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World

What The Re-Election Of Turkey's President Means For The Country And The U.S.

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

In Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdogan has claimed victory again. Erdogan has led the country for the last 15 years. And in yesterday's presidential election, he was both re-elected and granted sweeping new powers. In a referendum passed last year, Turkey voted to switch from a parliamentary system of rule to a presidential one, thus essentially consolidating the president's power.

Well, to explain what all this means for Turkey and for the U.S., we are joined by Omer Taspinar. He's senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, also a professor at the National War College. Thanks so much for joining us.

OMER TASPINAR: Thank you for having me.

KELLY: Let me start here. What checks are there now on Erdogan's power?

TASPINAR: Well, the short answer is not too many. Erdogan now controls the executive power obviously. But his party also controls the Parliament together in coalition with a very nationalist smaller party. So he has both the executive power and the legislative body behind him. He can also control the judiciary. The judiciary is not very independent in Turkey but had a tradition of representing the state. Now it kind of represents Erdogan because he has control over nominating judges and the Constitutional Court.

KELLY: And the media - how about the role of a free press?

TASPINAR: Well, a lot of newspapers have been bought off by cronies of Erdogan and now have become mouthpieces for the government. So there are still a couple of independent newspapers which Erdogan proudly displays as evidence that the media is free. But the reality is that even in these independent papers, it's hard to really speak your mind. There is a lot of self-censorship going on, so the media is not free. The TV stations are not free. There isn't much left for a free civil society space in Turkey.

KELLY: Do we know what Erdogan plans to do with these new powers?

TASPINAR: Well, Erdogan won not because of an Islamic agenda. A lot of people see Erdogan is a dangerous Islamist who wants to destroy the secularist legacy of the founder of the republic, Ataturk. In my opinion, this was a victory for nationalism in Turkey. He's in alliance with a nationalist party, and there is a very strong wave of nativist nationalism in Turkey right now.

So the Kurdish problem appears to be the most important challenge ahead of him. And he's willing to crush Turkey's nationalist Kurdish movement which managed to make it to the Parliament, surprisingly, by 11 percent of the votes. He's determined to crush also Kurdish nationalists in Northern Syria. And this doesn't bode well for the future of democracy in Turkey because we have ethnic polarization between Turkish nationalists and Kurdish nationalists right now.

KELLY: Let me turn you into what this might mean for the U.S. relationship with Turkey. The U.S. has been dealing with Erdogan, as we said, for 15 years already. What does his re-election yesterday portend as we as we look toward the future of that relationship?

TASPINAR: Well, the No. 1 problem in Turkish-American relations have for a while been the Kurdish issue. The United States is engaged in a fight against the Islamic State in Syria in a partnership with the Syrian Kurds. And the Syrian Kurds are, in the eyes of Turkey, part of a terrorist Kurdish group. So this is a major issue. And right now the Trump administration will have to deal with a very emboldened Erdogan who has good relations with Russia, has good relations with Iran and who is very angry about U.S. support for the Kurds in Syria. So this is item number one on the agenda. There will have to be some damage control with Erdogan coming from the Trump administration because Erdogan is there to stay.

KELLY: That is Omer Taspinar. He's a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and a professor at the National War College. Thanks very much.

TASPINAR: My pleasure. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.