steadily since 2005, observers of the constitutional referendum now award him the advantage in the 2011 contest. The U.S. and EU are expressing gratification at Turkey’s democratizing measures, but their effect will be to eliminate key checks on what Erdogan and AKP can do with a legislative majority.
Erdogan’s record is disturbing. Turkish and Western journalists are alarmed by his regular practice of threatening the media. Committed secularists in the courts and universities have found themselves slapped with trumped-up civil charges. AKP tried to lift the constitutional ban on wearing the Islamic veil in universities in 2008, but was stopped by the courts; secularists fear that with unchecked power, Islamists will proceed to mandating the veil for women.
Erdogan’s record in regional policy is equally disquieting: arming Syria, buddying up to Iran, buying weapons and nuclear plants from Russia, berating Israel and effectively supporting the erratic flotilla campaign against the Gaza blockade. This is a prime minister who proclaims in official press interviews that Rachel’s Tomb and the Cave of the Patriarchs “were not and never will be Jewish sites, but Islamic sites.” His priorities and ideological temperance are more than questionable.
There’s something surreal, in fact, about his NATO allies approving the new constitutional changes because they are “democratic.” Form over substance has been the calling card of the destabilizing, ideological autocrat throughout the 90 years since World War I; it’s past time for complacent Western liberals to figure that out.