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GUEST EDITORIAL: Turkey’s drift from democracy

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Turkey’s steady march toward dictatorship just went into full gallop.

Voters on Sunday narrowly approved a raft of constitutional changes that shift even more power to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who already maintains an iron grip over his country.

Beginning in 2019, the post of prime minister will disappear, and Erdogan can make Cabinet appointments without any parliamentary oversight. His control over the country’s judiciary will expand. He can also dissolve parliament at any time, for any reason. And, starting with the 2019 elections, Erdogan, who took power as prime minister in 2003, can run for two more five-year terms.

Erdogan’s margin of victory was razor-thin, and there were strong indications that the vote was far from fair. International election observers criticized the decision by Turkish election officials to allow as valid more than a million ballots that had been cast without an official stamp.

Without the stamp, authorities can’t be sure those ballots aren’t fraudulent. During the campaign, authorities arrested a leading opposition politician campaigning against the “Yes” movement and cracked down on journalists critical of the referendum.

An undemocratic election shouldn’t surprise anyone, given Erdogan’s track record for authoritarian governance. After a failed coup attempt, his government arrested more than 40,000 perceived opponents of the regime and purged more than 100,000 from their government jobs. Erdogan blamed the coup attempt on his primary political rival, Fethullah Gulen, a Muslim cleric who once was a close Erdogan ally and who now lives in Pennsylvania. Washington has rejected Ankara’s requests for Gulen’s extradition, saying Turkey must convince U.S. courts that there’s enough evidence to charge Gulen with a crime.

So far, the West has reacted to the election with measured criticism. The State Department said irregularities on the day of the election and the run-up to it led to an “uneven playing field” in favor of the “Yes” movement.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel said the close vote reflected the deep divisions within Turkish society, and she urged Erdogan loyalists and opposition leaders to talk out their differences.

If Western leaders choose their words carefully about Turkey, it’s because they have to. Turkey is a NATO member integral to the fight against Islamic State in Syria. It allows the U.S. to use an air base at Incirlik for its airstrikes and drone flights into Syria.

It also has provided haven to more than 3 million Syrian refugees and has a deal with European leaders to keep refugees from traveling on to Europe.

But if Turkey is going to fulfill its decades-long goal to join the European Union, it needs Western backing. Expecting Erdogan to reform isn’t realistic, but that doesn’t mean Europe should compromise its principles for EU inclusion. Those principles require EU applicant nations to maintain “stable institutions guaranteeing democracy, the rule of law, human rights.” Turkey is veering away from — rather than approaching — those principles.

Erdogan also has been talking about holding a referendum on the reinstatement of the death penalty, which would nix the country’s bid for EU membership.

Erdogan can’t have it both ways. He can’t run roughshod over democratic principles and then expect the EU to welcome Turkey, no questions asked. Turkey’s too valuable in the fight against Islamic State to treat like a pariah. But it’s not so valuable that the European community should abandon core ideals it applies to other countries that join.