This article originally appeared here on the Washington Post's website on Thursday, April 20, 2017. An abridged version was also published in the Post's Sunday Outlook Section on Sunday, April 23, 2017.
With last Sunday’s controversial and contested referendum, Turkey’s nondemocratic future is clear. The 18 constitutional amendments that Turks approved promise to set the country firmly in an authoritarian direction that will be difficult to reverse. With broad new powers, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan can rule with virtual impunity. The conduct of the referendum, which international observers have declared unfair, and its outcome are part of a broader story about Turkey’s transformation from a once-promising candidate for European Union membership to autocracy. How did this happen?
There are a number of competing and hotly debated explanations. For many Turks and Western analysts, the answer is straightforward: Erdogan is, and has always been, an authoritarian. It is a compelling argument. Over the past decade, Erdogan has jailed large numbers of journalists and opponents, decapitated the armed forces, employed force against peaceful protesters, and manipulated Turkey’s political institutions to ensure his and the ruling Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) dominance of the political arena.
For all its appeal, though, the claim is a little too neat and fails to account for the messy contingencies of politics, missed opportunities and competing worldviews. It is impossible to know what is in people’s hearts and minds, but Turkey’s return to one-man rule may be as much about the dynamic interaction of the country’s domestic political struggles, the choices that Europeans have made, those that Americans did not make and, yes, Erdogan’s worldview.
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