Turkey's religious conservatives are rejoicing at Sunday's local-election win for the ruling Justice and Development Party. For the country as a whole, there's little to celebrate. As Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan made clear in his victory speech, retribution against his enemies and a polarizing presidential election campaign will follow.
Sunday's result is undeniably impressive. The prime minister managed to boost his party's share of the popular vote to 46 percent from 39 percent, despite last year's massive Gezi Park anti-government protests, serial foreign-policy failures, a slowing economy and a slew of corruption allegations. The election was anything but flawless: Power blackouts interrupted the counting of votes, most of the traditional news media are pliant, and the government blocked Twitter and YouTube. That won't stop Erdogan from claiming a popular mandate to press on with increasingly authoritarian policies.
For now, investors won't mind too much, because the result provides short-term stability. In the longer term, though, it's bad for the country. Voters have rewarded Erdogan for erasing the progress toward democracy that he oversaw during his early years in power. And they've encouraged him to go further. "We are going to go into their dens," the prime minister said of his former allies in Fethullah Gulen's religious movement, which drove the corruption allegations. "They are going to pay the price."
Gulen and his followers were certainly out to get Erdogan, but the prime minister convinced many Turks that efforts to defend free speech and demands for clean government and an independent judiciary were elements of an attempted coup. Religious conservatives saw a simple choice: Keep Erdogan in power or go back to the repression they experienced at the hands of Turkish secularists.
The upshot, however, is that Turkey is beginning to look like Russia under President Vladimir Putin -- with all branches of power subordinated to a single man who sees opponents as traitors. And if Erdogan wins presidential elections in August, as now seems likely, he will dominate Turkish politics for years.
Erdogan's critics at home can't undo the election or -- if they have any sense -- deny his popularity. They ought to concentrate on building a more effective opposition that unites liberals, ethnic Kurds and moderate religious conservatives. Erdogan's greatest political asset has been the tactical weakness of his opponents.
Critics abroad need to think again, too. Europe's governments let talks on Turkey's eventual membership in the European Union stall, surrendering what leverage they had over the government. This was a mistake, and they shouldn't compound it by recoiling in horror at a newly empowered Erdogan. Instead, they should stay engaged and offer to rekindle the accession process while making it clear that progress will depend on him. That way, Europe can keep challenging him to accept EU standards on the judiciary, police and other institutions.
All is not lost. Erdogan is still a democrat, after a fashion: He believes in the power of the popular vote. And his country's security interests are entwined with those of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. Events in Ukraine, Egypt and Syria all demonstrate the importance of those ties. It's a basis for progress that does not exist with Putin's Russia. Too much is at stake to give up on Turkey.
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