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New Turkey

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By resoundingly voting to reform their constitution in Sunday's referendum, Turks took a giant step in their 87-year march toward full democracy. They also strengthened a government that has catapulted Turkey from a near-invisibility on the world stage to the status of a rising new power.

While European societies are mired in recession, paralyzed by self-doubt and divided by rising social conflicts, Turkey is hurtling toward the future. Sunday's vote further strengthened its credentials as a model of capitalist democracy in the Muslim world -- a model the West desperately needs to promote as an antidote to extremism.

Turkey's new activism on the world stage is fueled not only by the strength of its democracy, but also by its booming economy. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan never misses a chance to repeat, like a mantra, his determination that Turkey become one of the world's top ten economies (it is now number 16). Prospects are good. This year Turkey's economy is projected to grow by more than 11 percent, second only to China.

Yet the 58 percent vote in favor of constitutional reform on Sunday was not an unmixed victory for democracy. The campaign leading up to the vote was ugly. Prime Minister Erdogan, while urging a vote for what he described as democratic reforms, descended to vivid threats and ethnic slurs. He led did little to allay fears that his real goal is not increased democracy, but more power for himself -- power he could use to make Turkey more religious.

Many of my secularist friends in Turkey are terrified by this prospect. One, who runs a pro-democracy think tank, wrote me last week that Erdogan's behavior on the campaign trail "looks like good old authoritarianism, and would have been reprimanded anywhere else in Europe." Another, a college professor, said she was disturbed by his "increasingly aggressive attempt to silence the opposition, which is hardly conducive to democratization."

In his victory speech on Sunday, Erdogan signaled that he understood the bitterness this campaign stirred. "If I have offended anyone, I apologize," he said. Now he needs to act on this noble sentiment. That means working systematically to seek a broader social consensus on sensitive issues, especially those related to religion and democracy.

Passage of the reforms on Sunday strengthens the case for an entirely new constitution to replace the one imposed by generals after they seized power in 1980. If a new constitution guarantees free speech and the right to individual and group identity, it could permanently consolidate Turkey's democracy. But if it seems to be just a power grab -- or, worse, a bid to roll back secularism -- it will deepen polarization and threaten Turkey's remarkable rise to political and economic power.

Sunday's vote invigorated those who argue that Turkey should be admitted to the European Union. "It's very important to show some momentum," said British Foreign Secretary William Hague, "and the UK will be trying to make sure that happens over the next few months." Foreign Minister Alexander Stubb of Finland saluted Turkey as "a truly global player" and "one of the top five countries in the world today." Opposition to Turkish membership, however, remains strong in both of the EU's key countries, France and Germany. Rather than wait endlessly for Europe to change its mind, Turkey is actively pursuing its own security agenda -- one that has made it a powerful new force in Middle East politics.

The key to Turkey's success as a nation has been its ability to evolve as times change. It was founded as an authoritarian state in 1923, when the authoritarian ideal was ascendant. After World War II, democracy became the global faith, and Turkey did what few countries in modern history have done: transform itself voluntarily from a one-party state to a multi-party state. In the 1980s Turkey dumped its state-dominated economic model and embraced trans-national capitalism. When human rights groups spotlighted torture in Turkish prisons during the 1990s, the government cracked down and prison torture all but ended. Now, through the ballot box, Turks are pushing generals back to their barracks and ensuring the primacy of voters.

Today's Turkey is young, vibrant, increasingly urban, and highly globalized. It is also, however, plagued by dramatic regional disparities, dogged by a seemingly endless conflict with its resentful Kurdish population, and increasingly polarized along the religious-secular divide. How its newly triumphant leaders deal with these challenges will shape the future of one of the most promising countries of the young 21st century.

Stephen Kinzer teaches international relations at Boston University. His new book is Reset: Iran, Turkey, and America's Future.