Turkish voters passed a large package of constitutional reforms in a nationwide referendum by 58 percent on Sunday, significantly altering the Middle Eastern state. The constitution, which was passed in the wake of a military coup that had its 30th anniversary on Sunday, has made Turkey one of the most secular democracies in a deeply religious region of the world. However, that constitution has also enforced an imperfect and often less than democratic government. Sunday's reforms have strengthened Turkey's democratic institutions and moved it closer to joining the European Union. But they have also bolstered the ruling Justice and Development Party, led by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, which is devoutly Islamic and often antagonist towards Israel, the closest U.S. ally in the region. What does this development mean for Turkey, the Middle East, and American interests?
'Islamists' Push Out Secular Elite The New York Times' Sebnem Arsu says the vote hands "a major victory to the Islamist-rooted government that continued the country’s inexorable shift in power away from the secular Westernized elite that has governed modern Turkey for most of its history. ... Opponents of the changes describe them as an orchestrated power grab aimed at undermining the secular order established by the republic’s founder, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, in 1923, and giving religious conservatives power over the military and judiciary, the last independent guardians of the secular state. ... Proposals to strengthen the control of the president and Parliament over the appointment of judges and prosecutors are seen by critics as a barely veiled attempt to erode the separation of powers between the executive and the judiciary. The amendments assign greater power to Parliament and the president to choose members of the Constitutional Court and the Supreme Board of Judges and Prosecutors, both traditional bastions of secularism that have clashed with Mr. Erdogan’s party in the past."
- Democratizing Turkey The Economist says this will "raise democratic standards and further erode the powers of the country’s once omnipotent generals. ... The package includes measures to bar gender discrimination, bolster civil liberties and protect personal privacy. ... The core of the package is a major overhaul of the judiciary." The Economist says of the "stealth Islamist agenda" charges, "Such fears are exaggerated. And there is scant evidence that AK has used its time in office to subvert secularism."
- Good News for Free Turkish Financial Markets The Economist notes that Erdogan's party is pursuing its "platform of democratic reform and market liberalisation." Reuters's Thomas Grove says "the outcome will be greeted by investors as a sign of confidence in a government credited with bringing in record foreign investment and managing strong economic growth. ... Analysts saw [the ruling party] drawing comfort from the victory, lessening chances of imprudent spending in the run up to the election."
- Slide to Putin-Style Dictatorship, Ally of Iran The National Review's Michael Rubin frets that the results will "cement Turkey’s slide into dictatorship or, to be more generous, Putin-style democracy. ... Meanwhile, there remains dissonance in U.S. policy: we treat Turkey as the ally we wish it would be, regardless of what Turkey has in reality become. The chief example: The United States continues to plan to sell Turkey our most state-of-the-art F-35 Joint Strike Fighter without so much as a Pentagon review to determine whether Islamists in the Turkish government and, increasingly, its military could leak its secrets to Turkey’s allies in Iran or Syria."
- Strengthening Ties to EU, Middle East Reuters's Thomas Grove sees an effort to bolster Turkey's historic role as a bridge between the two regions. "Erdogan had portrayed the reforms as an effort to boost the Muslim nation's democracy and help its European Union candidacy. ... The EU's executive European Commission, which had criticized the government for stifling public debate, welcomed the results. ... Diplomats said Erdogan will see the vote as a mandate for Turkey's increasingly assertive foreign policy. Under AK, Turkey, the only NATO Muslim member, has deepened ties with Iran, Syria and Iraq, and criticized Israel's policy toward Palestinians, raising concerns of a change of axis."