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Referendum's Mixed Reaction Reflects Turkey's Key Role


Supporters of Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan gather for a rally outside the Presidential Palace, in Ankara, Turkey, April 17, 2017.

Turkey's status as a bridge between East and West was clear and shaky after President Recep Tayyip Erdogan carved out a narrow victory in a referendum that raises questions about democracy's future in the country.

Erdogan’s steady path toward authoritarian rule was bolstered by the Sunday election that drew 80 percent of eligible voters. It was decided by support from the rural countryside and Turks living abroad, while the country’s three largest cities voted against the package that will reduce the role of parliament and give most of its powers to the presidency.

The result left Turkey embraced by the Arab world and increasingly estranged from Europe, where leaders walked a fine line between diplomacy and criticism.

The key question now is whether Erdogan, who has moved decisively since an attempted military coup last July to jail and otherwise marginalize his opponents, will make any moves toward reconciliation or will continue to foster animosity among the Kurdish community and other minorities.

Analysts raised the possibility of a further crackdown and a possible backlash.

"The Turkish public seems to have given Erdogan and the (ruling) AKP license to reorganize the Turkish state, and in the process raze the values on which it was built," Steven Cook of the Council on Foreign Relations wrote in Foreign Policy.

“Even if they are demoralized in their defeat, Erdogan's project will arouse significant resistance among the various ‘No’ camps. The predictable result will be the continuation of the purge that has been going on since even more last July's failed coup, including more arrests and the additional delegitimization of Erdogan's parliamentary opposition.”

Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his wife Emine Erdogan pose for photos with cheering supporters in the background after unofficial referendum results were announced, in Istanbul, late Sunday, April 16, 2017.

Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his wife Emine Erdogan pose for photos with cheering supporters in the background after unofficial referendum results were announced, in Istanbul, late Sunday, April 16, 2017.

Legal challenge

Erdogan already faces a legal challenge on the election itself, which European monitors said took place on an “uneven playing field” amid a crackdown on the media and opponents being labeled as terrorists. The referendum also was criticized for boiling down 18 complex issues into a single “yes” or “no” ballot.

The result was 51.4 percent in favor of the changes and 48.6 percent opposed, far from the 60 percent clear mandate that Erdogan had hoped for.

“While the parliament is required to have two-thirds majority to amend the constitution, (it is strange) to have absolute majority of the people to change the governing style of the Republic of Turkey,” one Ankara resident told VOA. “But it is now in the past. If the people approved it that way, everyone has to respect it. Let's wish for the best.”

European leaders said they respected the decision of the Turkish people, while hoping that Erdogan will pause before starting to implement the changes.

“The (German) government expects that the Turkish government will now seek respectful dialogue with all political and social forces in the country, after this tough election campaign,” German Chancellor Angela Merkel said in a joint statement with Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel. “The tight referendum result shows how deeply divided Turkish society is, and that means a big responsibility for the Turkish leadership and for President Erdogan personally.”

“Strange to see democracy restrict democracy,” Danish Prime Minister Lars Lokke Rasmussen added on Twitter.

Defiant to Europe

But Erdogan remained defiant of Europe, which he had accused of meddling in the vote.

“The crusader mentality on the West and its servants at home have attacked us,” he said. “We have put up a fight against the powerful nations of the world. We did not succumb. As a nation we stood strong.”

And he appeared ready to put the final nail in the coffin of the country's pursuit of European Union membership by again suggesting legalization of the death penalty a chilling prospect given that about 40,000 people have been jailed since the coup attempt, including the co-leaders and nine other legislators from the second largest opposition party in parliament on allegation of links with Kurdish terrorists.

The president of the European Parliament, Antonio Tajani, said a death penalty referendum would be a “red line” for the European Union.

Supporters of the "No" vote protest against the referendum outcome in Istanbul, April 17, 2017.

Supporters of the "No" vote protest against the referendum outcome in Istanbul, April 17, 2017.

'New partnership’

Instead, European officials were talking about cobbling together some kind of “new partnership” with Turkey and offering whatever support they can provide in the country's ongoing transition.

Several countries in the Arab world, including Pakistan, welcomed Erdogan's victory as a successful “democratic” experience, reflecting his shift away from the country's history as a secular state.

The result also seemed to reflect a recent global move toward strong leaders after the elections of President Donald Trump, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte and others, with France's election looming Sunday and Germany's scheduled for September.

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