At their great triumphs, Roman Emperors wary of hubris had a slave repeatedly whisper into their ear, "Remember, you are mortal." For Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the memento mori was delivered by basketball fans at Istanbul's Sinen Erdem Dome on the evening of Sept. 12, just hours after he had won a decisive referendum to reform the country's constitution: as he arrived to watch the final of the world-championship game between Turkey and the U.S., Erdogan was greeted by boos. The home team lost 64-81, but most Turks celebrated the fact that their side even got to the final. The Prime Minister's political victory, however, was greeted by many with a sense of dread. "Nobody can stand in the way of Erdogan now," columnist Mehmet Yilmaz wrote the next day in the mainstream Hurriyet newspaper. "What Turkey will see now is a series of steps that will turn him into Putin."
For Erdogan's supporters, comparisons to Russia's autocratic leader are just sour gripes by sore losers. The reforms, designed to curb the outsize political influence of the Turkish military and judiciary, were approved by 58% of voters in the referendum, which had a high turnout. U.S. President Barack Obama said it showed the "vibrancy of Turkish democracy," and there were thumbs-up from leaders of the European Union, an organization Turkey has long sought to join. But the 42% no vote was a reminder that many Turks are suspicious of the reforms and of Erdogan's motives.
His critics have nicknamed him Sultan Erdogan for his authoritarian streak, and they worry that his Justice and Development Party, which has strong Islamist underpinnings, will undermine the fiercely secular judiciary by filling key positions with religious loyalists. "People are genuinely concerned that Erdogan and company are going to extend political patronage to the legal system," says Andrew Finkel, a commentator on Turkish politics.
The Prime Minister said after the vote that he would seek a new, more democratic constitution if he is re-elected in 2011. (He is widely expected to win a third term.) "The referendum outcome is the result of our nation's longing for democracy," Erdogan said. "We will continue to tirelessly work to develop our democracy and bring our laws to the level of universal standards." But that hasn't reassured critics, who point out that the reforms proposed in the referendum were drafted by Erdogan's party with little effort to get political consensus; they want any new constitution to be drafted by a representative cross section of society, to increase minority rights and broaden political participation.
In the meantime, the challenge for the Prime Minister is to bridge the wide chasm in Turkish society revealed by the referendum. Those who voted no will need reassurance that the reforms will not lead to a wholesale dismantling of secular institutions. Most Turks favor reforms to rein in the powerful military like lifting the immunity for leaders of a 1980 coup in which thousands of people were jailed and tortured or allowing civilian courts to try members of the military. (Many of the officers involved in the coup are too old to realistically be dragged through the courts; two former generals are among the 33 defendants currently being prosecuted for allegedly plotting more recent coups.) But they are concerned that one form of authoritarianism is being replaced by another.
The biggest losers in the referendum may be Turkey's judges, who have long appointed members of their own hierarchy with no interference from political leaders. The reforms pave the way for political appointments by the parliament and President to Turkey's top judiciary body, the Constitutional Court, and the Supreme Board of Prosecutors and Judges, which controls most senior judicial appointments. This type of system is common in democracies, but critics are alarmed by the prospect of religious conservatives in judicial roles.
A more immediate test of Erdogan's democratic intentions will be whether he uses the vote of confidence from the referendum to restart stalled peace efforts that would address the grievances of Turkey's sizable Kurdish minority and end three decades of fighting against Kurdish guerrillas in the southeast of the country. His government has so far ignored calls to discard a law that requires political parties to receive at least 10% of the national vote in order to get seats in parliament. This works against Kurdish parties, which have no hope of mustering that national percentage. Many Kurds chose to boycott the referendum: voter turnout in the southeast was 35%, compared with 78% nationally. But neither Erdogan nor his party has shown any enthusiasm for a new start with the Kurds, even though a unilateral cease-fire by Kurdish rebels expires on Sept. 20.
Less clear is how Erdogan can use the political bounce from the referendum to pursue his ambitions abroad. In recent years, he has sought to balance Turkey's seemingly stalled E.U.-membership bid with a strategy of greater involvement in the Middle East, where he feels more at home. But his hopes of establishing Turkey as a mediator in regional disputes have thus far come to naught. The country's relationship with Israel has all but collapsed since a deadly Israeli raid on Turkish aid ships heading to Gaza in May. Ankara and Jerusalem have since been locked in a bitter war of words. And little has come of the effort by Erdogan, along with Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, to end the impasse between Iran and the Western powers. The absence of foreign distractions may not be such a bad thing, however: as the crowd at the basketball game reminded Erdogan, the disputes that may be hardest to resolve are at home.